Drones. Air, land, sea or undersea! The world has learned to know them as high-tech gadgets, but they are increasingly used as sophisticated tools having an important societal function. At the present time, drones make it possible, for example, to collect data effectively and observe environments dangerous for human beings, such as volcanic regions or combat zones. The drone is seen as an assistant and service provider. In manufacturing industry too, there is an ever-growing number of applications, as yesterday's event 'Drone West - Air Land Sea' clearly demonstrated. Not to mention what the future holds in store for us …
Ample opportunities and considerable economic potential
The commercial uses of air drones which have proved their worth are increasing day by day. In Belgium, about 20 types of applications are currently mentioned, belonging to a broad spectrum. Applications range from first aid and the transport of organs to farming and reforestation, including the monitoring of extreme meteorological phenomena and the inspection of wind turbines. The list is long and getting longer. It is precisely because drones offer such extensive applicability that they also present enormous economic potential. According to a recent study conducted by Agoria and PwC, the potential of this market would amount to EUR 408.9 million a year. The infrastructure field apparently presents the greatest potential, estimated at EUR 176.3 million.
"According to a recent study conducted by Agoria and PwC, the estimated potential value of this market for commercial drone use in Belgium would amount to EUR 408.9 million a year."
By manufacturing industry …
The progress of drones within manufacturing industry should be viewed from two different perspectives. First, they are used in production and integrated into the production processes. Second, industry is obviously the place where they are produced, and where their components are produced too. What is the situation in Belgium?
The production of drones for commercial purposes is relatively limited. A few cutting-edge companies do however play a leading role in their manufacture, their integration and their development. We are thinking, in particular, of manufacturers such as Delair, launched as a spin-off of Ghent University 10 years ago, Flying Cam in Wallonia and Drone Matrix in Hasselt. In addition to these commercial drone builders, an increasing number of hardware and software companies devote themselves to the improvement of standard drones and their missions. The list is steadily growing, with big names such as ALX Systems, Septentrio, AKKA and Airobot. The excellent collaboration between researchers and manufacturers, indispensable for this purpose, represents one of the unique assets offered by Belgium around the world. Last point, but not the least: drone traffic, in ever-growing number in air space, also has to be organised, which requires developing carefully thought out Unmanned Traffic Management (UTM) solutions, a field in which Unifly like IDRONECT are playing a pioneering role.
"We will witness, in the future, a spectacular development of existing robotisation applications. The dronebots are coming."
… and for manufacturing industry
How are drones utilised in manufacturing industry itself? At the present time, their functions are fairly limited, but they are developing, nonetheless. Companies are already using drones, for surveillance and the first stages of stock management in particular. They also enable them, for example, to measure air quality and other indicators using appropriate sensors. In the future, the functions of drones and robots will be combined to a much greater extent in 'dronebots', which will also use artificial intelligence (AI). These flying robots will be integrated into production environments, offering new applications such as the movement of objects using robotised arms. If this still seems far off for some people, we are however already seeing concrete pilot projects emerging.
Furthermore, we have to extend our thinking and we must not forget that factories belong to a vaster ecosystem: our society. Within this framework too, we state that drones are playing a more important role, with Smart Automated Transport in particular (the transport of raw materials and the shipment of finished products) and Smart People Transport (drones as a new mode of travel between home and the workplace).
"Drones present very many challenges, but also a number of strong benefits, which will persuade companies to integrate them into their activities."
In conclusion, most Belgian businesses are still only moderately active in the field of drones, but are interested in their potential, which is reflected more particularly in the implementation of pilot projects. It is true that a number of challenges still need to be taken up before making the drone a standard tool in the production environment. What exactly are those challenges?
- More favourable legislation, making more commercial applications profitable, while obviously ensuring safety and respect for privacy. At the present time, a drone must, for example, always stay within visible line of sight (VLOS). Now, it is precisely its capacity to access - and therefore to have a view of – inaccessible areas and areas difficult for men to reach and also to perform long, scheduled missions, even at night, which gives the drone tremendous added value. European drone legislation is being prepared, and will normally be adopted next year by all the European countries; it will modify the relevant local legal provisions. Fortunately, the legislation has been well thought out and will offer many new opportunities. Let us therefore be patient and prove, in the meantime, that we are fully in control of our drone applications.
- We do need some technological breakthroughs, for example, in relation to battery life, the pulling force of drones and stability in the air (dronebots). Be patient!
- Other use cases must provide a basis for a cost-benefit analysis, demonstrating the yield potential of the technology. This is a crucial factor in persuading companies to integrate drones into their production environments.
- The mindset of Belgian companies needs to change. Generally speaking, the industry is still too hesitant towards this new technology and therefore does not dare to try it out fully.
Drones therefore present very many challenges but a number of significant benefits:
- Respect for the environment: electric drones are (more) silent and do not generate polluting emissions.
- Accessibility: as previously mentioned, drones can reach areas to which we do not have access. That means, in particular, that they can provide pictures and measurements taken in dangerous places and thereby forestall potential human tragedies. They allow help to be provided rapidly should a disaster occur. In this way, we can not only gain time and reduce costs, but also potentially save lives.
- Data quantity and quality: drones can provide data to companies in a more profitable way and the data provided are often better than those obtained with satellites or helicopters.
- Data accuracy: nowadays, inspections and analyses generally rely on the human eye, and it is always possible for something to go unnoticed. A drone takes photos that can be consulted and analysed as often as necessary, even at a later date.
Agoria has been supporting the sector since 2015
Agoria believes in the huge potential that drones have to offer for industry and society. That is why we have been supporting this sector for several years now, by initiating interactions and co-operation among the various Belgian and international players. That is why we wish not only to encourage the innovation and the development of industrial applications, but also continue to enthuse and support stakeholders. We sit, for example, on the Board of BeUAS, the Belgian Unmanned Aircraft Systems Association, and on relevant standardisation committees, and we are involved in the Imec-Istart programme.
You would like to know more about our Drone Community ? Contact Yves Schellekens (his contact details can be found at the bottom of this article)
Source: the case study about drones conducted by Agoria and PwC : 'A Drone's Eye View'.