Drones are popping up in unexpected places and cutting costs for everything from cattle mustering to goods delivery.
Drones are taking off in increasing numbers in Australia and elsewhere. Toy stores are filled with devices costing just a few hundred dollars, and more robust machines are popping up in an increasing range of commercial applications.
Also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), drones come in both fixed-wing and helicopter-style configurations (often as four-bladed quadcopters), with battery life running from tens of minutes up to several hours. The longer the battery life, the higher and further they can fly.
And while there are many restrictions about where and how drones can be used, their low cost and ease of use – especially compared to manned flights – means businesses are finding new and surprising ways to use them.
Forget hiring a courier – why not make the delivery by drone? The logistics industry has high hopes that drones will cut delivery costs and get goods to difficult-to-reach locations. Google has used a fixed-wing drone to deliver goods to farmers in the Australian outback, and DHL has a drone service delivering small parcels of medical supplies to the island of Juist, 12km off the German coast.
Amazon is testing drones for deliveries of small items in US cities, while Australian company Flirtey is testing delivering pharmaceuticals in the US in July. Early trials have attracted attention from companies including Fastway Couriers.
Emergency services can be a risky business for those doing the rescuing, so why not risk a drone instead? Paris Cockinos, operations manager at drone specialists Sphere Communications, is writing a university thesis on how drones can assist in emergency services. He points out that they are both faster to launch than manned helicopters and expendable in a way that human lives aren’t. Because of this, they are ideal for searching for people in emergency situations such as bushfires.
“You’d rather destroy technology than kill someone,” Cockinos says.
They are also cheaper – a rescue helicopter can cost A$3000 per hour to operate, while a drone with a one-hour flight time can cost less than A$20,000 in total.
The high-resolution cameras (including infra-red) make them ideal as eyes in the sky, to quickly find people who have been washed out to sea or lost in bushland, or for spotting sharks around beaches.
The days of the jackaroo may be numbered. As the operating range of drones increases, tasks that once required hands-on operation can now be performed remotely. This could be a boon for farmers, particularly those on massive properties in northern Australia. Simon Jardine, director of the high-end drone specialists Aerobot, says he has tested his drones at distances of up to 10km using machines that can fly for 80 minutes. He has even been able to modify them with noise generators to use for cattle mustering. The drones can also be used for simple paddock and dam inspections, counting livestock, scaring birds from crops, or monitoring plant health. Prices for bird control drones start from about A$5000.
As drones are ideal for reaching difficult and dangerous places, they are now being used to inspect structures such as high-voltage power lines and the undersides of bridges. Jardine has one client that is flying drones into the rainforest canopy to look for disease in the upper reaches of trees, while another is using them to monitor koala populations. Yet another client has combined a drone’s camera with advanced video analysis software to monitor the movements of hundreds of bats as they exit a cave in real time.
After the ultimate selfie? Why not take a dronie? Drones are essentially a hovering platform, so they make an ideal mount for a digital camera. Ben Grear, operations manager at drone solutions company Rise Above, says everyone from film producers to real estate agents and wedding photographers have been mounting cameras on drones to get that elusive overhead shot, or the view looking back from past the edge of a cliff or the side of a boat.
Drones were used to film contests at the Sochi Olympics, and now sports coaches and doctors are using drones to get a better view of athletes’ performance. Cockinos says Sphere is supplying drones to rugby league teams in Sydney to record footage of games and training sessions, allowing coaches to film from new angles. One sports physician is using drone footage to understand more about the player collisions that lead to concussion.
Some drones can now also be used in a follow-me mode, where they are effectively “tethered” to follow a person without any directional input. This means cyclists, skiers, runners and extreme sports enthusiasts can film themselves in action and always remain centre-frame.
While aerial surveying using a helicopter or plane can cost thousands of dollars per day, a high-quality drone can cost as little as A$20,000, while a top-of-the-line fixed-wing surveying drone sells for A$35,000. Rise Above’s Grear says industries such as surveying and mapping are using drones to capture topographical data over vast areas. Drones can be pre-programmed to survey large grids, and their high-resolution cameras capture images in incredible detail.
“They are able to stitch the photos together to create 3D images and mosaics, and even take measurements for length and volume from the images,” Grear says.
4 businesses that are using drones already:
- Google tested drone delivery in 2014 to deliver candy bars, cattle vaccines, water and radio to farmers in Queensland.
- Coca-Cola partnered with Singapore Kindness Movement to send handwritten notes of thanks attached to cans of Coke to migrant workers.
- DJ1 from Shenzhen showcased the Inspire 1 last year, a photography drone with a camera and flight system that’s controlled by an app on your mobile device instead of a remote control.
- General Electric uses the Inspire1 drone to monitor its ecoROTR wind turbines.