Hear the word ‘drone’ and until recently, your thoughts might have sprung to people playing with remote-controlled toys in the park – or else military applications of these unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). But times are changing. Drones are now being developed for a wide variety of commercial applications – applications which are a growing part of the Internet of Things (IoT).
Why? Clearly, any flying device without an onboard pilot – or a line-of-sight pilot with a handheld controller, as with those toys in the park – needs a way of independently collecting information about its immediate environment, and processing that information so that it doesn’t, say, crash into obstacles or get blown off course in inclement weather. Initially, a great deal of this processing took place on drones themselves – but this is a hefty workload for any device to take on, particularly one which needs to be light enough to stay airborne, possibly whilst carrying other equipment or products.
As such, drones’ processing workload is increasingly becoming shifted to a ‘sensor-cloud architecture’ – that is, to an IoT architecture, whereby dispersed networks of sensors, in this case, those actually on the drones, transmit data to a cloud-based engine for analysis, and then receive back simple, targeted instructions.
This frees up the drones themselves to be small and lightweight – and therefore suitable for myriad different public and private sector applications. Here are some of the most significant use cases:
- Parcel deliveries. Amazon Prime Air is a drone delivery service currently in development, which promises the delivery of packages weighing up to five pounds within 30 minutes or less. The company is currently running development centres in the US, the UK, Austria, France and Israel. Ultimately, being able to get lightweight deliveries from A to B by drone could drive enormous efficiencies in fields such as corporate couriering and even food delivery, as well as online shopping. In turn, this could reduce traffic and therefore pollution in urban areas.
- Monitoring agricultural land. Any kind of large geographical area which benefits from ongoing monitoring is a prime use case for IoT ecosystems involving drones, and agricultural contexts are perhaps the most significant of all. Drones can cover hundreds of square miles, monitoring the location and health of livestock, environmental conditions, the volume of weeds in a field, the growth of crops – even the risk of fire, which is becomingly increasingly pertinent in many nations.
- Sporting and entertainment. Drones are already well-established in the sporting and entertainment industries for carrying out high-definition filming with minimal interference. However, they can also be used for entertainment in and of themselves. It has even been suggested that drones could replace firework displays in the future, amid concerns about the environmental impact of traditional fireworks. There is even the possibility of drone racing taking off!
- Finding missing people or animals. Heat-sensitive cameras are already used by the emergency services to seek out people who are missing – or on the run. However, they are generally attached to helicopters and are therefore costly and cumbersome to run compared with drones – they may also be restricted by environmental conditions and rugged terrain. Attaching those cameras to drones instead could prove a far more agile, widespread and cost-effective way of finding missing people.
- First aid. Drones can enable lifesaving medical equipment to get to where it is needed far more quickly than traditional modes of transport. In a race between medical drones and an ambulance conducted in Iraq, the drone came out on top. Perhaps in the future we might even see drones delivering organs for transplant – a particularly time-sensitive element of medicine which would benefit enormously from being able to link up geographically distant teams more effectively.
These are just some of the ways in which drones and the IoT could work together to transform our work and leisure lives – and even save lives. Expect to see dramatic developments in this area over the coming months and years.