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How drone technology is disrupting the industry

29 March 2021 •

By: David Technology

Today, in part two of our drone article series, David takes us through how drone technology has disrupted the industry. Check out part one here.

Although military drone use has been around for many decades now, and recreational drone use has been on the rise since 2015, commercial drone use is exploding in fields ranging from Agriculture, Insurance, Mining and Search & Rescue, all the way through to Space Exploration. These industries are actively being technologically disrupted by drone technology, with the systems and tools provided by commercial companies making these industries substantially more efficient and allowing them to save hundreds of millions of dollars a year on processes which are comparably antiquated.


Drones in the agricultural sector have exploded, with use-cases varying from crop field scanning using compact multispectral imaging sensors, through to GPS map creation through onboard cameras, and even livestock monitoring with thermal-imaging camera-equipped drones.

Agriculture Drones.jpg

These once very-labour-intensive tasks are now easily automated, and advanced artificial intelligence (AI) tools can be used to process the information gained from the drone flights into analytics which can be used by the farmer to identify potential areas of concern on the farm for immediate remediation.

A South African company doing exceedingly well in the area of utilising drones and the data they are able to provide is Aerobotics, who have managed to raise $17M to scale their AI-for-Agriculture platform. They make use of drone pilots to fly aircrafts around primarily tree-growing farms and utilise the sensor data accumulated, as well as their advanced data pipelines, to process this information and provide growers with key insights into aspects such as potential soil issues, expected crop yield, tree health and so on. They have, to date, generated insights for over one hundred million trees to help growers, investors, and insurers improve their production and profitability - a truly remarkable achievement. 

Search & rescue

When performing search and rescue operations, timing is crucial. Rescue teams generally try and locate the patient(s) as soon as possible so that they can identify the nature of the problem and properly allocate resources to assist. Traditionally, helicopters have been used to be dispatched to the scene so that insights can be fed back to the rescue team as soon as possible. However, this solution is not only costly, but has some severe drawbacks in that helicopters are generally not piloted at night and are not suitable for certain mountainous environments. 

Due to these limitations, drones have more recently started to be used in these applications. By carrying HD cameras - as well as more advanced payloads such as thermal imaging cameras - with live feeds being sent to rescue teams on the ground, locating patients as quickly as possible becomes a much more attainable goal. 

Drones have recently been introduced by the emergency medical services (EMS) for rescue and reconnaissance operations in Cape Town, and have been operating since the end of 2020. These teams completed their first mission on 10/02/2021, where it took just over an hour from when the incident was first logged for the drone operators to locate the patient.

Another tantalising prospect for this technology is to feed the data captured by the drones in the search and rescue flight through advanced data pipelines over the mobile network. These can use computer vision (CV) technology - as well as other sensor-fusion techniques - to more accurately and precisely locate the patient without needing to rely on highly-trained human spotters that take years to hone their craft.


A startup in South Africa that’s looking to do just this is AutonoSky, who aim to allow for real time insights to be streamed to rescue teams to improve their situational awareness and allow for much faster and accurate location of the patient than would otherwise be possible.

Space exploration

This exciting prospect is brought about by the Ingenuity helicopter, which rode to Mars attached to the belly of Perseverance and is expected to have its first flight in the coming weeks. Should this be successful, perhaps drones will become commonplace in space exploration, allowing us to have access to aerial sensor data and camera feeds to explore the unknown reaches of far-off worlds much more efficiently than the more traditional ground-based rovers of yesteryear.

What's next

Drones have made a huge splash in the military, consumer and commercial spaces from their earliest use in the attempted bombing of Venice in 1849, through to the first powered flight in an extraterrestrial environment which will hopefully occur in the next few weeks. The question which remains is what their impact on humanity will be as we move into the future.

In order to become the full-featured technology of tomorrow, there are some hurdles that will need to be overcome. Chief amongst those are regulatory issues that still currently plague the industry and are a massive hindrance to growth. Flying taxis could exist today, but whether or not we will be able to make our way to the mall in one anytime soon is up to legislators and out of the hands of engineers. 

Another concern is to do with network bandwidth, as these systems are all wireless in nature and often are feeding very high-resolution video back to their associated ground stations (and potentially up to the cloud). This poses a lot of additional strain to the mobile networks of today, with bandwidth potentially becoming an issue as more and more data is fed into the network. 5G technology, currently being adopted in numerous countries, will alleviate a lot of these problems, as it is approximately 10x faster than its 4th Generation counterpart, but this will need to continue growing at a pace that matches the requirements of drone technology and other items in the Internet of Things (IoT) ecosystem that will become prolific in the next few decades.

Finally, the biggest limitation of the current technology is flight time (approximately 20-35 minutes for most multi-rotor drones). This is primarily limited by aircraft mass, battery energy density and power system energy density. With aircraft masses sure to decrease as technological advances in 3D printing allow for more exotic structures, and battery energy densities on the rise due to advancements thanks to the success of the electric car, flight times are sure to improve as time goes on.

There are some extremely promising and exciting technologies in this space that will come to pass in the near future. Aside from further advancement and refinement in the various industries discussed previously in this post, additional fields are also under active development. Lilium, for example, has developed a flying taxi, which could very easily find its way to becoming fully autonomous should legislation allow for it, and potentially even the world’s first drone taxi service (think flying Uber). We certainly live in some very exciting times.

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29 March 2021
By: David

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