For most people, two basic uses of drones come to mind first: military drones and aerial photography with drones. It was the former that gave rise to the term drone itself, which was named after the unmanned aerial vehicles that were initially used only for surveillance and reconnaissance purposes, after bees without stingers.
However, as technology developed, the devices became cheaper and began to be used in a wide variety of civilian applications beyond the military. A very significant proportion of the commercially available equipment is now used in many areas of industry. The reason is that they offer a high level of reliability, they can replace – or at least significantly reduce – human labour in many cases, and they can be used to carry out monitoring and survey activities that could previously only be carried out with human assistance much more quickly, safely and cheaply.
Some experts are already comparing drones to mobile phone applications, as the number of tasks or problems that drones can be used to solve is constantly increasing, not only because of technological advances but also because of the cost-effectiveness and safety of human labour. In short, we are witnessing a paradigm shift in many areas: more and more people are turning to drone technology. We have already read surveys showing 237 different uses for drones, but without wishing to be exhaustive, we will only describe the most important industrial uses.
In agriculture, there are two main directions in which drones are being used. The first is aerial mapping, which is characterised by the fact that a special camera or sensor is mounted on the drone and that the object of observation is an agricultural area. The camera provides accurate data on the condition of the land and the plantation, which allows for more cost-effective and environmentally friendly agricultural production, as the data provided by the drone can be used to pinpoint where increased irrigation or repeated pesticide applications are needed, allowing these activities to be abandoned in areas in the right condition.
The flight altitude of such mapping is typically 250-300 metres for rotary wing drones and up to 500 metres for fixed wing drones, which makes it essential to designate ad hoc airspace and obtain an operating licence.
The other area is spraying. In this case, the drone itself makes the aerial application of the pesticide. This operation is much more complex from a licensing point of view and requires the involvement of several authorities, as it requires an operating licence (since in the open category the drone cannot spray anything in flight), the spraying equipment itself must be licensed and the pesticide must have a licence document that allows aerial application by drone. And then we haven’t mentioned the crop protection knowledge requirements for remote pilots. Moreover, under the current legislative environment, such activities can only be carried out by agricultural aircraft, which does not include drones.
As a result, legal drone spraying is currently still lacking in most countries, although agricultural drone use could be one of the main drivers according to international surveys, and EASA has already prepared the relevant PDRA, a preliminary risk assessment, which will facilitate the acquisition of an operating licence in the future.
Assessment, inspection and cleaning of built infrastructure elements
These can be transmission lines, transport infrastructure, gas or oil pipelines, industrial installations (wind turbines, wind farms), antennas, towers, etc. Previously requiring significant human resources and high risks, these works can now be replaced by drones, and in such cases expensive aircraft or helicopter hire is not necessary to carry out the survey. It is sufficient to use a suitable industrial drone, equipped with appropriate shielding depending on the application, to avoid interference from electrical interference from high-voltage power lines. The equipment mounted on the drones (Lidar cameras, sensors, etc.) can be used to check the state of the networks, locate faults and even create 3D models without having to shut down the infrastructure element in question. In many cases, on-board accessories are already in use that can even help to clean high-voltage power cables and other infrastructure elements on the fly.
Depending on their complexity and complexity, these tasks can be carried out under an operating licence or LUC certificate. In some cases they may also be subject to PDRAs. In any case, a risk analysis is required before carrying out the operation, as these activities are no longer possible in the “open” category. The importance of the sector is demonstrated by the fact that drones used for surveillance in the energy sector will represent a $6 billion market in the US by 2025, and drone applications in the construction sector will generate an additional $3 billion in sales in the US alone.
Today, drones are used in a wide range of fields, mostly to carry out a variety of surveys from preparation to turnkey delivery, almost everywhere.
In the past, these were achieved with considerable human resources and relatively slowly. Drones can take over or replace the human role in the following areas, making survey services in the construction industry cheaper, faster and safer. Site preparation, surveying: land survey, topographic mapping. With appropriate training in safety, if it is ensured that the drone does not cross the boundary of the construction site and can maintain a safe distance from it, these operations can be carried out in the “open” category. They can be used to survey either land or buildings with centimetre accuracy.
Continuous monitoring of progress, modelling. Data collection with drones allows the creation of a three-dimensional model that can be compared with the original plans, so that progress can be monitored continuously and any errors can be detected and corrected in time. These operations can also be carried out in the “open” category, provided that the persons concerned have received the necessary training in occupational safety and health, otherwise only in the “special” category, subject to an operating licence.
Building inspection. In the case of drones equipped with thermal cameras, it is possible to draw up a thermal map showing the state of the insulation, its presence or absence, so that targeted interventions can be carried out. These operations can also be carried out in the “open” category, provided that the persons concerned have been properly trained in occupational safety, otherwise only in the “special” category, subject to an operating licence.
Real estate exploitation: in many cases, a video of a building can be made with a drone for promotional purposes, so that its surroundings can be seen from all three dimensions. They can also be used by real estate agents and other real estate operators. It is essential that when making such recordings, great care is taken to ensure that data protection regulations are respected.
It is important to note, however, that construction sites are typically located in residential areas, so the designation of ad hoc airspace is required in all such cases, whether the operation is open or specific.