Internet of Drones: How IoT is Enabling New Use Cases Across Industries

While drones have long been associated with costly military applications or, on the other end of the spectrum, hobbyist tech gadgets, these days they are increasingly being shaped by practical commercial applications. In recent years, drone usage has broadened across a wide range of industries, being used for everything from delivery, infrastructure and crop monitoring, and mapping to industrial site inspection, emergency response, and security surveillance. And as more and more industries discover the benefits drones bring to their businesses the use cases will continue to grow, with IoT technology bringing cost and operational efficiency.

Drones have been around for a long time, with the concept of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) stretching back to 1849, when Austria attacked Venice using unmanned balloons filled with explosives. But while militaries around the world have largely driven drone technology since then, drones have also moved powerfully into both consumer and commercial spaces.

When it comes to drones being deployed in the business space, IoT is increasingly a part of the picture. IoT-enabled drones have the ability to perform any number of important tasks, particularly when those tasks are expensive, dangerous, or impossible for humans to carry out.

Logistics

In the US alone, the Delivery Drones Market grew from $40 million to $1 billion between 2012 and 2017, with that number doubling by 2020. By 2026, it is expected to reach $5.6 billion.

Last mile delivery is the most expensive and difficult leg of a package’s journey, making up around 50% of total distribution costs. Drone technology optimizes last mile delivery by transporting packages from nearby warehouses or distribution centers to a specific address.

And unlike traditional delivery vehicles, drones can ‘fly as the crow flies’, allowing them to avoid traffic and or circuitous delivery paths. Drones are also fast, making same day delivery the norm in many areas – and in some cases even making ‘same hour’ delivery a possibility.

This also means there are environmental benefits when drones are used for delivery: the average delivery of a package by truck creates around 1kg of greenhouse gas emissions. Drones, on the other hand, reduce both energy consumption and the release of greenhouse gasses, because they generally run on battery power. If those batteries are charged with green energy, the substantial amount of carbon emitted from commercial and industrial transportation will be significantly reduced.

Beyond deliveries, drones will increase warehouse efficiencies, circling the perimeter of warehouses to conduct safety inspections, while also supporting inspections, preventative maintenance, and the repair of complex machinery within a manufacturing plant. Drones can also be used to speed up pick and put away processes, with lightweight drones being as an alternative to conveyer belts or forklifts for retrieving and putting away orders.

And finally, intelligent drones are crucial where other modes of transport are not viable, such as delivering vital relief and medical supplies to disaster zones or in other emergency situations.

Agriculture

With the global population expected to hit 9.6 billion by 2050, innovative agricultural practices will be vital in order to feed everyone. Smart drone tech will enable the application of precision agriculture techniques, which ensure efficiency of inputs such as water and fertilizer, while maximizing productivity, quality, and yield. Precision agriculture also helps minimize pests, unwanted flooding, and disease. In other words, drones are revolutionizing agriculture and offering major costs savings, enhanced efficiency, and increased profitability.

Drones can carry out comprehensive monitoring of crops and livestock conditions, with the ability to quickly spot problems that might not be apparent from the ground. By quickly surveying wide swaths of farmland, drones can map the property, predict and monitor crop growth, report on crop health, monitor irrigation, and improve spraying accuracy. Just one example would be time-lapse drone photography revealing that a crop is not being properly irrigated.

The ability to collect and analyze data in real time has very tangible outcomes: better crop yield, better use of resources, and data-driven decision making. Additionally, with the ability to identify pests, weeds, diseases and nutritional efficiencies in the early stages, there is a reduced need for harmful pesticides and other chemicals.

You can read more about IoT and Agriculture here.

Industrial applications

Inspection and maintenance of industrial facilities can be both challenging and dangerous. Things like boilers, furnaces, mines, power grids, seaports, oil and gas – these all have areas that can be hard to access and can pose health hazards to workers. Smart drones, though, expedite maintenance and inspections in a much safer way: through the use of sensors and cameras, drones gather data which is then relayed in real time to an inspector, who can then act on that information in a safe and secure way.

By deploying drones during various phases of a facility’s lifecycle, the data gathered can be used to improve and optimize industrial processes, as well as enhance operational efficiencies. And because of their nearly limitless visibility, drones are uniquely qualified to capture aerial data in real time, enabling rapid and seamless data collection, which in turn fuels informed business processes.

Drones can be used in operations such as oil and gas facilities for security, surveillance, emergency response, and infrastructure inspection. At seaports, operational oversight, port monitoring, traffic control, mapping, and surveying can all be performed by drones. When it comes to mining, drones have a number of applications, such as mine surveying, inventory management, stockpile estimation, and hot spot detection. Additionally, drones can provide detailed information about potential sites before a mining project is begun. Drones can also access high-toxic and/or hard to reach areas and can be a vital tool in emergency response.

Construction

The construction industry is already investing heavily in drones and is one of the main adopters of the technology – and with good reason. Drones provide a birds-eye view of construction sites, machinery, and people, providing crucial information before, during, and after a project, as well as monitor its progress. Drones have access to places that are normally inaccessible or dangerous to inspect, such as roofs, recording and relaying real-time data and reducing accidents while increasing site safety.

Traditional land surveillance methods require a lot of labor, time, and money. Drones, on the other hand, provide valuable information on terrain and land distribution at a fraction of the cost. They do this by having a bird’s eye view of the entire site, inspecting the land with a much higher accuracy than previously possible, with the data collected being used by engineers to measure things like land dimensions and elevation changes.

When it comes to existing structures, 3D models can be created from scans made by drones, which can be helpful when it comes to renovations and retrofitting, as well as for inspections, potentially avoiding disasters such as the recent Surfside condo collapse in Florida. Data can also be converted into building models, allowing clients to have a better understanding of spaces and a view of final outcomes before the construction work even begins.

One of the more common drone applications on construction sites is supervision and progress checkups throughout the lifespan of the building project. Drones monitor progress by overlaying captured images onto building designs and drawings, allowing confirmation – or not – that the project is moving forward according to plan. The images can also be used to identify flaws and help eliminate human error when it comes to quality inspection and supervision.

Post-construction, drones can assess damage following natural disasters such as hurricanes or tornados, identifying the extent of damage and pinpointing which areas need immediate attention. They can also be used to identify victims and guide emergency workers in a safer manner.

Speaking of safety, construction sites can of course be dangerous places. Inspections carried out manually can expose workers to accidents and injury, particularly when heights are involved. Drones remove or reduce risks while also providing a higher level of inspection accuracy.

There are myriad other commercial applications for drones, such as sewer maintenance, insurance, filmmaking, and public safety. The use cases will continue to grow as the technology evolves. When IoT is added into the mix, the possibilities will become nearly endless.

If you would like to learn more about how IoT can enable your business, please get in touch..