Enter the drone age

Drone technology is still a relatively recent phenomenon.

But they’re fast becoming a “must have” accessory for many technophiles. Maplin has sold more than 17,000 models in the past 12 months – doubling their year-on-year sales. You may even have seen the amazing YouTube video of a drone flying through fireworks on New Year’s Eve:

Drones regularly appear in the news, as people still get to grips with the technology – and the laws associated with their use. In the summer a drone came with 20ft (6m) of an Airbus at London’s Heathrow Airport. In Kentucky, USA, a judge ruled that a man was within his rights to shoot down a drone, after it flew over his property. And the White House went into “lockdown” after a man tried to fly a drone over the President’s home.

It seems that when it comes to drone technology, there’s a fine line between having fun and invading someone’s privacy. But authorities have put measures in place. The UK Civil Aviation Authority’s Dronecode states:

  • Make sure you can see your drone at all times and don’t fly higher than 400 feet
  • Always keep your drone away from aircraft, helicopters, airports and airfields
  • Use your common sense and fly safely; you could be prosecuted if you don’t.

Drones fitted with cameras must not be flown:

  • within 50 metres of people, vehicles, buildings or structures
  • over congested areas or large gatherings such as concerts and sports events

In addition, any industry that involves objects flying in the skies is going to have stringent insurance conditions. A report from Lloyd’s of London, the insurance house, stated: “The potential of drones is hard to deny. However, concerns around safety, security and surveillance could pose significant risks to users of this nascent technology.”

It’s clear the world is still getting to grips with drones. But the examples below give a clue about what’s to come.


Farmers are using drones to gain unprecedented insights into how their methods are affecting their land, and increase yield. The drones reach speeds of between 40 and 90 km per hour, enabling them to visualise large areas, in high definition imagery. Artificial Intelligence analyses data and GPS data for autopiloting. Electronic maps are used to assess the soil’s health – from topsoil, to identifying weeds or plants that may be affected.

Energy & Utilities

Global oil companies are using drones to transform their infrastructure management. Previously, to check damage and signs of wear and tear, workers had to abseil down the side of rigs, pipelines, and storage tanks. Drones now do this job, taking 5 days to complete an investigation. This compares to 8 weeks for a rig technician. Alongside the cost savings, there is the obvious reduction in risk and safety concerns.


In January, Network Rail signed a deal for drones to provide infrastructure inspections and land surveys. The UK’s rail network operator’s framework contract involves using Remotely Operated Aerial Vehicle (ROAV) technology to improve track maintenance, worker efficiency, and reduce the length of time workers spend working at height, with resulting safety advantages.


Drones are doing surveying work for multinational companies such as Siemens. In Austria, aerial data is gathered by drones flying over one of Europe’s largest urban development projects. This data maps where heat loss from buildings is most prevalent. Visualisation software generates thermal maps, identifying where energy efficiencies can be made.


Mapping is also being used to great effect by aid agencies. When a 7.8-magnitude earthquake hit Nepal, drones were deployed to map areas and identify where most of the damage had appeared. The information was then used to guide rescue teams to where their efforts were most needed.

What’s next?

Back in 2013, when Amazon announced intentions to test out using drones for delivery, reactions ranged from bemusement to hostility. These days, as the examples above show, drone usage is becoming a vital element for business.

What will the technology be doing by 2020? The pattern of Artificial Intelligence shows the way. Look at how computers have evolved, initially 100% human-operated and now moving to “learning” from experience. Drones are approaching the same stage. The potential for flying themselves, automatically avoiding collisions, is there.

It’s just a case of refining the technology. And, of course, ensuring compliance with regulations. Watch this (air) space…

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