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The drone-powered solution: The sky's the limit

We’re fast approaching a time when the internet of things connects everything, and drone-powered solutions are emerging as important contributors to the movement, revolutionizing industries with safer, more cost-effective — and heretofore impossible — ways of collecting data.

Their primary value is in their mobility. In a typical industrial setting, IoT sensors measuring physical properties like vibration, movement, sound, temperature, or water and chemical leaks are built into assets, or attached as “lick and stick” parts. These sensors are wired into local area networks or transmit over Wi-Fi.

But what if a company operates outside factory walls — or has no walls at all? Agricultural and mining environments, for instance, lack the traditional point-to-point wireless communication infrastructure that would allow sensors to communicate across fields, dams, railways or pipelines. Such open-space environments are the special realm of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), aka drones. Here are some of the more common use scenarios for drone-powered solutions, and the value they bring.

Industrial inspection services

Drone maneuverability makes it possible to inspect areas that are difficult or dangerous for humans to access. Close fly-bys of structures or sites can provide valuable visual surveillance, assisting engineers in ascertaining structural integrity or general safety. Remote stretches of natural gas and petroleum pipelines are great examples of this.

And because drones can travel and collect data faster than any human, they provide added value by significantly reducing costs. Their data can be stored in the cloud and uploaded to facility management software that alerts technicians to maintenance issues, thereby increasing efficiency and accountability. That’s not just money saved in man-hours, it’s also money saved through getting equipment back online sooner rather than later.

Drones in agriculture

UAVs have become mainstream in the farming community, and their adoption couldn’t be more timely: the Pew Research Center projects the global population will reach over 9 billion by 2050, with agricultural consumption expected to increase by a massive 70% — a figure exacerbated by unpredictable weather patterns and natural disasters.

Drones assist farmers throughout the crop cycle by:

  • Producing precise maps for the soil analysis that directs seed planting patterns and informs management of irrigation and nitrogen-levels;
  • Enabling more accurate, cost-effective and real-time crop monitoring than previous methods using satellite imagery;
  • Allowing faster and more accurate assessments of irrigation conditions, and measuring crop heat signatures through hyper-spectral, multispectral or thermal sensors; and
  • Identifying plants affected by bacteria or fungus and measuring disease, pest problems, weeds and water-stress through the use of visible and infrared light scanning cameras.

Drones in mining operations

Drones are game changers in the mining industry, where their maneuverability is an asset that contributes to better work environments for humans. Mining operators who previously chartered planes or helicopters to conduct inspections can now remotely deploy drones to collect information in far-flung or hazardous zones, bringing added safety and efficiency to site surveys, mapping, stockpile inventory management, road condition monitoring and blast planning. Closer to home, drones are being used to inspect mining plants, accurately manage tailings dams and view hard-to-reach structures, like rooftops, towers and conveyors.

The future is now

In a way, drones are a good visual metaphor for the power and promise of IoT. Their speed, efficiency and airborne maneuverability are physical reminders of what IoT networks are doing — wirelessly, invisibly and over the air — every moment.

Likewise, the value and disruption they bring to industry is both significant and growing. According to Statista, the predicted value of current business services and labor likely to be replaced in 2019 by drone-powered solutions is approximately $750 million and is expected to reach $1 billion in the next 3 years.

Projected U.S. commercial drone market from 2017 to 2022, by key area of application (in million U.S. dollars)

The question now isn’t whether drones will affect our futures through the IoT realm, or even when. The question is how many applications they can be used for and what further benefits — in terms of safety, productivity and cost savings — they can bring. For now, the possibilities are only limited by our imaginations.

All IoT Agenda network contributors are responsible for the content and accuracy of their posts. Opinions are of the writers and do not necessarily convey the thoughts of IoT Agenda.

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