Drone technology in 2021

On its outlook, 2021 was a year which we hoped that one thing that had dragged our lives back in 2020 would finally be on its way to hell.  

Covid.

Sadly, the pandemic did not go away; it ebbed and flowed instead; to the extent that we are now grappling with a new variant in the new year as we write this.

Persistent as it has been as an albatross on the world’s collective neck; the pandemic presented opportunities for the expediting of some applications for drone technology that might not have received the time of day had the world stayed normal.

Last year, we learned a vast lot about what drone technology can do for humans; which is almost everything actually. But broadly, they have been used to achieve the following goals: take the place of humans in dangerous working environments; reduce the number of people needed to achieve certain tasks; reduce the time taken to complete work; replace more costly methods; for recreation; and bridge the gap into previously inaccessible locations.

Such applications have been prevalent in several industries, which include agriculture, security, policing, border control, mining, energy, urban planning, telecommunications, disaster and emergency response, logistics, education, healthcare, media production, wildlife conservation, sport, construction, real estate, insurance; among several others.

In the below, article, written in conjunction with DJI, we look back to check what drone technology did for our commercial and humanitarian enterprises in the year 2021.

Public Safety

Emergency teams with the latest remote sensing technology will be able to more easily locate people who need their help. Drones have turned thermographic imaging from the air into an accessible and affordable tool for search and rescue teams around the world. Typically, search and rescue missions require working in environments of total darkness and wide search areas. Drones with thermal cameras offer a combination of fast response times, ease of use and constant aerial surveillance; all this at a much lower cost than a helicopter carrying the equivalent equipment. And it’s not just about thermal information. Advances in zoom and RGB functionalities, such as the DJI H20 instrument, have made its powerful visual capabilities available to emergency teams.

Rescue teams around the world – and locally we have the drone unit for the Western Cape Emergency Services Department – have embraced drone technology, which has allowed them to locate missing people in South Africa, and England; landslide victims in Norway; hikers trapped in Iceland and survivors of the devastating floods and landslides in Vietnam.

The Loki tactical drone

Policing – This is a growing drone application for drone technology in the public sector; which has been made popular by the West Midlands Police Department in the UK, whose efficient use of drones as a policing tool is a study in itself. As much as drones have been used for tracking suspects trying to evade arrest, or diffusing public disturbance situations, there now special unmanned aerial vehicles being specially made for tactical situations (like hostage situations); where they would be flown into indoor locations without putting police officers in danger.

Firefighting – Traditionally, many of the tasks of gathering information involved endangering people’s lives. Thanks to drones, this is no longer always going to happen. The sector in which these situations most often occur is firefighting, where drones are being used to contribute to time-tested approaches and the development of new methodologies. DJI drones can be used as situational awareness tools, providing aerial intelligence on the size and direction of a fire to emergency teams. This is especially useful at night or in smoky situations, where thermal imaging can be used to obtain clarity from above.

Often, that area view can be used to guide ground personnel actions, quell fires more effectively, and track hotspots where secondary fires could be generated. In addition, thanks to the hot battery change technology present in platforms such as the DJI Matrice 300, firefighters can be sure to have a camera in the sky at all times. In addition, drones are also a source of innovation. The Matrice 600 model has been used during the development of a controlled fire prevention solution to prevent fires from growing into uncontrollable. Learn more about how drones and remote sensors contribute to firefighting in our manual on extinguishing fires using thermal imaging technology.

Agriculture

The agricultural sector is one of the most employed of commercial drone technology, and flying robots are having a huge impact on farms around the world. Models such as the Agras T16 disperse fertilizer and pesticide products quickly and accurately, while multispectral platforms that capture data beyond visible light, such as the P4 Multispectral, have already been established and are essential tools for modern agriculture.

Drone inspection

Much of the critical infrastructure on which we depend depends, in turn, on regular maintenance inspections. In the case of assets such as bridges, railway lines and communications towers, teams have been working as standard in precarious environments for a long time. Commercial drones offer a safer, and in many cases, more effective alternative to carry out these types of infrastructure inspections.

  • Mining – Mining is a dynamic industry, in which granular information is decisive for conscious decision-making. Drones have proven to be useful tools for collecting complete, high-quality volumetric information with millions of data points, in less time, at a lower cost and with less margin of human error compared to traditional methods. Automated flight planning and information processing have revolutionized workflows in this industrial sector. In addition, the implementation of drones also ensures that personnel are not put at risk by conducting on-site inspections or carrying out measurements of stored reserves.
  • Oil and Gas – The oil and gas industry is full of dynamic and potentially dangerous environments. Obviously, drones are proving to be a useful resource when it comes to collecting information safely and accurately. In part, the implementation of drones is because fossil fuel infrastructure, such as torch burners and tanks with floating roofs, can prove difficult to measure from ground level. However, the rise of drones in this industrial sector is also due to software and sensor developments. In the case of equipment inspections and emergency response, platforms such as DJI’s M300 RTK can be used to perform automatic inspections with pinpoint accuracy. The software’s functionalities, such as DJI’s ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE testing solution, combine machine learning algorithms with an integrated real-time kinetic system (RTK) to ensure the right data points are collected during each mission.
  • Powerlines – An example is power lines. By conducting inspections remotely and at scale, network operators can reduce downtime and quickly decide what steps to take next. DJI’s Matrice 300 device, which is fast becoming a dream tool for inspection teams, combines a 20 MP camera with a 23x zoom allowing inspectors to identify even the smallest defects.
  • Works management – Construction is an industry with tight margins and long-term productivity stagnation. As such, it is conducive to disruptions and drones are greatly influencing the way information is collected and knowledge is shared on the ground. From measurements of stockpiles and pre-project planning to safety inspections and large-scale progress updates, having an aerial imagery record is a very important resource for construction companies.

Research and Protection of Natural Resources and Biodiversity

The very important work of research and protection of natural resources and biodiversity has its challenges. These are usually projects carried out by small teams with limited budgets. In addition, there are significant barriers for those who wish to get involved in these tasks. One of these barriers is funding. Conservation and research projects must be paid for. Information is not collected alone.

  • Marine conservation – Drones have become a powerful and affordable tool for all sorts of wildlife-related projects, as they democratise participation and expand the reach of science. Technology has been a game-changer for the marine conservation organisation Ocean Alliance, in which Dr. Iain Kerr and his team are using DJI platforms to collect whale mucus for further analysis in order to monitor the health status of our oceans.
  • This invaluable information is being collected faster, more accurately and at lower economic costs than ever before.
  • In addition, drones are also bringing to the twenty-first century some obsolete research methods. Previously, Ocean Alliance would have attempted to perform physical biopsies to gather the information it needed. Another marine organization, Oceans Unmanned, is making use of this technology to provide an overview during efforts to free whales from fishing nets. Thus, it ensures that human beings can help without putting their lives at risk.
  • Protection of endangered species – Drones are also influencing projects carried out on land. In the field of big cat research, DJI teams are being used to track and monitor savannah lions. Some security teams in Kenya are using these technologies to protect elephants from poachers.
  • Following bushfires and habitat destruction in Australia, drones with thermal imaging functions have begun to be used to support wildlife search and rescue missions. An innumerable number of koalas have been saved and this figure will continue to grow now that this application has been tested. Exploring, understanding, and protecting the natural world are more important than ever. DJI’s drones are strengthening the work of scientists and conservation experts around the world.

Public health

Since the coronavirus pandemic appeared in our lives, drones have become a demanded tool in the public health environment. The promise of drone shipments of both vaccines and other medical devices can complement COVID-19 efforts from the Democratic Republic of the Congo to the UK’s Isles of Scilly. Drones are coming to the fore because they can travel directly and reach isolated population centres. In addition, they allow remote deliveries and maintain minimal contact between human beings.

These recent efforts come after a series of successful experiences of companies such as Zipline, Wingcopter, Swoop Aero, AerialMetric and Avy – pioneers in autonomous deliveries of goods by drones, first in Africa and now going to all corners of the world.

Beyond the urgent need to end the pandemic, drones are at the forefront of efforts to placate what has probably been the deadliest disease in history: malaria. You can learn more about scientists’ efforts to reduce the number of mosquitoes with the help of DJI’s commercial drones by checking the talk which subject matter experts Guido Welter and Bart Knols gave at last year’s AirWorks conference.

Renewable energies

Commercial drones are useful tools in any situation that involves the collection of information at scale or height, or that requires the use of mobile sensors. Flying robots are being used to cover the three fundamental bases of the booming renewable energy industry.

  • Solar energy – The size and capacity of solar parks are growing exponentially around the world. Regular inspections are required to keep it running at maximum efficiency. However, their enormous size makes these inspections a challenge. Thanks to the combination of drones and the latest remote sensing and AI devices, inspection teams can cover huge areas and locate areas of concern. You can read more about the adoption of drones in the solar energy industry here.
  • Wind energy – As in the solar energy industry, wind farms are made of delicate equipment that, if not operated efficiently, has a considerable impact on electricity generation and the final results of companies in the sector. Drone technology has made it possible to implement new inspection workflows that reduce costs compared to using manned aircraft. This avoids the need for inspection equipment to scale turbines, unless absolutely necessary, and allows the information collected to be used to detect anomalies.

Conservation of historical heritage

Drones are being used around the world to contribute to cultural conservation programs. One reason is that they offer accessible platforms for remote sensing. Many archaeological and restoration projects require detailed maps and models to start working. The need to collect this data in a time- and cost-efficient manner has always been present, and the development of drone technology has fostered the rapid adoption of DJI equipment to conduct aerial surveys. An example is in Japan, where the work of protection and restoration of Karatsu Castle, built in the seventeenth century, has begun. The DJI Phantom 4 RTK was used in combination with DJI Terra mapping software as part of the project.

If you want to get more complete information about the impact of drones on life-and-death situations around the world, check out our drone rescue map. 553 lives have already been saved and this number continues to grow.

Managing hazardous material

Emergency situations involving hazardous material require a lot of care and caution. Emergency teams are faced with situations with a proven process in which safety is a priority. However, despite entrenched methodologies, drones are showing significant impact in the field, as they provide situational awareness to teams that normally rely on radio contact, locate risk areas to determine where equipment should be placed and what situation it will face, and, in the case of an especially innovative hazardous material management team operating in Florida, make tool deliveries between different zones

Aerial topography

Aerial surveying is another example of drone technology that streamlines the process of gathering information. With predetermined flight paths and advanced payloads, drones can be used to generate 2D and 3D orthomosaic maps, LiDAR point clouds, 3D models, heat maps, and multispectral maps. Implementation usually depends on the industrial sector.

For example, multispectral maps are popular in the agricultural sector and provide farmers with an overview of the situation of their crops. In the case of dynamic situations that require rapid collection of information, such as road accident reconstructions, LiDAR point clouds can be combined with ground-based images and aerial imagery.

Fostering a productivity revolution

Commercial drones are becoming indispensable information gathering tools in a large number of industrial sectors. They are saving lives through applications in the public health and emergency response sector, are keeping workers safe by upgrading industrial inspections to twenty-first century technology, and are also fostering a productivity revolution in the agricultural and construction sectors.

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