I often hear that companies start using drones in order to improve workforce safety, accuracy, speed, and cost savings. While this is already true today, the next generation of drones will bring a far greater leap for all these benefits. The reason? Drone automation.

Today, the drone industry is already moving toward autonomous drones. Some drones already have the ability to navigate without a pilot and fly preprogrammed missions when triggered by alerts. As drone regulations and technology continue to evolve, we expect to see fully autonomous drones conducting many of the tedious, dangerous, or dirty jobs that keep society going. Much of this automation will rely on connecting drones to networks such as Verizon’s 5G wireless networks.

Drone automation for operations today

Today, drones are capable of automated takeoff, landing, obstacle avoidance, and mission execution. Current regulations require a pilot to have hands on the controls and eyes on the aircraft at all times, even for a pre-programmed mission. But technological advances are moving toward drones that initiate flights on their own, whether on a set schedule, triggered by an alert, or when initiated by a controller. The goal is for drones to self-navigate and complete missions without direct human supervision.

Skyward’s drone management platform lays the groundwork for both piloted and autonomous flights.

6 dirty, dull, or dangerous jobs for autonomous drones

One sign that drone automation will soon be here is the number of beta projects and experiments that are underway. Here are six use cases for autonomous drones that may become commonplace — many of which perform repetitive or risky work.

1. Inspections of pipelines and other horizontal infrastructure

Monitoring oil and gas pipeline integrity in remote, inhospitable areas is a dangerous job traditionally done by crewed aircraft. The 800-mile Trans-Alaska Pipeline System, where temperatures can dip to -80°F, is experimenting with autonomous flights for pipeline integrity inspections

Guided by University of Alaska drone researchers, pipeline officials are also exploring the potential of pairing drones with rugged, uncrewed ground vehicles (UGV) mounted with mobile drone docking stations. This would greatly extend the reach, duration, and versatility of inspections. Other uses they envision for autonomous flights are 24/7 security surveillance, mammal counts, monitoring for harmful gas emissions, and identifying melting permafrost and unstable soils that cause wear on pipe structures. 

Almost any horizontal infrastructure is well suited to autonomous monitoring by drones. The dull, dangerous work of highway repair assessments, power transmission and distribution line inspections, country border and coastline security surveillance, and rail inspections could benefit from routine, autonomous drone flights. 

2. Drone deliveries from the air — and not just pizza

NASA predicts that by 2030 we’ll see 500 million drone deliveries by 40,000 uncrewed aircraft, at a cost of $4.20 per delivery. We know what you’re thinking: pizza by drone. 

But it’s about a lot more than just consumer convenience. Autonomous drones may help make the delivery economy cleaner. UPS, a leader in drone delivery, aims to cut carbon emissions with battery-powered drones, speeding up deliveries while reducing truck fleet costs.

Delivery by air could also save lives, in more ways than one. Delivery truck drivers make up 18 percent of U.S. workplace fatalities. Reducing the number of truck deliveries ought to lower the frequency of incidents involving delivery drivers.

Also, the City of Reno is testing the use of drones to deliver Automated External Defibrillators (AEDs) to heart attack patients. Cardiac arrest is the leading cause of natural death in America. A patient’s odds of survival decrease by about 10 percent for every minute they wait to receive defibrillation. AEDs delivered by drone could increase the cardiac arrest survival rate from 10 percent to nearly 50 percent. Autonomous drones, operating out of distributed docking stations, could improve this even more.

3. Automated herd tracking and crop management from the air

Autonomous drones will open up attractive new possibilities for agribusiness. In North Dakota, a state with 40 million acres in crop production and nearly 2 million head of cattle, the Vantis UAS ecosystem aims to allow ranchers to track the location of livestock and monitor the health of individual animals with infrared imaging from the air. The system will also be used to maximize crop yield, letting farmers in rural areas pilot drones to detect herbicide resistant weeds and determine optimal treatments and irrigation.

Autonomous drones could take this a step further. They may be able to regularly deploy from base stations to monitor herds, crops, and soil on a continual basis, sending alerts when something’s not right. This would enable producers to do less tramping around in feedlots and driving backroads in bad weather.

4. Structural firefighting and search & rescue

Carnegie Mellon University demonstration projects have shown the feasibility of sending autonomous micro-drones into dark, smoke-filled indoor settings to map fires and locate victims. Other types of drones could be deployed to seek out and extinguish flames, especially in historic buildings that are unlikely to withstand the weight of water drops from helicopters. Autonomous drones could also inspect hazardous chemical tanks and cooling towers, and guide search and rescue efforts in unstable buildings.

5. Forestry and wildland firefighting with drones

Forest restoration and management are logical use cases for autonomous drones. Data collected during long-distance, pilotless flights could help forest managers monitor changing conditions and target micro-areas stressed by drought, overdensity, or insect infestation for treatment.

Already, drones can provide fast, highly accurate analysis of wildfire rate of spread, fire front contour, and post-fire damage assessments. Machine learning and AI can already combine weather forecasts with flyover data to help with fire risk assessment. The next phase could be swarms of connected, coordinated drones capable of defining the perimeter of a hot zone and executing each aircraft’s path and task dynamically. Drones with payloads of fire suppressant could replace human crews and even operate through the night with coordinated sensor data.

There are technical challenges to overcome — collision avoidance, reduced visibility from smoke, and interactions with crewed aircraft. But the prospect of earlier fire detection, more accurate fire monitoring, and safer firefighting is pushing wildland firefighters to seriously consider autonomous drone solutions. 

6. Aerial environmental monitoring with drone automation

In the face of climate change, there are renewed efforts to protect key resources like the Great Lakes and Chesapeake Bay. Monitoring huge water systems for pollutants, sea level rise, and restoration progress is work well suited to autonomous drones. Pollution events could be detected by drone-based sensors, while workers keep a safe distance from toxic exposure. Time-lapse imagery of restoration in progress could let scientists review data without hopping in a boat. 

Wildlife poaching prevention, coral reef preservation, and tracking invasive species are already successful drone use cases that could be automated, with obvious safety perks. Seeing the potential to better patrol swamplands, the State of Florida appropriated $400,000 in FY20 for drones to detect invasive pythons and destructive plants.

Drone automation is changing the UAS industry

Drone industry growth and R&D investment are not slowing down. It’s estimated that 1 million commercial drones will be sold in 2021. The global commercial drone market will be worth roughly $43 billion by 2025. Organizations that prepare now for autonomous drones — especially those empowered by wireless connectivity — will be well positioned for what’s coming next.

See how Skyward and Verizon’s Aviation Development Center is preparing for the near future of connected drones.

Skyward The Near Future Of Connected Drones eBook