Editor's Letter Insights

Autonomous Drones in a COVID-19 World

Written by Jeff Child

There’s no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc upon numerous industries, some to a devastating degree. The airline, hospitality and entertainment industries are just a few among many that have taken deep, unprecedented hits to their revenues. In the wake of this devastation, some segments of technology are seeing potential for increased growth, driven in cases where technology offers some mitigation to the restrictions of a COVID-19 world.

Along those lines, according to market research firm Frost & Sullivan, the rapid advances in drone technology in recent years, along with a “perfect storm” convergence of artificial intelligence (AI), analytics and the Internet of Things (IoT) has been driving increased adoption of autonomous drone technology. Frost & Sullivan’s research analysts predict market revenue—of drone services alone—will grow more than 10-fold from 2020 to reach $515 million by 2030.

A recent piece by Michael Blades, Vice President for Frost & Sullivan’s Defense and Security practice, takes a closer look at the rapidly-growing industrial autonomous drone segment. In his July piece, Blades says the COVID-19 pandemic brought changing attitudes about autonomous drone technology along with new applications. The pandemic resulted in a massive decrease in travel and widespread orders for people to remain quarantined at home and/or practice “social distancing.” “It has become increasingly clear that the growing range of applications which can be conducted by drones—already a trend pre-pandemic—has been turbocharged by COVID-19,” says Blades, “Ensuring ‘contactless’ and remote, yet continuous, operations in multiple industries, forwardthinking operators have quickly ramped up rollouts and adapted usage patterns of autonomous drones to the ‘new normal’.”

Several market factors were driving the uptake of autonomous drone systems even before demand driven by the pandemic response came into play, says Blades. Frost & Sullivan research highlighted several major trends that will continue to fuel the commercial drone market growth. Those trends include automation and AI. Those two technologies are linked because computer vision—a subset of AI—enables key autonomous drone navigation features including precise landing and autonomous navigation in case of GPS loss. More importantly, says Blades, computer vision and AI enable people detection and tracking, fire detection, anomaly detection and other applications that make the autonomous drone far more than just “a flying camera” and enhance the return-on-investment of drone usage for a variety of tasks.

Applications that require beyond visual line of site (BVLOS) operations will drive up the demand for pilotless drones will increase. This will lead to drones that are “monitored” rather than flown. While AI enables advanced functionalities and autonomous flight, machine learning will be increasingly relied upon to process data at the edge. This will include enabling real-time notifications and alerts that assist organizations in responding more quickly and effectively to anomalies and crises.

In April, F&S recognized Percepto with F&S’s 2020 Global Autonomous Drones Enabling Technology Leadership Award. Percepto provides on-site autonomous drone solutions for critical infrastructures and industrial sites. In his July piece Blades reiterates that Percepto is company with technologies that meet exactly those above-mentioned needs. The company’s proprietary Sparrow drones are designed with advanced analytics, AI, automation software, computer vision and machine learning (ML) to optimize functionality. Its ruggedized and weather-proof Percepto Base and PerceptoCore software round out a system that provides 24/7 pilotless drones for a wide range of enterprise applications. “While there are other drone-in-a-box solutions, there are only a few companies that have mature, deployed systems and none have deployed as many as Percepto,” says Blades.

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The market for fully-autonomous drones is still in its early days. But, as global drone regulations begin to shift in favor of these systems, autonomous drone companies with the right technologies will stand to benefit. This is definitely an area to keep an eye on.

PUBLISHED IN CIRCUIT CELLAR MAGAZINE• AUGUST 2020 #361- Get a PDF of the issue


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Editor-in-Chief at Circuit Cellar | Website | + posts

Jeff Child has more than 28 years of experience in the technology magazine business—including editing and writing technical content, and engaging in all aspects of magazine leadership and production. He joined the Circuit Cellar after serving as Editor-in-Chief of COTS Journal for over 10 years. Over his career Jeff held senior editorial positions at several of leading electronic engineering publications, including EE Times and Electronic Design and RTC Magazine. Before entering the world of technology journalism, Jeff worked as a design engineer in the data acquisition market.