Budgetary constraints are driving private and semi-governmental – and even public – security agencies to consider purchasing industrial or commercial drones (as opposed to lower-end consumer "toy" type models) rather than military models for surveillance activities, in both urban and non-urban areas, in the context of border control, anti-terrorism, anti-drug, or anti-smuggling operations.

Since the standards of both sectors are increasingly converging, security organizations may consider basing their choice on performance and expected usage, rather than on a “military” or “industrial” label.

The Emergence of Multifunctional Requirements

On one hand, military uses require:

  • High capacities in terms of data gathering, processing and encryption
  • Maximum power and autonomy for minimum weight and size, and
  • Ruggedness to withstand extreme environments.

On the other hand, UAVs take on expanded roles as the aerospace and defense industries develop drone system capabilities.

This is in part due to the fact that economic pressure brings a greater focus on operational efficiency: UAVs are increasingly expected to evolve towards multi-function capabilities, carrying out a variety of surveillance missions and fulfilling a broader range of mission objectives.

The goal, in this perspective, is to achieve greater platform interoperability, as next-generation systems and architectures are expected to bear the potential to be re-used and quickly integrate a broad range of capabilities from a highly diversified environment of hardware and software suppliers.

Finally, military vendors are now looking into Open Source technology. At first glance, this seems counterintuitive. Yet open source systems less expensive to licence, of course, but the main point is that open source drone software is actually more functionally advanced in certain respects.

On the other side, although commercial models based on military platforms offer high capacities in terms of encryption and decryption requirements for example, these add extra costs and complexity to UAV electronics.

Fulmar UAV Photo credits: Txema1 Fulmar UAV
Photo credits: Txema1

Growing Civilian Requirements

Also, the commercial market is a different kettle of fish entirely – certain civilian requirements actually exceed military ones, e.g. in the areas of safety and communicating with airliners, bandwidth and user-friendliness.

  1. Safety: Secure communication links are vital for commercial UAV operations to take flight, both in controlling the UAV based on specific mission objectives and in delivering data reliably to mission controllers on the ground. The main hurdle is that UAVs must be able to communicate with other aircraft and eventually with other UAVs.
  1. Data Processing and Transmission: The addition of full-motion video (FMV) and high-definition (HD) images mean that UAVs are acquiring growing quantities of data. Limited bandwidth can hamper the transmission, sharing, and display of mission-critical information. Commercial drone builders are therefore striving to integrate as much bandwidth and functionalities into their products as possible. They are also trying to tackle problems that stem from network limitation from the other end, by developing efficient data processing directly on the UAV so it can transmit processed information instead of a raw data stream.
  1. Usability: Not so long ago, it could take up to 200 people to manage a single military drone. Commercial operators cannot afford such a luxury: One or two operators will have to do, and without spending several weeks in training. Therefore, market pressure is pushing drone makers to develop technologies –largely inspired from toy drones and the gaming industry – that support single users who will be able to not only manage a UAV single-handedly but actually to deploy and control integrated swarms of UAVs.

According to the research done by Tractica, it is evident that the market of commercial UAVs is poised to explode. By 2025:

  • Commercial-grade UAV shipments should grow from 80,000 units annually in 2015 to more than 2.6 million.
  • Annual revenue from commercial drone hardware should be close to $4 billion.
  • Commercial drone-enabled services, however, represent an even larger opportunity: forecasts indicate sales could reach $8.7 billion annually.

This means that the type of products will expand and become more sophisticated, putting increased pressure on manufacturers of strictly military drones.

Film, media, agriculture, and oil & gas are the main industries presently pioneering the adoption of commercial drones.

Aerial imaging and data analysis are the two primary application markets in the commercial drone industry (Tractica).

Before the commercial drone industry can take off, however, three key factors need to be resolved:

  • Regulatory policy
  • Public perception, or social acceptance
  • Safety and privacy issues

Of course, the challenge linked to the second factor has much to do with the third one, but also with the fact that drones have played a major offensive military role in the last years. This trend is hardly surprising since drones, like many technologies, comes from war efforts.

Raven UAV Photo Credits: Sgt. 1st Class Michael Guillory Raven UAV
Photo Credits: Sgt. 1st Class Michael Guillory

Toy Drone Makers Playing into the Commercial Game

But the most fascinating trend is probably the fact that consumer drone manufacturers are attacking the industrial market.

By applying economies of scale and effective manufacturing and distribution, companies at the lower end of the commercial spectrum can turn inexpensive toy technologies into professional products at very appealing prices.

Chinese manufacturer DJI dominates this market segment, and many commercial users already rely on DJI drones. At less than $2,000, these products are making inroads into a niche that was dominated not so long ago by much more rugged and sophisticated products, e.g. SkyRangers that went for $65,000 to $200,000, depending on the payload.

Another example is the French toy and drone maker Parrot: After acquiring DiBcom, a company specializing in high-performance integrated chipsets that support low-power, high mobility media reception in 2011, Parrot invested in software manufacturer Pix4D, platform manufacturers Sensefly and delair-tech as well as remote sensing specialist MicaSense. This has allowed Parrot to assert itself as a major player in the entry-level UAV field.

Only a few years ago, individuals or property surveillance agencies looking for highly reliable surveillance drones had no other option but to buy military equipment. But now, alternatives are emerging, and everything indicates that this trend will continue to grow in the coming years.

Renato Cudicio | CEO, Arsha Consulting & Luis Robert | Analyst- Arsha Consulting


Photo Credits: «S4 Ehecatl UAV» by Hydra Technologies de México S.A. de C.V.

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