UAVs skyrocket to industry prominence

October 15, 2019  - By

From growing crops to making movies, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are changing the way we work. UAVs — managed by unmanned aerial systems, or UAS — range from small indoor inspection units to giant Predator drones. They are streamlining how we manage mines and plants, deliver packages, and keep people safe. Read on to find out the latest in this skyrocketing market.

The unmanned aerial system (UAS) industry is in great shape! In the United States., the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) appears to be helping commercial operations get off the ground, at least for those wishing to fly small unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

Things are certainly hopping for unmanned aircraft in agriculture, mining and construction, facility inspection, newsgathering, movies and promotion. Package delivery is on the way, and, of course, defense is cooking with new innovations. Everywhere you look, a specialized drone or new application seems to appear that has good prospects for success.

One helpful aspect of today’s landscape for UAS operators in the U.S. is the FAA’s supportive approach to small UAS (sUAS) for commercial activities. After providing a regulatory framework with Part 107 rules, albeit with quite a few caveats that require a written waiver application, qualified drone operators are now able to fly their drones in many places — as long as they are below 400 feet, well away from airports, and nowhere near any restricted airspace.

Pilot qualification courses and proficiency testing are both readily available — at 676 commercial facilities across the U.S. according to the FAA website — and a successful online application process should result in a remote pilot’s certificate.

With a drone registered with the FAA, you can use the FAA’s B4UFLY mobile app to check if it’s safe to operate where you intend to. If it is, you can get approval in real time using the FAA’s Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability (LAANC) system. The FAA qualified LAANC to clear commercial drone operations, and the service is now provided by a large number of independent UAS service providers.

With the regulatory and approval path in place, it’s now possible for companies and individuals to earn a living with turn-key drone operations, providing services for many applications that have blossomed. There’s work to do beforehand, but it’s less arduous than for manned flight operations.

Let’s look at a few of the applications benefiting from the automation, enhancement and remote operations provided by UAVs as well as their on-board sensor suites and after-flight processing:

  • agriculture
  • mining and construction
  • facility inspection
  • newsgathering, movies and promotion
  • package delivery
  • defense
Crop health analysis: Precisionhawk’s software PrecisionAnalytics—Agriculture automatically generates georeferenced orthomosaics from data collected with drone sensors. (Map: PrecisionHawk)

Crop health analysis: Precisionhawk’s software PrecisionAnalytics—Agriculture automatically generates georeferenced orthomosaics from data collected with drone sensors. (Map: PrecisionHawk)


Agriculture has readily adopted UAVs to monitor, control and improve overall crop growth rates — a part of what is known as precision agriculture. Drones carrying optical, thermal and laser scanning payloads gather stacks of information about the condition and rates of growth in fields. The information is then fed into various analysis tools. A picture emerges over time that indicates the health of crops. This enables farmers to generate a formulas for the nutrient and weed-reduction chemicals used for spraying at various times of the year. It’s a customized “prescription” for each growing area.

Continuing UAV overflights during the growing cycle monitor the effects of growing conditions and the effectiveness of treatments, providing more feedback that lead to even further improvements.

Smaller tech-savvy farms might run their own programs, supported by local agrochemical suppliers that may provide analysis services or sell analysis tools.

However, there has been a real growth in the number of companies that supply an entire turn-key package — supplying and flying drones, gathering data, running analyses and providing written and graphic output to support the farming operation.

Unmanned aircraft are truly an integral part of this approach, which might only have been possible because of semi-autonomous UAS and the evolution of compact sensors: UAV-mounted infrared, high-precision optical and lidar.

A sample prescription map. (Map: PrecisionHawk)

A sample prescription map. (Map: PrecisionHawk)

Mining and Construction

Any mine site is a busy — even chaotic — place to conduct a commercial business.

Drones provide a way for mining operations to:

  • quickly collect information to enable volume calculations;
  • provide relatively inexpensive site surveys; and
  • manage traffic and set up daily road layouts.

In effect, drones enable more rapid control of a complex and dynamic undertaking. Additionally, they improve safety. Ground surveyors no longer need to dodge huge operating machines and tumbling ore, or scramble around difficult terrain.

An autonomous drone can gather timely, georeferenced imagery that can be turned into a precise 3D model of the site. Site managers can have immediate access to details of the UAV survey. They can see the extent of existing deposits and know where to support further mineral exploration, receive estimates of stockpiles and tailing volumes, ensure that personnel and equipment are in the correct locations, and compare aerial video and photography day by day to check progress and for record-keeping. Drones can carry a wide variety of imaging and sensor packages including visual, infrared, hyperspectral, lidar, sonar and radar.

It’s also quicker. For instance, using the senseFly eBee fixed-wing drone, a full aerial survey of an 88-hectare site took four to five hours, with about half of that time spent placing control points. To achieve the same level of detail, terrestrial surveying would take a single surveyor two to three weeks.

Construction Operations. The construction sector uses the same drone data-capture techniques for site details, off-line analysis and results tabulation to manage operations of complex work sites. Compared to mining, change can be more intensive during a construction project, so drone surveys might be repeated more often.

Surveying and GIS. Using drones is an industry unto itself, with high-precision RTK GNSS in the air and on the ground, and specialized analysis tools for high-accuracy applications. The speed of data gathering is the principal benefit to an industry that continues to be essential in many sectors. Lower precision GIS for asset tracking and the like could become a subset of the applications and tools already discussed.

Facility inspection. Outdoor and indoor facility inspection is definitely benefiting from the automation that suitably equipped drones and customized analysis tools can bring to both regular and infrequent inspection tasks. The number of regular complex refinery inspections can be significantly reduced. Inspections will no longer interfere with production and will improve safety for inspection staff. For instance, flame stacks that burn off excess gases can be prone to failure, so regular inspection is essential. Using a drone for the task is clearly much safer than using personnel.

An offshore oil and gas construction platform vents gases to relieve pressure. Flame stacks such as these require regular inspection. (Photo: Oil and Gas Photographer/ )

An offshore oil and gas construction platform vents gases to relieve pressure. Flame stacks such as these require regular inspection. (Photo: Oil and Gas Photographer/

BVLOS for Pipelines and Rail

Automated pipeline and railway track inspection have both become possible as drones are used over much greater distances, thanks to beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) operational approvals by the FAA.

For BVLOS, users first need a validated sense-and-avoid technology on the drone. Also required is proven radio telemetry with uninterrupted command-and-control of the vehicle during flight, and an independent ground-monitoring system that confirms how the drone maneuvers throughout the flight.

In the case of a BVLOS flight this summer along the Trans-Alaska oil pipeline, a Perimeter UAV manufactured by Skyfront flew about 4 miles, maintaining a constant above-ground altitude of 400 feet with multiple ascents and descents of 1,000 feet on 45-degree slopes. The long-range hybrid multicopter drone was equipped with Iris Automation’s computer vision collision-avoidance system and was monitored by

Launching a UAV for a BVLOS flight are (at left) Travis Balthazor, UAS flight operations manager, and Mike Kuni, UAS flight instructor/pilot, both of Kansas State University Polytechnic Campus. (Photo: KDOT, Division of Aviation)

Launching a UAV for a BVLOS flight are (at left) Travis Balthazor, UAS flight operations manager, and Mike Kuni, UAS flight instructor/pilot, both of Kansas State University Polytechnic Campus. (Photo: KDOT, Division of Aviation)

Echodyne radars along the pipeline path, providing airspace situational awareness.
Another BVLOS operation built on the achievements of the Trans-Alaska pipeline trial has been authorized to fly a nine-mile linear inspection of power lines in rural Kansas.

Once again, the Iris Automation system will provide collision avoidance, but this drone also has an independent automated avoidance capability. This gives the drone the self-contained ability to fly around obstacles, so no ground radar or visual tracking is required.

Relieving the requirement for radar tracking or visual observers makes many new operations affordable. Previously, FAA Part 107 BVLOS waivers have all required visual observers or ground-based radar tracking — requirements that are not only expensive, but also restrict where flights are possible.

BVLOS operations like these demonstrate the cost-effectiveness of the technical solution, making long-duration, long-distance inspection using drones feasible.

The Elios 2 indoor inspection UAV is encased in a collision-tolerant frame to protect both the drone and the environment it’s inspecting. (Photo: © Flyability)

The Elios 2 indoor inspection UAV is encased in a collision-tolerant frame to protect both the drone and the environment it’s inspecting. (Photo: © Flyability)

Indoor Inspection

Indoor inspection is becoming possible with specialized drones that circumvent the need to expose inspection staff to especially difficult facility environments, which in the past also required production shut-down to protect them. Thermal and visual sensors on swivel mounts enable protected inspection drones to fly into tight spaces — or even back out of tricky situations — and make visual records that may otherwise be virtually impossible.

Searching and recording inside containment vessels at the failed Fukushima nuclear facility may have been significantly advanced by using inspection drones.

Newsgathering, Movies and Promotion

All those panoramic, overhead, moving shots you see on the news, in movies and in ads used to be taken from a manned helicopter or fixed-wing aircraft. Now they are mostly taken by multi-copter drones with high-resolution cameras. This makes cinematography and newsgathering much more affordable, making these fields accessible by smaller operations. In the past, only large media groups could afford to rent a helicopter. And, of course, it’s much quicker to bring a UAV onto an incident site, operated by a crew on the ground.

You’ll need FAA approval to use a drone for commercial newsgathering purposes, or find a suitable qualified UAV and operator. After gaining FAA qualifications, news people are also taking on the job, buying and flying the equipment and managing the video-processing software themselves.

Others using drones for similar purposes are movie makers, producers of TV commercials and real estate agents, to name a few.

Delivery by Drone

The ultimate objective of many internet suppliers is to deliver goods that were just ordered within minutes of the order being placed. This is a pretty big objective. It requires a whole network of “fulfillment centers” in and around many cities, a massive purchasing and goods movement capability to keep these centers stocked, and a system that delivers to the end-customer. Currently, we mostly have manned panel trucks of various flavors handling that last step of the delivery process, with real people reading the notes we put on the porch about where to leave our package if we’re out.

Order and Receive. The next wave of delivery changes are expected to include drones carrying your package from the fulfillment center to your backyard. Amazon is looking for approval to begin trials with its larger 88-pound MK-27 Prime Air delivery drone, initially in sparsely populated areas. The MK-27 is equipped with intelligent sense-and-avoid capability, flying around any obstacles it encounters in flight and even during delivery.

UPS is also hoping to get to qualification of its own UAS delivery system by the end of this year, to the same standards that manned aircraft delivery systems are certificated.
Medical Deliveries. Many other trials are underway, especially involving medical deliveries and support. In Africa, trials are underway in Ghana, Malawi and Rwanda. UPS recently proposed a medical supplies delivery service using drones in North Carolina. Many companies that claim expertise in medical deliveries are operating drones.

Food on the Fly. Restaurant food delivery services have seen an upsurge in popularity. It seems likely that soon you’ll be able to order and receive lunch really quickly by drone food delivery services. Ground robot food deliveries at George Mason University are already a huge hit! Uber-Eats is experimenting with drone food deliveries, and 17 drone delivery routes have already been approved in an industrial park in Shanghai.

Meanwhile, Bell has flown its autonomous pod transport (APT) 70 near its base in Fort Worth, Texas, for the first time. The APT 70 can carry a 70-pound package load at over 100 mph, far faster and farther than existing drone delivery systems.

Bell is aiming for package delivery and critical medical transport for disaster relief for APT type drones. It is also participating in the NASA SOI program along with General Atomics’ SkyGuardian.

Drones are a new tool. The UAS industry will continue to change and adapt these products and this technology in as-yet-unthought-of ways. It’s an exciting time, and right now, there seems to be no end in sight.

For a look at drones in the defense industry, see Murfin’s article “Defense in front of UAV development,” published in September’s Professional OEM + UAV newsletter.


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About the Author: Tony Murfin

Tony Murfin is managing consultant for GNSS Aerospace LLC, Florida. Murfin provides business development consulting services to companies involved in GNSS products and markets, and writes for GPS World as the OEM Professional contributing editor. Previously, Murfin worked for NovAtel Inc. in Calgary, Canada, as vice president of Business Development; for CMC Electronics in Montreal, Canada, as business development manager, product manager, software manger and software engineer; for CAE in Montreal as simulation software engineer; and for BAe in Warton, UK, as senior avionics engineer. Murfin has a B.Sc. from the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology in the UK, and is a UK Chartered Engineer (CEng MIET).