Pop­u­lar­ity of eye in the sky is re­ally tak­ing off

China Daily (USA) - - ANALYSIS - By AN­THONY WAR­REN

When Joe Chua took his drone to Tai­wan last year, he in­tended to cap­ture footage of one of Asia’s most stun­ning vis­tas at Alis­han Na­tional Scenic Area.

Lo­cated in the is­land’s Chi­ayi county, the area is fa­mous for its rugged beauty and forested moun­tain­tops. In­stead, Chua sud­denly re­al­ized that he, and not the breath­tak­ingly beau­ti­ful land­scape, was the cen­ter of attention.

“Drones bring peo­ple to­gether,” the Hong Kong-based Sin­ga­porean ex­ec­u­tive, who main­tains a blog that con­tains travel pho­tog­ra­phy and drone footage, told China Daily.

“When­ever I fly my drone — be it in Tai­wan, Aus­tralia or even Sin­ga­pore — strangers do come and chat.” Cu­rios­ity about drones, Chua said, is al­most uni­ver­sal.

Thirty years ago, own­ing a pager put you among the tech­no­log­i­cal elite, a pro­fes­sional with a need to be reached on the go.

The now ubiq­ui­tous cell phone, lap­top and tablet com­puter all started with pro­fes­sion­als, shift­ing from work­place to the pub­lic be­fore blur­ring the lines between the two.

Although the first drone users cer­tainly were pro­fes­sion­als (pre­dom­i­nantly mil­i­tary pi­lots), the surge of sales in the civil­ian mar­ket over the last five years has been al­most ex­clu­sively the do­main of hob­by­ists.

Yet, things are set to change. In­creas­ing num­bers of drone or un­manned aerial ve­hi­cle own­ers, whether in­di­vid­u­als or busi­nesses, are look­ing to turn their fly­ing ma­chines from a toy or cam­era-on­wings into a vi­able, mon­ey­mak­ing com­mer­cial en­deavor.

“What has been re­ally in­ter­est­ing to see is the wide va­ri­ety of uses that un­manned tech­nol­ogy has been put to,” said Gary Clay­ton of the Un­manned Aerial Ve­hi­cle Sys­tems As­so­ci­a­tion.

A Bri­tish non-profit or­ga­ni­za­tion, the as­so­ci­a­tion rep­re­sents and pro­motes the drone in­dus­try in Europe and world­wide.

“Years ago the view was that, when they were al­lowed in the airspace, the only jobs (drones) could do would be those con­sid­ered too dull, dirty or dan­ger­ous for a hu­man,” he added.

The three Ds, as they are known, in­cluded the likes of mil­i­tary use, ter­rain map­ping and the sur­vey of nu­clear or chem­i­cal spills.

To­day this is no longer the case, he said, and such lim­ited three D opin­ions on drones are ex­pressed only by “ill-briefed civil ser­vants wheeled out onto a con­fer­ence plat­form by their staff”.

In re­al­ity, it is now “al­most im­pos­si­ble to watch tele­vi­sion or a film with­out footage from a UAV that would not have been taken be­fore”, Clay­ton noted.

“Build­ings are in­spected at a frac­tion of the pre­vi­ous costs and col­lat­eral dam­age, large con­struc­tion sites are sur­veyed, crops are in­spected and the en­vi­ron­ment is be­ing mon­i­tored.”

Al­most all in­dus­tries have em­braced the tech­nol­ogy, he added, since the com­put­ing power and cam­eras of drones of­fer in­for­ma­tion that would not oth­er­wise have been col­lected.

Although the UAV com­mer­cial mar­ket is still in its in­fancy, it has al­ready shown vi­brant growth.

Ac­cord­ing to the re­search firm Mar­ket­sandMar­kets, global spend­ing on ac­quir­ing civil­ian drones in 2014 was val­ued at $663 mil­lion. The re­search con­cluded that the civil­ian drone mar­ket would rise to $5.59 bil­lion by 2020, with the big­gest growth likely to be seen in the Asia-Pa­cific re­gion.

The ap­pli­ca­tion of these drones in busi­ness could prove a money-maker for com­pa­nies. In a re­cent re­port, Clar­ity from Above by the in­ter­na­tional au­dit­ing and con­sul­tancy firm PwC, the to­tal value of com­mer­cial drone so­lu­tions (the use of drones for min­eral sur­vey­ing, movie mak­ing, se­cu­rity etc) would top $127 bil­lion in the next few years.

The growing de­mand for pre­cise, high-qual­ity data, of­ten linked to the com­pil­ing of big data (the anal­y­sis of large-vol­ume in­for­ma­tion for trends), will see high yields for com­pa­nies in­volved in ev­ery­thing from in­fra­struc­ture to agri­cul­ture.

While the big­gest in­vestors in drone tech­nol­ogy for com­mer­cial use are cur­rently in the United States, ac­cord­ing to its Fed­eral Avi­a­tion Ad­min­is­tra­tion only 3,000 com­pa­nies are cur­rently li­censed to pro­vide drone ser­vices.

By com­par­i­son, Asia is the largest man­u­fac­turer, and likely soon to be the big­gest user, as­sum­ing na­tional or pan-re­gional leg­is­la­tion on the com­mer­cial use of drones can bring it from niche to main­stream.

Karan Giro­tra, a pro­fes­sor of tech­nol­ogy man­age­ment at INSEAD in Sin­ga­pore, equates the pri­mary driver of Asia’s in­ter­est in drones to its heavy in­dus­tries and the cost-ef­fi­ciency of drones in farm­ing and polic­ing.

“En­ter­tain­ment and videog­ra­phy is an in­ter­est­ing ap­pli­ca­tion that draws me­dia in­ter­est,” he said.

“But the ma­jor busi­ness buy­ers are firms in the petro­chem­i­cals, min­ing, agri­cul­ture and se­cu­rity sec­tors, where drones have found com­mer­cially vi­able ap­pli­ca­tions.”

In­done­sia is one South­east Asian na­tion al­ready us­ing a le­gal frame­work for com­mer­cial drone use. Palm oil pro­duc­ing com­pa­nies hire pi­lot firms to map and sur­vey plan­ta­tions and some­times to check for il­le­gal log­ging op­er­a­tions.

A govern­ment meet­ing of the Hong Kong Spe­cial Ad­min­is­tra­tive Re­gion in June also showed an in­ter­est in tri­al­ing the vi­a­bil­ity of drones in pro­tect­ing the ter­ri­tory’s rare in­cense trees from il­le­gal har­vesters.

What com­mer­cial cus­tomers look for are ex­am­ples of “turnkey, ready to go, sys­tems that they can use to de­ploy and man­age a fleet of drones… in­te­grate them with ex­ist­ing sys­tems and build more au­ton­omy and in­tel­li­gence into them”, Giro­tra said.

PRO­VIDED TO CHINA DAILY

Joe Chua with his fly­ing ma­chine.

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