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August 20, 2015

Drones for good: 5 UAV applications changing the world

CBR highlights five major applications that will save money, time and even lives.

By Joao Lima

In the future drones will have many different applications, both in the consumer space and the industrial sector.

CBR lists five ways drones will transform the industrial and consumer space.

1. Oil & Gas

Today, when an oil and gas company needs to carry out an inspection to its oilrig, they have to put in place a huge structure of scaffolding that can go as high as 40 floors on their offshore platforms, according to Dave Hrycyszyn, founder and head of technology at Head London.

He said: "If we manage to get a drone to do the job of several men, in two days instead of three weeks, with a team of five people rather than a team of 100, the cost savings are immense for that [oilrig] inspection.

"That is one kind of system that will ultimately save the people who employ them £10 million, £100 million, £1 billion or more over the lifetime of a system like that," adding that inspection prices can be cut by as much as 95% to 99%.

By using drones to do these inspections, oil and gas companies will also improve workplace safety and help avoid oil spills like the one in the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010, when 4.9 million barrels worth of oil covered an area of 176,100 sq Km in the region.

One example of this application in practice is with Shell, which is conducting inspections of some of the largest European energy plants using drones, eliminating the need for manual human inspection.

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2. Disaster Areas

The last few natural disasters the world has experienced – like Nepal’s earthquake in April – has seen authorities using drones in humanitarian emergencies.

Aerial drones are one of the most promising and powerful new technologies to improve disaster response and relief operations, according to Measure, an american drones operator.

The organisation explains that drones can be used, amongst many other applications, by relief workers to give them better situational awareness, locate survivors amidst the rubble, perform structural analysis of damaged infrastructure, deliver needed supplies and equipment, evacuate casualties, and help extinguish fires.

In these scenarios, drones can be used to assist with risk assessment, mapping and planning, making operations safer and faster for rescue crews.

The UN also sees the potential for drones in disaster areas, recently backing drone use for humanitarian relief operations. The body said: "Humanitarian organisations should engage in initiatives like the Humanitarian UAV Network."

3. Water Quality Control

Water covers 70% of the Earth’s surface and through pollution both humans and animals are at risk of suffering health issues related to dirty water, according to British organisation Water Pollution.

A team of researchers from MIT’s Senseable City Lab has developed a drone solution that can collect and examine water samples which could potentially save lives by alerting people not to drink polluted water.

Dubbed Waterfly, the project is a pair of environmental drones that can fly around and take water samples from different water sources to determine if, for example, a lake is healthy.

Carlo Ratti, director of the Senseable City Lab and one of the minds behind the development, told Beta Boston in February that its Waterfly drones showcase the potential of a swarm of robots that can fly together, land in water, take a sample and examine it on the spot to detect algae or contaminants and fly off to another spot.

He said: "When you have a swarm they can be much more efficient."

4. Solar Farms

Using drones to inspect solar farms, saving time and money, is another application for the Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), according to Hrycyszyn.

He said: "If someone has a solar farm that is 10Km by 10Km and they need to figure out which solar panels are burned out, it would be very difficult for them to walk that farm every day and figure out which panels to action.

"[UAVs will allow them to] fly automated drone missions over that farm, over every panel that looks exactly the same whether it is burned out or not, and through thermal imaging find the burned out panels."

The head of technology explained that burned panels show up much hotter because they are not absorbing energy like other panels. Solar farm operators can then use a GPS location signal to guide them to the right panel and fix the issue.

Skycatch, a company that has developed UAVs for remote monitoring of industrial sites, says that using drones to automatically identify malfunctioning panels takes 90% less time than manual walkthroughs.

The company’s solution employs advanced thermography technology to perform photovoltaic diagnostics and track the progress of solar installation safely from the air to identify and resolve issues.

5. Agriculture

With the world’s population increasing and predicted to reach 11 billion by 2100, according to research from the University of Washington, the need for more food will spark a race for new ways to answer demand.

The lift off of Section 333 by the FAA in May, allows companies to fly commercial drones on specific occasions in the US.

This news will allow US farmers to use drones for the first time during this year’s growing season and understand the real impact the devices can have in the sector, David Baeza, CEO of Vine Rangers told Fortune.

Using drones in the agriculture space will help farmers to keep a closer look on water quality, disease management and collect other types of data that, between many other applications, can help understand when a crop is ready to be harvested.

Steve Keyworth, director at UAVs intelligence firm URSULA Agriculture, said: "More and more businesses are seeing the value of aerial crop data and how it can help maximise crop performance, however the sector needs this kind of investment to expand."

"Weed scouting, plant counting for yield forecasts and monitoring crop health, are just some of the many benefits that crop data collected by UAVs can provide. However this sector needs more people, more businesses and more professional UAV pilots to really take off and help the UK lead the way in this exciting area."

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