The growing use of drones in the aviation industry

The use of drones is an area of ​​the aviation industry that has seen an increase over the past couple of years. Unaffected by the slowdown in aviation, the use of drones continues to find economic applications in many sectors. Awareness, technology and price have all improved, leading to increased usage. With regulations catching up, there is even more potential in the near future, and likely more interaction with traditional aviation services, flights and routes.

Increase in applications and commercial use

In the early days of drone use, military applications took the lead. The military has been using drones (as “unmanned aerial vehicles”) for decades. Recreational and “hobby” users then got on board, driving changes in the market. As technology has improved, drones have become more capable and more affordable. They quickly found new commercial uses.

Some of the main areas now include:

  • Use of public services, including law enforcement, emergency response, and search and rescue.
  • Utilities and surveying.
  • Agricultural use for crop spraying and evaluation, and livestock management.
  • Construction and maintenance of buildings and appraisals (including insurance works).
  • Oil and gas safety and inspections.

The use of drones in the logistics sector is often mentioned, but so far relatively limited. However, the potential for drone deliveries and supply chain operations is enormous. Investment and pilot projects are well advanced here, but regulations still limit significant expansion.

Impressive market growth forecasts

The market continues to grow as we emerge from the pandemic. The 2021 Drone Market Report forecasts that the global drone market will grow by an average of 9.4% over the next five years, reaching US$41.3 billion by 2026. Global drone sales in over the same period will drop from 828,000 to around 1.4 million.

Many advantages for companies

There are many reasons why more and more businesses are turning to the use of drones. Their use helps companies reduce costs, control risk and increase safety. Drones can access hard-to-reach areas faster and more safely than humans.

The last few years have seen a huge expansion in availability, improved technology and reduced costs. Drones can simply handle more tasks than before, and the benefits for businesses are increased.

As an example, consider the inspection of oil and gas infrastructure such as drilling rigs. This is clearly an expensive and high-risk operation. The use of drones reduced a typical eight-week below-deck inspection to just five days, with the crew only needing access to identified problem areas.

PWC has looked at some forecasts of cost savings for UK businesses by 2030. It estimates that with continued growth, UK businesses could save £16 billion. The use of drones will contribute to a £42 billion increase in UK GDP. Overall, he predicts that the greatest increase in productivity due to drone use will be seen in the technology, media and telecommunications (TMT) and logistics industries.

Regulate the use of drones

As use continues to grow, regulation is more important than ever. The aviation industry, of course, is tightly regulated. Regulations have been developed to control and protect standard manned flights, and the use of drones has lagged somewhat.

However, changes have been made. A key regulation in the US market is FAA Part 107. It was introduced in 2016 and opened up the legal and commercial use of drones in many areas. Many other countries have adopted similar regulations. Restrictions for most drone uses are that the drone remains within sight of the operator (known as visual line of sight), below a certain height, and away from controlled airspace. Exceptions for specific commercial use can be requested.

Challenges remain, however, with operating drones over longer distances. Regulations are just beginning to roll out (under FAA Part 135 in the US and in Europe under ED 2022/002/R). Drone pilots may be allowed to operate beyond visual sight, with strict controls over flight areas and drone technology. The delay in these regulations is why we’ve seen companies like Amazon block their high-profile drone delivery plans.

This will become more important as use encroaches more on aviation and airspace. Until now, many of the main applications are localized, such as building inspections or surveys. As the use of the private sector in logistics or shipping, for example, grows, more regulations will be needed.

Drones and flight planning

The use made, of course, is very different from standard aviation. Flight planners, operators and pilots, however, should be aware of operations, airspace restrictions and any changes thereto. Regulations and usage may differ from country to country and this should be taken into account when using different airspaces and airports. This will become increasingly important as the use of drones grows, with potentially longer routes.

Final Thoughts

Drones have many commercial applications that can reduce business costs, improve safety, and deliver faster results. With this allure, it’s no surprise that the use of drones is growing rapidly around the world. However, they must be regulated alongside the rest of the aviation industry. This is clearing up now and should expand to support the growing use of drones.

PWC UK report:

Drone Market Report: