Kay Wackwitz, CEO and co-founder of DRONEII, outlines 10 of the most-important developments to take place in the global commercial drone industry in 2020 (shared here in part). An aeronautical engineer with more than 19 years of experience in manned and unmanned aviation, Wackwitz’s full report can be found at Droneii.com.
1. Cyber vulnerabilities – Starting in 2017, drones from Chinese manufacturers were banned from U.S. government departments like the DoD for potential cyber vulnerabilities. In January of 2020, the U.S. Interior Department grounded its entire fleet of more than 800 drones based on the fact that most, if not all, of the drones contained Chinese-owned components. Whether the Chinese drone ban will be lifted completely or to a certain degree in 2021 under the Biden administration is unknown at this point.
2. Fighting the Coronavirus – Drones supported efforts to curb the spread of the coronavirus, including the use of spraying drones to disinfect highly populated areas in cities. Drones were also used to enforce quarantine/social distancing via built-in speakers. Drone delivery picked up massively, delivering tests or medical devices… The technology proved capable, the regulators proved to be permissive, and citizens proved to be open-minded.
3. Record Funding – Despite all the turbulences in 2020, the trust in the drone market continues to grow. Another record year in terms of Venture Capital investments and programs proofed that unmanned technology is making an impact and – most notably – is here to stay. In 2020 alone, passenger drone manufacturer Joby Aviation raised US$665M in two rounds, Skydio raised US$100M, delivery drone manufacturer and service provider Volansi raised US$50M, drone service provider Sensyn Robotics raised US$20.5M, and drone software company Propeller Aero raised US$18M in a Series B funding round.
4. Strategic Acquisition of FLIR Systems – The U.S. drone maker Altavian was acquired by thermal camera giant FLIR Systems in Dec. 2020 for an undisclosed amount. Altavian is one of the five drone manufacturers approved by the U.S. Department of Defense under the Blue sUAS program. (In January 2021, Teledyne Technologies then entered into a definitive agreement to acquire FLIR in transaction valued at approximately US$8 billion.)
5. Indoor Surveillance – Amazon subsidiary Ring announced in October that it will offer a flying indoor security drone in 2021. Users will be able to program the system to make frequent checks or control it manually. It will have night vision for poor light conditions and will fully integrate with Ring’s existing security systems like door alarms.
6. Payload 2.0 – Today, multi-sensor payloads are quite common to the commercial drone market (e.g. E/O+IR sensors) but combining a LiDAR scanner and an optical camera in a very small and very light payload is a remarkable step forward. In October 2020, DJI presented the Zenmuse L1 sensor for their Matrice and Terra platform.
7. Disruption Squared – In September 2020, Equinor reported, that in a one-hour flight from Mongstad base to the Troll A off-shore oil platform in the North Sea, an additively manufactured spare part was delivered by a Camcopter S-100. What’s amazing about this incident? A spare part no longer manufactured was replicated and transported along a dangerous shipping route at a small ecological footprint and at a very high speed.
8. Standards and Regulations Improved – In general, it can be said that most countries have established a solid regulatory framework for drones. However, interpreting and ensuring compliance with these rules is a challenge for companies using drones. New standards representing an “applicable means of compliance” were introduced in 2020 to help overcome these hurdles. Standardization bodies like ASTM, EUROCAE and ISO should be mentioned in this context, which published both technical and procedural standards.
9. UTM Partnerships – UTM software companies have fought for their clients for many years now. The lack of drone space regulation was the main reasons that made it difficult for them to have market access. In 2020, however, many National Aviation Authorities (like the Australian CASA, U.S. FAA, Poland ULC and Singapore CAAS) have partnered with private UTM companies to improve this situation. A highlight in this context is Switzerland which has a very advanced solution for future UAM traffic management..
10. Lightshows and fireworks – We saw a lot of activity in the drone-show sector, including 104 drones touring with Celine Dion, a Guinness World Record with 3051 drones in China and salutes to frontline COVID-19 workers, among others. Drone entertainment is clearly growing into a profitable business.