Widely referred to by the public as drones, unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) are piloted remotely on the ground via control stations. They are also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) and remotely piloted aerial systems (RPAS), to name a few of the most common terms.
UAS can range in size from micro surveillance vehicles that can fit in the palm of the hand to the RQ-4 Global Hawk, a 7.5 ton jet-engine powered aircraft capable of flying 30+ hours non-stop. This article will refer to these vehicles (singular or plural) as UAS.
UAS technology was rooted first in military development, remote tracking and reconnaissance applications. The first drones, unmanned balloons loaded with explosives and sent with the prevailing winds toward enemy targets, were in use around 1860.
Civilian UAS applications have grown exponentially in the last few years, especially the small (less than 3 lbs.) units that cost from $500 to $2,000.
So popular have UAS become that the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) projects that by the end of 2016 there will be over 600,000 UAS deployed in the US for commercial use, quite a number considering that there are only 204,408 active general aviation (GA) manned vehicles in use. By 2020, there will be 2.7 million commercial UAS – over 10 times the number of manned aircraft in the skies today (see table).
The UAS industry is the most dynamic growth sector of the global aerospace industry. Hard numbers can be difficult to come by but growth projections are significant. The Association for Unmanned Vehicles International (AUVSI), the largest trade group around UAS, estimates that by 2019 more than 70,000 jobs will be created in the US with an economic impact of more than $13.6bn. Meanwhile, a third of UAS manufacturing occurs in Europe. In France the number of approved operators increased by over 400% between December 2012 (86) and February 2014 (431) while Sweden and the UK have issued more than 200 operators’ licenses each in recent years (1).
Globally, UAS market volume is expected to reach 4.7 million units by 2020 (2), although other forecasts predict an even higher number. UAS spending is expected to double over the next decade to $11.6bn worldwide, totaling just over $89bn in the next 10 years (3). In addition it is estimated that the global market for commercial applications of UAS technology will soar to around $127bn by 2020 compared with $2bn today (4). Clearly, the unmanned vehicle market is a burgeoning one, demanding the attention of companies wishing to put them to commercial use, government agencies wanting to regulate them and insurers seeing the need to mitigate their inherent risks with coverage solutions.
(1) RPAS – Frequently Asked Questions, European Commission, April 2014
(2) Unmanned Aerial Vehicles Market, By Value and Volume Analysis and Forecast 2015-2020 – Research and Markets
(3) Teal Group Corporation
(4) Drones will take $127bn worth of human work by 2020, PwC says – The Independent, Clarity from above – PricewaterhouseCoopers
Different uses of UAS
Although UAS have been used for years, it is only today that they are coming into their own in a commercial sense. Typically, UAS work best and are most often deployed conducting dull, dirty or dangerous work that companies do not want to invest an employee to complete – risk assessment and maintenance of infrastructure such as inspections of roofs and bridges, for example.
Top 5 UAS markets (by industry)
(Click to enlarge)
Graphic in German
UAS can be easier to use, have a lower barrier to entry and are a relatively safe and inexpensive way to take “a view from above” compared with other solutions. For example, utilizing UAS can be 17 times faster than traditional inspections (1) with some having the ability to take 1,000 aerial photos in just 15 minutes, delivered to assessment teams as a geo-referenced map.
“UAS in commercial use will increase greatly in the next decade because they’re effective at carrying out menial or dangerous tasks,” says Thomas Kriesmann, Senior Underwriter General Aviation, AGCS. They are cheaper and can replace dangerous working conditions, while supplying a convenient wide-area perspective of hard-to-reach places like swamps or mines. They can be used to survey crops, patrol borders, provide reconnaissance for search and rescue missions, report on traffic patterns or news stories, survey wildlife, patrol pipelines, provide an advance warning system for ice breakers, survey oil spills, enforce environmental law, regulate fisheries, shoot footage for movies and provide disaster relief.
Commercial UAS usage continues to increase and evolve: The freight company DHL piloted a test case in Germany to deliver emergency supplies and medicine from the mainland to the island of Juist in the East Frisian Islands. The first successful US pilot program of a “ship to shore” UAS delivery of medical supplies was recently carried out on the New Jersey coastline.
A similar research project has perfected a UAS “parcelcopter” for use in the Bavarian Alps. In Singapore, Airbus Helicopters and the Civil Aviation Authority are working to perfect a package delivery system in urban areas, while Amazon will conduct similar trials in partnership with the government in the UK. In Brazil, UAS are used as monitoring tools to prevent the exploitation of slave labor in agricultural areas, while in Africa there are plans to use them to deliver blood and vaccines to remote areas, potentially saving thousands of lives a year. Even the pizza maker, Dominos, is piloting a pizza delivery scheme in Germany, while convenience store 7-Eleven recently delivered coffee and a chicken sandwich to a family in Reno, Nevada, in the US.
“Use of UAS and UAS technology will cross further boundaries in the years to come,” says Kriesmann. “Perhaps, we may even see their use extended to other forms of driverless vehicles, and even flying cars, as technology develops and converges.”
Shorter term, insurers, such as Allianz, are also utilizing UAS. Both underwriting and claims management can be made quicker and more effective by using such systems to assess risk and survey loss damage. For example, when parts of Tianjin, China were rendered inaccessible after major explosions last year, high resolution images taken by UAS after the blasts were compared with previous photographs to determine how many vehicles had been destroyed. Similarly, in the event of a flood, UAS can provide the insurer with a visual overview, helping it to quickly alleviate damage and distress to victims and property.
(1) On average building inspection times are 60 hours for onsite test engineers, as opposed to 3.5 hours for drone inspection (based on research estimate for 20 x 80 m wide façade building,) Source: Fairfleet.
(2) FAA Aerospace Forecast FY2016-2036