Accelerate - September 2014

So, what is everybody droning on about?

open this image in new window: Accelerate Sep 14 - Drone

We look at what a drone is, why they matter to New Zealand and how kiwi companies are already benefitting from this technology.

Taking an innovative idea and turning it into a product ready to sell often calls on several areas of technology.

Take drones as an example. A drone is in effect a miniature remote controlled aircraft which can be either fixed wing or rotating wing like a helicopter. Various devices can then be attached to the UAV ranging from video cameras to thermal sensing devices to a boom for spraying crops.

Designing, building and operating a drone relies on:

  • advanced materials selected for their optimal weight, strength and corrosion characteristics;
  • sensing technologies needed to send out and receive back signals in the relevant electromagnetic wavelength range;
  • the signals require digital processing to convert them to meaningful images or data;
  • control of the drone requires communications technology;
  • expertise in manufacturing processes;
  • standards on where, when and how the drone operates vary by country and must be strictly adhered to when operating the device.

Advances in all these areas of technology, and in the definition of standards, have made the rapid growth in use of drones possible. Technological progress achieved by scientists and engineers in university, institute and industry laboratories have made drones more affordable, easier to build and operate, and readily customised to a growing range of applications.

Recent market research has forecast the economic impact of UAV technology in the USA alone, to be $82 billion dollars by 2025.

The significance of standards and compliance with respect to standards cannot be overlooked. Currently the USA does not allow the commercial use of drones. Although this policy is being re-examined it means that New Zealand has been able to surge ahead with designing products and gaining real world experience with operating them, potentially making our products more competitive for when the US market does open up.

While the use of drones by the US military in the War on Terror is the most widely reported and dramatic use of UAVs, in fact their single biggest application is in agriculture.

UAVs are used to monitor the condition of crops, the impact of droughts or floods, the location of livestock, and requirements for fertilisation and irrigation. By compiling and digitally analysing records from multiple flights and multiple farms over time, new insights can be gained regarding climate change, water resource management, and rates of soil erosion. In New Zealand, with our rugged landscape, UAVs may become an integral part of monitoring our dairy herds and pastures.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s publication, MIT Technology Review, recently ranked agricultural drones as the number one breakthrough technology for 2014 and the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International predicts that 80% of the commercial market for UAVs will eventually be for agricultural uses.

Several New Zealand businesses have now taken the lead in UAV technologies and several of these companies are located in smaller regional communities.

  • Aeronavics is a small business based in Raglan, producing high quality multi-rotor UAV products that are sold around the world for aerial photography, filmmaking and industrial applications.
  • Palmerston North-based Hawkeye UAV have also developed a UAV for farm mapping, pasture measurement, survey and imagery that are now used in nine countries around the world.
  • Tauranga’s GPS-it are using UAVs to map and audit Zespri kiwifruit orchards including monitoring the spread of PSA disease. Use of drones in agriculture illustrates how science and engineering breakthroughs across multiple technologies enable entirely new industries to form and these new high tech products can in turn benefit other industries, including our primary sector. Recent market research has forecast the economic impact of UAV technology in the USA alone, to be $82 billion dollars by 2025.

Recent market research has forecast the economic impact of UAV technology in the USA alone, to be $82 billion dollars by 2025.

Updated: 4 September 2015