Drones, those flying connected robots: initiatives, applications and opportunities.

January 2016.- We often see drones as a toy but, as the State Agency for Aerial Security states, a drone is not a toy but an aerial vehicle. Drones occupy air space and this has many connotations regarding user responsibility. They cannot fly over 120 metres high, nor fly over built up areas, you must not lose visual contact with the device and they cannot fly over sensitive areas (airports, stadiums, etc.). For devices weighing over 2 kilos, one must hold a pilot’s license similar to that required for small aircraft. In the USA, furthermore, since January 2015, they must be registered with the Federal Aviation Authorities. Legislation, once again, lags behind technological advances.

An ongoing revolution

However, over and above regulations and the generally accepted leisure uses, such as filming and creating audio-visual content (Youtube is full of videos shot from drones), we must start to accept that we are facing a technological evolution that goes hand in hand with breakthroughs in robotics and the Internet of Things over recent years. Drones are flying connected robots and their professional applications open up many opportunities in generating new technology and employment. Smart services associated with drones will be, above all, those that add value and benefits to our economy.

Current applications of drones can be divided into two areas: information capture and transport.

Information capture

Information capture with drones is increasing as the range of usable sensors grows, as well as the capacity to interpret the captured information. There are already highly satisfactory experiences in analysing air quality, in performing precision agriculture by knowing the exact irrigation of each plant, in checking the condition of monuments or high voltage power lines, and in performing cartographic projects and urban demarcations.

Given that drones were originally developed for military uses, their application in civil areas is widespread in security: from support use in special operations, target tracking or any kind of crowd counting (concerts, demonstrations, beaches, etc.). This also applies to other emergency services such as fire services, civil protection, where they can access hard to get to areas, in the case of forest fires, for example.

Transport

The activity of transport of objects and goods is still being tested. In recent months, major ecommerce firms have announced that they are studying how to substitute traditional messenger services with drones that would take packages straight to people’s homes. Even though this will be technologically possible quite soon, the aerial chaos and security issues are considerable and therefore this won’t be with us any time soon. It would more reasonable to assume that they will be used to reach villages in remote areas, as is being studied in the Himalayas for example, or to help injured people in rescue operations, something under study in Eurecat with the fascinating European Icarus project.

Business Initiatives in Catalonia

In Catalonia there are firms already developing all these applications. Furthermore, there are noteworthy and state-of-the-art projects in the EU in the drone sector. 

On a private level, it is worth mentioning the BCN Drone Center, which has become one of the most respected firms in terms of professional services and training. 

On a public level, the Catalunya SmartDrones projects stands out. Promoted by the Government of Catalonia, it aims to promote and give visibility to the existing ecosystem of companies and professionals dedicated to smart applications for drones. 

The Lleida Drone association is made up of professionals, enthusiasts and companies from the sector, connected to Lleida’s Science and Technology Park, and exists to develop joint projects and hold educational sessions. 

Outside Catalonia the initiative started by the Government of Galicia is worthy of mention: to create a drone industry in Galicia via dedicated commitment to research and innovative public purchasing.

Future Challenges

Drones will face many challenges in the future. Technological challenges such as battery improvement or miniaturisation of sensors are less cause for concern, as military industry has a head-start of years (or decades) and this will be progressively reflected in civil usage. However, what is more worrying is the slowness in solving the legal and air space security challenges, as well as the concerns about individual privacy and radio frequency space (where drones also are an issue).


Lleida Drone develops tech projects and organizes conferences and events.

Lleida Drone develops tech projects and organizes conferences and events.

A public initiative

Drone Working Group

There is a Drone Working Group in Catalonia, reuniting the key players connected to the drone sector and is, with the support of the Catalan Government, committed to a long-term strategy in this area. The goals are boosting research and innovation, coordinating the collaboration between the different players, giving support in legal issues and, in general preparing Catalan companies to play a leading role in this sector.

Expression of the Year

In the second edition of the competition The Word of the Year, organised by the Institute of Catalan Studies and the Pompeu Fabra University Observatory of Neologisms, the word drone was chosen by popular vote as the word of 2015. The Institute of Catalan Studies must now decide if this word, which in English originally refers to a male bee, can be included in the standard Catalan dictionary.

Regulation

The Spanish Government approved the Royal Decree-Law 8/2014 as the first sectorial regulation and has limited the operation and use of drones exclusively to non-controlled air-space and over unpopulated areas.

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