New Zealand's commercial drone manufacturers are successfully finding niche markets as the potential for the unmanned flying machines takes off. While unable to compete on price with large Chinese drone makers, several Kiwi companies are finding specialised uses for drones, which are already saving business time and money.
Currently, 70 per cent of commercial drones are used for aerial photography, 8 per cent for power line inspection and 2 per cent for agricultural work, according to information provided by UAVNZ. The industry body's chairman, Andy Grant, said there was "huge" potential for drone use in core New Zealand industries like agriculture, construction and forestry.
For example, Grant's company ASG Technologies has developed a drone capable of carrying out forestry work that would ordinarily take six workers up to an entire day in some six minutes.
Instead of requiring workers to haul 1km of steel rope above felled trees in order for them to be collected, ASG's drone - one of the largest industrial drones in the country -- is able to carry 14kg of rope the entire distance in a single flight. The savings in time and money were, clearly, enormous, Grant said. The drone was currently being used by forestry company Hancock Forest Management.
Drones are also being used to inspect tall buildings and other inaccessible infrastructure, something that had proven extremely useful in the Christchurch rebuild. Farmers, too, could be saving hours and thousands of dollars using drones for spraying, observation, stock management and, potentially, preventing cattle rustling by automatically sending out a drone when an animal is stolen from its paddock.
"The agricultural stuff, when you consider New Zealand, that is really, really low-hanging fruit," said Grant.
New Zealand companies were also looking at the emerging technology of "tethered" drones; aircraft connected to an operating box by a thin wire allowing them to fly for hours, even days. without needing the battery to be charged. Another growing sector was survey work, using drones to produce 3D models accurate to within a few centimetres with the aircraft taking an image every few of seconds. "This technique was used to produce a 3D model of an air accident site and to quickly map the relative location of all of the crashed aircraft parts," Grant said.
The software could also seamlessly stitch together thousands of high-resolution pictures to create images of vast areas.
The real estate industry is already well and truly on board with drones due to their aerial image-taking capabilities. One real estate company had become registered with the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and established an in-house drone operation. "An aerial overview is quickly becoming a required offering in real estate marketing."
Drones, often associated with the United States military, have their sinister side and Grant said his company was working on technology that could be utilised by correctional facilities to disable drones carrying nefarious goods. "If you can imagine a drone that could carry a kilo's payload, and you'd get one of those for about $10,000 these days. You could potentially set that up to launch it autonomously from anywhere in the world with the push of a button and it would fly over a corrections facility and maybe drop a loaded pistol or something in the middle of the yard, or a kilo of drugs. It's a real issue."
Another risk was gangs or criminals using drones to carry out crimes or attack foes without being detected. Grant declined to elaborate on what this drone-disabling technology involved at this time. The next major breakthrough in drone technology would be when drones were allowed to work beyond the line of sight of operators, something that is being trialled in a dedicated drone airspace in Canterbury. "The speed of development in the drone-sector is breath-taking," Grant said. "The drones themselves are almost daily increasing in payload capacity, endurance and range. Their on-board sensors are increasing in sophistication and they are becoming progressively more autonomous." Within 20 to 30 years drones the size of 787 aircraft would come into existence, he said.
There are two major drone manufacturers in this country: Altus Intelligence, which provides drones to American news giant CNN, and Raglan company Aeronavics, which has been successfully creating drones that perform specialist tasks, Grant said. There are also a number of smaller and hobbyist drone makers that regularly come up with new and innovative technologies. New Zealand's regulations around drones use are more relaxed than elsewhere in the world due to updated civil aviation rules introduced in 2015.
"If you could dream it, and prove you could do it safely with a drone, you were allowed to do it," Grant said. To date, the CAA has issued certificates to 92 New Zealand companies to operate drones. Airways New Zealand, the country's air traffic controllers, has also been involved in creating the foundations of a drone traffic management system.
I began my career as a builder and progressed through to the owner of Mojo NZ Ltd. The first drone I owned is to this day lodged in a tree on the West Coast of the South Island of New Zealand. We now provide drones to all industries from toys to racing drones to professional camera drones. This blog is a look at ourselves and the industry in general.