A glance skyward, or at the latest newscast, can make it seem like drones are everywhere. Farmers, pizza chains, building surveyors and even Disney are using these aerial vehicles to give flight to innovations that are making life that much easier.
But this is just the start. Goldman Sachs has predicted a US$100 billion market opportunity for drones between 2016 and 2020, with businesses and civil-governments expected to fuel a large chunk of the demand.
A big part of that includes real estate and construction, with the sectors expected to pump US$265 million and US$11.2 billion respectively into drone technology over the next few years, according to the global investment bank. Their ability to collect real-time images and submit work orders for building managers; carry out digital building walkthroughs for potential investors and tenants; conduct thermal imaging surveys to improve energy efficiency; and monitor construction progress at height, will only gather momentum.
Add to that they will completely reconfigure the way we design cities, releasing buildings from roads because “we’re probably going to be entering buildings from a roof or balcony,” says designer, Paul Priestman in the documentary Elevation.
However, the real game changer with all this is drones’ ability to collect data, says Adrienne Revai, Chief Operating Officer at JLL Australia.
“Drones are our digital eyes in the sky, and with clever software can turn visual data into insights that can help us create and manage places with more precision and efficiency than ever before, and with machine learning, provide solutions,” she says.
Drones make sense when the risk to humans is high, such as physical inspections in an elevator shaft, but the wide use of drones also comes with concerns around privacy, safety, cybersecurity and electronic waste, as outlined in the report Crossing the Threshold, produced by the RICS and corporate sustainability group Morphosis.
“Drones are just one aspect of the digitalization of real estate we are experiencing right now, transforming the way we manage and interact with cities and buildings, and we should embrace it,” Revai says.
Here are four ways the real estate sector, business and governments are embracing the possibilities of drones right now:
Landing pads on London rooftops
Startup company Skyport Drones is amassing a network of London rooftops upon which it will create landing sites for drones.
Known as vertiports – named for the aircraft taking off and landing vertically – they will include facilities for recharging as well as loading and unloading. Vertiports are already in use in Switzerland by drones that carry medical supplies between laboratories and hospitals.
Skysport has negotiated with landlords for the right to some 15 rooftops in London, which it wants to grow to 100 over the next 18 months. Once urban drone flights get the regulatory all-clear, the company expects the sites to be activated within a few years.
London-based architect Barr Gazetas is working on the vertiport designs, with multi-storey car parks, office buildings and railway stations among the buildings that will host the “discreet, secure, environmentally-friendly” facilities. “Air taxis might feel like a futuristic invention, but they will soon be filling our skies," says Jon Eaglesham, Barr Gazetas director.
Photo credit: Barr Gazetas
Drones in China go the extra mile
Chinese online retail giant JD.com, and express delivery company SF Holding, have been sending packages by drone to remote areas that are unfeasible to access by road transport.
JD.com has developed 40 different kinds of drones that can deliver goods on a large scale and address the issue of last-mile delivery, hampered in many cities by limited supply of land for logistics centres, road infrastructure and congestion.
The venture, which leverages China’s regulation, infrastructure, and the world’s biggest e-commerce market, plans to escalate its operations to include large autonomous planes taking off from airports to ferry bulky goods between warehouses, and even cargo loads to distribution centres in rural locations, where 590 million people reside.
Photo credit: JD.com
The drone capital of Australia
In Australia, the Queensland Government has removed a major policy barrier to the mainstream application of drones with a long-term strategy aimed at supporting advancements.
The vision will ensure Queensland “is best positioned to make the most of drone technology and application, and has the agility to address new opportunities and challenges as they emerge,” the government says.
Part of its strategy is to inspect government-owned assets with drones. “It’s cheaper, safer, more efficient and accurate to send up a drone rather than a crew,” Adam Beck, executive director of the Smart Cities Council Australia New Zealand, tells the Property Council of Australia.
“A drone’s camera can capture the condition of a building. We can then plug that video into artificial intelligence to run through analytics and algorithms. Machine learning can build up patterns of recognition, which means the drone can automatically identify issues and opportunities,” he says.
Photo credit: Carles Rabada, Unsplash
Street works are a frequent frustration for people living in urban environments around the world, but an initiative in the UK aims to use robots to banish the pain by 2050. The Self-Repairing Cities initiative – lead by UK universities Leeds, University College London, Birmingham and Southampton – will design robots to identify, diagnose and repair street-works using three methods.
First is “Perch and Repair,” whereby drones will perform repair tasks such as fixing street lights. Second is “Perceive and Patch,” with swarms of flying vehicles carrying out autonomous inspections, diagnostics, and repair, or even preventing highway defects such as potholes using drones mounted with 3D printers to identify and fill cracks in roads before they expand.
Third is “Fire and Forget”: hybrid robots will be designed to operate indefinitely within live utility pipes, performing inspection, repair, metering and reporting tasks.
With this project Leeds City Council aims to be the first city in the world that is fully maintained autonomously by 2035.
Photo credit: University of Leeds