2016 was a big year for drone technology. On average, sales of drone units grew by an amazing 60% – with nearly 2.3 million drones being shipped overall. The momentum of growth is set to grow stronger over the next few years – and Gartner has predicted that the worldwide drone market will become a $11 billion+ industry by the end of 2020 (nearly double of the $6 billion figure estimated for 2017). Compared to 2016, drone production will witness a ~40% jump this year, and more than 3 million units are expected to be manufactured. During the 2016-2020 period, the CAGR of the consumer drone market will be 23.4% – suggesting significant growth. In today’s discussion, we will put the spotlight on some key trends from the drone industry in 2017:
Drones with sensing capabilities
Drones were firmly in focus at CES 2017, where the latest evolutions in the technology were highlighted. Collision avoidance was something that was specifically highlighted – and a series of new unmanned aerial vehicles (or UAVs), with additional redundancy, have hit the markets. Artificial intelligence (AI) and computer vision ensure that these drones can keep functioning even when their default ‘vision system’ fails – thanks to the extra sensory capabilities. In this context, the Inspire 2 drone (a cinema drone) from DJI and the Yuneec Typhoon H drone warrant a special mention. While the former uses state-of-the-art infrared sensors to minimize risks of collisions, the latter eases navigation by creating 3D maps of its paths – with the help of the RealSense 3D camera technology. Drones are becoming smarter than ever before – and automation standards are improving fast.
Drone mapping on cheaper units
As drone technology has evolved, the average cost of units on which drone mapping is done has been going down. In 2017, nearly 85% of all mapping will take place on units that have a sub-$1500 price tag. Quadcopter drones are particularly popular for mapping purposes (in applications related to oil, gas, agriculture, etc.) – while the usage of fixed-wing drones in this domain has gone down to a measly 3%. The recent advancements in the technology have provided greater battery-life and better hardware assurance on multi-rotor drones – and that has resulted in them finding widespread adoption for drone mapping.
The ‘Selfie Drone’ market is upon us
Only time will tell whether this is a passing fad or not – but for the moment, ‘selfie drones’ (small, portable, lightweight models) are definitely a rage. At the CES 2017, multiple new selfie drones were exhibited – like the Wingsland S6, the Dobby S and the Hover Camera Passport. In essence, these models lie midway between full-fledged consumer drone units and tech toys. Over the last 2-3 quarters, several new companies have started making ‘selfie drones’ – in a bid to boost sales figures.
Note: While the ‘selfie drones’ do have impressive features (the imaging quality is a big ‘yay’), they do not have 4K image stabilization. Unless new models with this feature arrive soon, these drones might just run out of steam.
4. Rapidly overlapping markets for personal and commercial drones
There are clear-cut differences between consumer drones and industrial/commercial drones. The former typically have much shorter flight-times (generally, less than 60 minutes) than their commercial counterparts – and also have a much wider target market than the latter. However, commercial drones are more expensive than personal drones (generally priced below $5000). However, in spite of these clear-cut difference – the markets of these drones are getting overlapped. Many vendors of consumer drones are working on low-priced models – and trying to enter the commercial drone market with these products. Given that personal drones are increasingly being modified into 3D mapping tools and surveillance devices – expect the line of difference between consumer and commercial models to get blurred even more in 2017 and beyond.
5. DJI to consolidate its position as market leader
Chinese company DJI has firmly established itself as the leader in the global drone industry. In the next couple of quarters or so, it is expected to consolidate its position of dominance further (SenseFly is one of its competitors, but is still a long way off). According to a Skylogic Research report, DJI holds pole position in the $500-$1000 camera drone market – with a staggering 36% share. The sheer level of dominance becomes all the more clear as we move to the $2000-$4000 and the $1000-$2000 markets in North America, in which DJI holds 68% and 67% market-shares respectively. In fact, DJI does not have a strong presence only in the sub-$500 toy drone segment. Smart pricing policies, an excellent R&D team (with more than 1500 people) and excellent strategic partnerships (for instance, the one with Sony) have all contributed to boost the performance of DJI.
6. Drones for smart cities
Drones are currently in active use in 160-odd countries across the globe. With IoT advancements fueling the development of smart cities, the unmanned aerial vehicles have important roles to play in this sector. Right from smart traffic management, accident reporting, and seamless cellular/GPS connectivity, to autonomous navigation, predictive maintenance (in construction sites) and other civic technology-related tasks – everything can be performed with drones. In the next 3 years or so, drones will start to be widely be used for tasks that are either too monotonous or too dangerous for human beings. In the global ‘smart city revolution’, the importance of high-performance drones simply cannot be overemphasized.
7. Generation of more job-opportunities
Obviously, as drone pilots. While the implementation of artificial intelligence has slightly brought down the required skill levels of pilots (i.e., by lowering the barrier to entry) – there has been a surge in the number of registered drone pilots worldwide. Last December, there were as many as 29000 registered pilots of commercial drones – and by 2021, close to 421000 drone pilots will be licensed. On average, more than 2000 registrations are submitted everyday. As a result of the increase in job opportunities as a result of the ‘drone revolution’, economies and entrepreneurs have benefitted in a big way.
Note: The average earning potential of drones used for mapping purposes is $168 per hour. This is significantly higher (~17%) than drones used solely for aerial photography and video services.
Adoption in different industries
According to a recent PwC report, commercial drone applications will be worth $125 billion globally, by the end of this decade. In 2017, the construction industry remains the biggest user of drone applications, with agriculture, surveillance and governmental activities taking up the next spots. Use of customized, smart drones is also increasing in the insurance, education, and fuel-refining (oil/gas) sectors. Many day-to-day activities are being done with the help of drones – and industry operations in all of these sectors are becoming more agile.
Note: The DroneDeploy app market was launched in November 2016. Within the first six months, the total number of app installations from this market (with 30+ apps) has gone beyond the 22000 mark.
China at the fore
An important factor behind the overwhelming market domination of DJI is the leadership position of China in drone-making. Close to 46% of all drone units in use in the United States are sourced from China – and experts feel that this percentage will rise further in 2017 and later. The expertise of Chinese companies were pretty much apparent at CES 2017 too, where several manufacturers from the country (ProDrone, Autel Robotics, Hexo, etc.) participated as exhibitors. The possibility of mass creation of drone clones is a risk, however.
Hype over delivery drones to taper off
Since the early stages of the ‘drone revolution’, there have been lots of interest and hype over delivery drones (i.e., drones that are used for package transportations). However, logistics-related problems are affecting the performance of these drones – and as per reliable estimates, these delivery drones will occupy less than 1% of the commercial drone market. Not all is doom and gloom for these drones though – since they are likely to find more usage for B2B services, where logistics is not a major point of concern.
Note: Industrial applications are expected to take up around one-third of the commercial drone market.
11. Security considerations and insurance
For any smart device or gadget, security is a big issue – and drones are not an exception to this either. With drone technology getting more and more advanced and usage of drones expanding to a myriad of fields, users are increasingly becoming more aware of the security features in drone units. While security standards are already available, the big challenge lies in implementing them on drones in the best possible manner. Since the release of the Part 107 waivers by FAA (Federal Aviation Administration), the demand for proper insurance provisions in commercial drone contracts is also going up – since risk-awareness levels are now at an all-time high. The FAA has made sure that every operator now has a fair idea of the legal regulations of using drones.
12. Personal drones to dominate in terms of unit sales
By the end of 2017, there will be around 175000 commercial drones and 2.8 million personal drones in use (the YoY growth will be 60% and 40% respectively). Close to 95% of the overall sales will be made up by personal drones, with commercial units accounting for the rest. However, the commercial drone units (which, incidentally, represent only around 6% of the total number of drones) will have the upper hand in terms of revenue-generation. Hobbyist drones, on the other hand, will also grow rapidly – with over 3.3 million units estimated to be present in 2020.
There is considerable excitement at present over racing drones as well – with models like the Connex Falcore and the UVify Draco (with first-person view, or FPV) taking fly-racing to the next level. Manufacturers are constantly trying to enhance the quality of images and videos that can be captured by drones – and over the next couple of years, 4K video recording on drones is likely to become mainstream. Modular drones are also set to grow in popularity, while we should also see greater implementations of virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) on drones (e,g., for virtual tours of construction sites, or in rescue missions at remote locations). Drone technology is here to stay – and it will grow more powerful and multi-layered in future.