From monitoring wild animals to inspecting gas pipelines, drone technology has gone from the stuff of science fiction to multiple real-world applications in the space of just a few years.

Commercial drones, or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), are changing the way companies operate. Not only can these versatile flyers get to places that are inaccessible or hazardous to humans, but they also have the capacity to increase productivity, improve operational efficiencies and planning, and harvest a wealth of real-time data that would otherwise be lost.

As part of its work helping businesses embrace the fourth industrial revolution, Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) has been driving drone technology for some time. And it has developed industry-specific solutions to boost operations in fields that include transportation, oil and gas, telecommunications, warehousing, and forestry.

High flyers

Originally developed for military applications, drones entered the commercial world as a tool for the entertainment industry to take aerial footage of sporting and entertainment events. From taking videos of crowds and news coverage, the technology has seen further adoption by the agricultural sector, which uses it to monitor crop health and check for signs of pest infestation.

Advances in microchip and battery development have miniaturized drones in recent years, facilitating trimmer, lighter models that have more functionality and are capable of longer flight times. From simple observation and recording functions, drones have grown in sophistication and today’s engineers are taking development to a new level.

Change is in store

Planning and operations are a primary driver of commercial drone activity.  Developments like the TCS Drone Warehouse Inventory Reconciliation Solution are changing the way warehouse and logistics facilities operate, for example.

Mahesh Rangarajan, Platforms and Enterprise Architect and head of Drones Incubation Program at TCS, explains how manual stock control has become a thing of the past. “It is no longer necessary for an entire team of warehouse employees to spend time manually checking inventory levels, often using a forklift to retrieve pallets from high shelves to be hand scanned and stowed back in place.”

“Instead, an automated drone can quickly visit each stock location, however inaccessible, and record inventory data. With a human operator monitoring progress in real-time, a drone can dramatically increase productivity, integrate with stock systems, conduct more frequent inventory checks and improve count accuracy by eliminating human error.”

Reaching new heights

As well as repetitive tasks performed inside buildings, drones can also use their aerial advantage to map and survey landscapes.

For example, Rangarajan explains how TCS is working with forestry partners in the Nordics to map millions of hectares of forest to create a digital map of the area, identifying the species, height and GPS coordinates of each tree. These digital maps and surveys can be extended to numerous other applications, such as monitoring animal life within the forest.

Safety check

Companies that depend on a heavy and geographically distributed infrastructure to operate have also embraced the advantages of drone technology.

UAVs provide an efficient and hazard-free way for telecommunications companies to safely inspect signal masts; power generating companies to assess wind turbines; or for oil and gas companies to check pipelines that stretch across miles of terrain.

Unmanned automated drone inspections require little manpower and avoid the need to put human inspectors in potentially dangerous situations.

Future generations of AI-enabled drones will become increasingly intelligent and capable of longer and longer flight times. But once unmanned flying vehicles leave the operator’s line of sight, some form of traffic management will be necessary. With more units taking to the skies, commercial operators will be required to log launch locations, flight plans and destination information with the drone equivalent of an air traffic control system – the UAV Traffic Management System.

Busy bees

While drones are currently capable of looking but not touching, engineers are working hard to build physical capabilities into future machines.

The same advances that enable robots to perform routine maintenance tasks at ground level are being applied to next-generation drones. But while flying devices fitted with robotic arms are still some way off, researchers are working on intelligent drones capable of integrating with robots on the ground.

“Autonomous Ground Vehicles (AGVs) could provide mobile recharging points for AI-enabled airborne drones, or act as a centralized ground station to receive and process information collected by several drones operating over a wide range,” Rangarajan explains.

TCS are currently working on developing swarms of drones, capable of attacking a workload in force. Instead of one drone mapping 100 hectares of land, a swarm of 10 units working in unison could complete the task in a fraction of the time.

Although much has been achieved in the field of drone technology, the discipline is still in its infancy.

Developments to date have brought beneficial change to several business models, but one thing is certain: the work of drones is far from finished.