The market of small unmanned aerial systems (sUAS), commonly known as drones, continues to grow, and global technology intelligence firm ABI Research predicts total worldwide shipments of sUAS ecosystems to reach 3 million by 2025, increasing at a 25% compound annual growth rate (CAGR). COVID-19 has driven the need for more human-drone collaboration. At the same time, the maturity of drone hardware and complementary technology such as 5G allows more countries to relax their drone regulations and build up their domestic drone supply chain due to heightened techno-geopolitics disputes.
“Even though COVID-19 had a significant negative impact on the drone industry and worldwide consumer sales have decreased markedly, shipments for civil and commercial use cases have been growing. Moreover, the end of restrictions in most places, except in China and some Asian countries, has accelerated sUAS adoption,” explains David Lobina, Industrial, Collaborative, and Commercial Robotics Analyst at ABI Research. “The demand for drones has never been higher before in various use cases, such as aerial data collection, infrastructure inspection, disaster response, network assurance, and last-mile delivery.”
Zipline is helping authorities deliver COVID-19 vaccines in Ghana and Nigeria, with a plan to expand medical supplies delivery service into Japan. In addition, employees of large industrial companies are using drones with the help of service providers, such as DroneBase, DroneDeploy, and PrecisionHawk to scan and monitor valuable assets, such as farms and plantations, solar panels, wind turbines, base stations, and commercial towers. “In recent years, the emergence of drone service providers aims to provide dedicated solutions for specific applications, helping end users to learn, adopt, and deploy drones in their daily workflow seamlessly,” says Lobina.
5G is another critical factor that will spur the growth of drone adoption. Qualcomm, a key 5G chipset vendor, launched the Flight RB5 platform in August 2021, bringing down the barrier to developing 5G-connected drones. While most recent 5G applications focus on Ultra-Reliable Low Latency Communications (URLLC), 5G is expected to provide edge Artificial Intelligence (AI), integration with satellite communication, inter-robot mesh or swarm communications, and most importantly, support for Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS). In January 2022, the Northeast UAS Airspace Integration Research Alliance (NUAIR) and the New York UAS Test Site received authority from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to test and fly drones BVLOS across 35 miles of airspace within the New York Drone Corridor. At the same time, Verizon Robotics, the robotics arm of the U.S. 5G telecommunication service provider, has developed software that integrates drones into the U.S. National Airspace System, helping drones can operate safely and seamlessly together.
The drone industry, unfortunately, is not spared from geopolitics, in particular Sino-U.S. trade disputes. While DJI will continue to dominate the commercial sUAS market and remain the largest manufacturer globally, advanced economies are increasingly concerned with the dominance of Chinese vendors in their technology supply chains. As a result, they are eager to develop domestic chains to reduce their reliance on Chinese vendors. “Japan is actively building its drone supply chain, with large vendors such as Sony leading the charge. In addition, India looks to become a global drone hub by 2030. It is expected that more hardware vendors will emerge in the next few years with strong government backing.” Lobina concludes.