As social distancing and lockdown become the new normal, the world (authorities and enterprises) is looking for a “no-touch” medium for businesses and day-to-day operations. The drone has shown a lot of promise for fulfilling and running these operations with minimal risk, and drone usage has been steadily increasing in the fight against COVID-19. New use cases have been implemented to serve various problems authorities face. In this PoV, we highlight the drones’ potential in the fight against COVID-19, including examples of how it has already been helpful in the fight against this pandemic. Some of these use cases will also become mainstream post-COVID-19, so this PoV can act as a guideline for technology companies and service providers to prioritize drone use cases and invest accordingly.
COVID-19 has accelerated the adoption of drone use cases
HFS is exploring how emerging technologies are helping this pandemic. In our last PoV, we discussed how IoT could become the backbone of the future to fight against the pandemic. Drone use cases have previously been used in the defense, agriculture, oil and gas, agriculture, and entertainment industries. COVID-19 has provided an opportunity for a surge in drone applications and use cases.
Drone use cases have shown benefits in surveillance, disaster management, and delivery services. Until recently, many viewed drones as a technology that is still in an early developmental stage with limited-scale programs due to both technology and regulatory roadblocks. But COVID-19 is bringing out innovative drone use cases, as described in Exhibit 1. As COVID-19 demands social distancing, a drone can act as a mode of transport and communication, requiring limited human-to-human interaction. Countries all over the world have been using drones in several innovative ways.
Exhibit 1: COVID-19 is showing the immense potential of drone use cases across sectors
• Monitoring temperature
• Identifying people with symptoms of infectious respiratory diseases
University of South Australia researchers have developed a new “pandemic drone” that can remotely detect people with infectious respiratory conditions such as COVID-19 in crowds.
• Disinfecting public spaces
Spain’s military is using DJI agricultural drones to spray disinfectant in the fight against COVID-19.
• Delivering medicine, food, and medical samples and equipment
• Alphabet’s delivery-by-drone surge to stay-at-home customers
• Antwork has transported medical samples and quarantine materials between Xinchang County People’s Hospital, Xinchang County disease control center, and the Dashiju branch of Xinchang County People’s Hospital.
• Enforcing social distancing rules
Spanish authorities are using drones, mounted with microphones, to scold people who aren’t self-quarantining.
• Broadcasting messages and information
Authorities are using drones to broadcast messages and information about lockdown measures. These are especially useful in rural areas that lack proper communication channels.
• Surveying and inspecting infrastructure or accessing conditional requirements
In Wuhan, lighting drones were used when two large temporary hospitals had to be built in a matter of days as the city ran out of beds in the hospitals.
Source: HFS Research, 2020
COVID-19 also enabled new product development in this segment. For example, Digital Aerolus launched a new indoor drone for disinfecting businesses, indicating the scope of new business opportunity for technology companies as this type of use case will receive wider acceptance post COVID-19. Chennai startup Garuda Aerospace to combat COVID-19 by using drones to disinfect 26 cities. Another Start-up Marut Dronetech have partnered with state governments to test the use of drones to monitor adherence to social distancing rule.
As of stats in India due to Covid-19, the adoption of drones in India has gone up by nearly 200%. There have been more than 3000 drone pilots operating related to Covid-19 response.
Do not forget the other supporting technologies and compliances to formulate drone solutions
Drones are a combination of several components, such as sensors and cameras, and they rely on several technologies, including artificial intelligence and machine learning, to process the output (particularly through image processing techniques). Navigation is also a critical component of drone operation. Technology providers need to prioritize the scope of partnership and in-house development to develop drone use case solutions. Typically, there are specialized hardware component providers (sensors, cameras, battery management) and drone manufacturers (DJI, EHANG) in the market, so technology companies can focus on enhanced image processing techniques and navigation software (controlling, route mapping) to differentiate.
There are strict guidelines, such as altitude and location, about drone operations in several countries, which can hamper progress. Though some locales have relaxed these rules during the pandemic, expect that they will be re-implemented in the future and that drone applications will need to follow the guidelines strictly. Battery management is another critical aspect because it determines the total flight time in a single take-off. We expect several improvements across drone hardware components, including lightweight materials, powerful cameras, and sensors.
The Bottom Line: Technology companies must pursue the new business opportunities of drone use cases post-COVID era.
Though drone applications have been present in the market for quite a long time, most focus has been on defense applications. We believe COVID-19 has provided the much-needed boost to this segment to consider drone applications with seriousness. The pandemic created an opportunity that spawned previously unimagined drone use cases. Technology companies and their partner ecosystems need to prioritize these applications and build technology to target this space.