We recently caught up with Graham Brown, CEO of drone trade body ARPAS, to talk about the future of commercial drones, the acceptance of their benefits in the business world and what ARPAS is doing to ‘normalise’ their presence in all our lives.
Sometimes it takes an outsider to recognise the opportunity in a market and, more importantly, help realise that opportunity.
Drones tend to be viewed in the extremes – either as a hobby toy or as military hardware. And while they are both, they are increasingly making their presence felt in the commercial world. While these inroads are more like footpaths (relative to the opportunity) the commercial application of drone technology is growing all the time, supported by the Association of Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (ARPAS).
Headed up by industry-outsider Graham Brown, ARPAS is the non-profit professional body and trade association for the commercial drone market, focusing its energies on raising awareness of drones in business and engaging with regulators and Government to create the necessary physical and regulatory infrastructure to allow them to flourish.
While his professional background is in finance and technology rather than the drone community, Graham has become a rapid and keen convert.
“ARPAS is the not for profit trade association looking after the drone economy and ecosystem and when I joined, they were looking for someone who would be completely unbiased and work with all sectors of the market and Government,” says Graham.
His business background and his collaborative approach puts Graham in an excellent position to take a practical (but passionate) view of the role drones will play in all our lives.
“Drones are tools in the commercial world, and they happen to be very flexible. But one of the main reasons I believe every business should look at them is that if you have people working at height, or people working in hazardous environments, you have a responsibility to consider using a drone.”
“If you had someone working for you who fell from a height, injuring themselves or worse, and a drone could have done that job …” He drifts off letting the sentiment speak for itself.
“In most use cases drones will be safer, faster, cheaper, and often greener than the current alternatives”
For Graham, it is a no-brainer that businesses of all shapes and sizes, up and down the country, should be exploring the use of drones, particularly where workers are at height or in a hazardous environment. The question needs to be asked “Can that task be achieved by a drone and avoid the risk of working at height?” For many inspection tasks, the answer will be yes.
In most use cases drones will be safer, faster, cheaper, and often greener than the current alternatives. Beyond the obvious safety benefits, he says there are four key areas where drones are being or will be used extensively over the coming years.
“The number one use today is in data capture, using drones in surveys and inspections to collect all the necessary information,” he says.
“This includes their extensive use in construction, civil engineering, oil and gas, utilities, news reporting, media and film. The list is nearly endless and already impacts our lives, but we are still only at the start of the journey.”
The second area is the transportation of people via air taxis and buses.
“This is often referred to as Urban Air Mobility (UAM) and the intention will be to have services covering local and regional transport that deliver a greener alternative to current options. This won’t happen overnight, but it will happen,” says Graham.
The third area is freight – everything from large unmanned cargo planes to packages being delivered locally to customers and there have been trials of delivering everything from food to vital health supplies around the world. The UK has some of the busiest airspace in the world so ensuring these activities are carried out safely will take some time but again, but Graham is confident it will happen.
The fourth, and most exciting area, is ‘drones that do’. By this Graham means drones that perform a specific task beyond flight such as washing the windows of a high-rise office block or spraying crops in a much more selective, precise manner.
“Think of flying robots that can perform tasks. Those examples are simple but this area will expand as innovation kicks in,” he says.
“We are pushing some boundaries but the key thing we need to focus on is influencing the regulations and legislation”
And it seems that it is not only Graham who is getting excited by the possibilities here. Leeds University has experimented using 3D printers and drones to locate and make small repairs and Michigan State University has tested using a drone to find and replace damaged roof shingles and autonomously make repairs.
“There will be things we haven’t thought of yet, but it is the mix of drones and robotics that will create the market of drones that do,” he says.
But regardless of how drones are currently used or will be in the future, there is, Graham says, one constant: “Drones are faster, safer and cheaper, and often greener.”
His conviction that drones will become an integral part of our everyday lives is persuasive, but it does beg the question as to why we are still waiting for it to become a reality.
The reason for the delay is pretty much why ARPAS exists.
“We are pushing some boundaries but the key thing we need to focus on is influencing the regulations and legislation to focus on the imperatives for the use of drones in the future.
“We have to build some of the wider infrastructure before we can safely have thousands of drones out there. It is about building systems to monitor their use and if we don’t want to be behind the curve, we need to get some of that in place now, with dedicated test areas and proper funding,” he says.
“We are at the very start of the curve with a lot of companies using drones, but they are not using them everywhere”
He says that by engaging with the CAA and Government, ARPAS is helping to establish an environment in which drones can thrive.
“We are getting behind drones but in a way that makes sure their adoption is done in a safe way and where public sentiment is supportive,” he says.
But even if the correct, safe environment is established, businesses themselves have to be convinced of their merits. While various organisations from insurers and construction firms to local authorities and police forces have started using drone technology, it is not yet pervasive. And this, according to Graham, presents a challenge.
“Business buy-in is crucial,” he says, explaining that some still view drones as a toy rather than a business tool.
“The whole appreciation of safer, faster, cheaper hasn’t quite penetrated. We are at the very start of the curve with a lot of companies using drones, but they are not using them everywhere,” he says.
“There are some exceptions, but for most businesses, they are getting some but not all of the benefits.”
He points out that while they are being used effectively by many companies, the emergency services and search and rescue organisations, until the capabilities are integrated across the whole operation, the full benefits will not be realised.
For example, some insurers are using drones in claims, but they are not currently using them in building surveys, a use that also has applications beyond the insurance industry.
“Maintenance teams are usually reactive but by deploying drones, across all the assets they manage, they could get all the external surveys done and analyse the data.
“The comparison between past and current images and data can be reviewed and the exceptions rather than the whole asset base would be the target of preventative maintenance to help drive efficiencies. I appreciate this is a simplified view of the activity, but I hope it makes the point. Opportunities exist for change to deliver safer, faster and cheaper ways of working,” he says.
He adds that it is not until we achieve the extensive use of drones, that we can say we are properly using them.
While Graham and ARPAS relish the challenge of creating the physical and cultural environment that will allow drones to thrive, there is an awareness that the destiny of drones is not entirely in their hands.
“This is not one sector’s problem on its own. To get to the point where drones are used throughout industry, everyone needs to get together to drive this,” says Graham.