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Drones are small flying robots which have, till recently, been used either as cheap toys or as expensive weapons. They were either small, spider-like devices that could sometimes be seen flying around in parks or on beaches, or large military planes that dealt with shooting down terrorists, allowing operators in Nevada to fire missiles at terrorist suspects in Afghanistan and Pakistan. But what is perhaps not widely known is that drones have been used for widely differing – and startling purposes; from starting a riot at a football match, uncovering a hitherto unknown monument in the deserts of Jordan, performing at the Super Bowl in the USA, smuggling drugs and mobile phones into prisons as well as in herding elephants in Tanzania. These astonishing ranges of activities have all been accomplished by drones in the recent past.
Drones, as cheap toys, are the largest category by far with sales of over 2 million around the world in 2016. The second category, military drones, account for the vast majority (nearly 90%) of worldwide spending on drones. Drones were previously regarded as either cheap toys or large expensive weapons but now companies are coming out with interesting commercial uses for this flying robot. According to Gartner, a consultancy, around 110,000 drones (technically known as unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs) were sold for commercial use in 2017. That figure is expected to rise to 174,000 in 2018 and the number of consumer drones (used as toys) to 2.8 million units. Although unit sales of commercial drones are much smaller, total revenues from them are nearly twice as big as for the consumer kind.
Drones are increasing finding uses as “powerful business tools”. It is predicted that of the total of $100bn likely to be spent on both military and civilian drones between 2016 and 2020, the commercial segment would be the fastest-growing, notably in construction, agriculture, insurance, and infrastructure inspection. Another far reaching prediction is that that the commercial market will ultimately contribute the majority of UAV industry revenues. The increase in popularity of commercial drones was made possible by three developments. First, fierce competition in the consumer market has made the machines much cheaper, more reliable and more capable than they were just a few years ago. For example, the bestselling consumer drone, Mavic, which costs just $999, can hold its position in light winds, detect obstacles and land automatically. One of the engineers who worked on the Mavic, proudly demonstrates that it can even respond to hand gestures to follow its owner around or snap a “drone selfie”. And it can even fold up to fit snugly into a backpack.
Second, the proliferation of consumer drones in America prompted regulation from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which had repeatedly delayed introducing rules for commercial drones. The flood of consumer vehicles forced the regulators to allow commercial use. Third, the industry underwent a shake-out as a gaggle of upstart startups eventually came out with different commercial versions. The latest drones can capture breath taking video footage, inspect oil pipelines and wind turbines, measure water content of soils, detect the presence of crop-wrecking bugs, and with GPS technology can even be used to take livestock out to pasture and keep a herd of animals together.
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