Drones: IoT's Killer App for Commerce?

Commercially useful drones are not just remote controlled aircraft, but, equipped with avionics, connections to ground control stations, sophisticated internal sensors that measure everything from yaw to acceleration, and GPS location capability. They are unmanned aircraft systems with increasing autonomy, whether fixed wing or rotary. It might be best to consider them as startlingly inexpensive yet capable aerial robots.

Drones seem to enter the news either as high-capability military weapons, or as entertaining hobby or recreational devices. There is a significant reason for this, and it is legal, rather than technical: the US currently severely restricts the commercial use of drones. Line of sight requirements, altitude restrictions, and other limits make it difficult to develop drone functionality, even when commercial operations are permitted.

Restrictions are changing, but slowly, and pressure for change will inevitably grow as the commercial possibilities continue to grow. And the commercial potential of IoT-integrated drones is immense.

Drones as sensor platforms

Transportation possibilities such as Amazon’s proposed delivery drones aside, the most effective coming use of drones will be as relatively inexpensive, medium-capability autonomous aircraft that serve as sensor platforms integrated with ground-based sensor networks through the Internet of Things, providing detailed situation awareness over wide geographic areas.

Aside from high-definition cameras in visible and infrared, the most capable sensor is LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging), which sends out rapid pulses of laser light to measure surfaces in extraordinary detail.

Drones can also poll RFID (radio frequency identification) chips and other small sensors in remote areas without communications connections, enabling situational awareness where it would otherwise not be possible.

A few examples from various industries will make clear the commercial significance of the integration of drones and the IoT.

Precision agriculture

This is, for once, a purely descriptive term, in contrast with the more usually employed “smart”. Drones allow for farms, vineyards, and other agricultural enterprises to understand their assets on a plant by plant, square foot by square foot basis. 

Agriculture had been getting more and more data-driven and tied to the IoT, as numerous articles here have shown. Drones represent something that ties this system together. This is by far the largest segment where drones will make an impact: the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International estimates that agriculture drones will be 80 percent of the commercial market.

Drone imagery, both visual and infrared, identifies plants that are diseased or under stress from inadequate irrigation or fertilization, and the drone can scan for these problems as frequently as required, hourly if necessary. LiDAR detects even small variations in slope, and thus where water runoff is irregular. This information gets tied together with surface-based moisture sensors and other information to provide advance warning of any problems, on an extremely granular basis. That information then goes into the drip irrigation system, or an automated tractor that dispenses fertilizer or pesticide with accuracy down to one inch. 


Monitoring the progress of operations of a large open-pit mine is harder than it might seem, given that it is really just a big hole, albeit a hole that can be more than a mile across, and half a mile deep. But a surface mine is a busy worksite, and its configuration changes constantly. Walls of rock are blasted, the ore removed from the rubble, and the non-productive rock disposed of. Measuring productivity requires measuring the volume of rock and ore. Done manually, this is a time-and-labor intensive process that can be done no more often than monthly. 

Camera-equipped drones can fly the mine in a predetermined, GPS-monitored pattern, taking hundreds of images at specific angles. These are then processed and integrated in order to provide a 3D understanding of the mine. Over time, this detailed understanding will improve productivity and reduce waste.
Such drone-based volumetric analysis is also being used in identifying debris from such disasters as earthquakes and landslides. 

Infrastructure inspection

Drones can replace or supplement many ground-based inspections, particularly in rugged and remote areas, at low cost. The power industry is just one example.
Visually inspecting a remote wind turbine requires climbing and visually examining blades several hundred feet in the air, while roped up. Such an inspection can cost $10,000 per turbine. A drone can do this safely, at a much lower cost, and can also cover many more turbines in the same period of time. The integration of the detailed imagery with sensors on the turbine itself provides a detailed view.

Power lines and towers must also be inspected frequently, for corrosion, damage, cracked lines, and other incipient issues. Drones can patrol and detect problems much more easily than human work crews. Radio frequency (RF), ultrasound, and infrared sensors can detect incipient arcing, coronal discharges, and other signs of dangerous degradation long before they become serious problems.

The eye in the sky that ties it all together

Drones will inspect remote dams, detect leaks in oil pipelines, assist in search and rescue, and monitor the environment in the same way they monitor agriculture. And all of this sensing will be tied together through the IoT.

Image by Turisme Subirats on Flickr (CC by 2.0)