Late last year, the US Department of the Interior (DOI) grounded its fleet of more than 800 drones. This has created a tremendous opportunity for North American manufacturers of unmanned aircraft.
All of the DOI’s drones, properly known as unmanned aircraft, unmanned aerial vehicle systems (UAVS) or remotely piloted aircraft systems (RPAS), were either manufactured in China, or built with Chinese components. According to the DOI, the grounding was the result of a national security risk, as these unmanned aircraft gather, and could potentially transmit, a staggering amount of information wherever they fly. The ban on US government drones, which target products made outside North America, has opened the market to companies in the USA and Canada.
In January this year, DOI spokesperson Carol Danko said, “After an ongoing review of Interior’s drone programme, Secretary Bernhardt issued a Secretary’s order today, affirming the temporary cessation of non-emergency drones while we ensure that cybersecurity, technology and domestic production concerns are adequately addressed. Drone use for non-emergency operations will remain grounded while the Department of the Interior reviews the possibility of threats and ensures a secure, reliable and consistent drone policy that advances our mission while keeping America safe. Drone operations will continue to be allowed in approved situations for emergency purposes, such as fighting wildfires, search and rescue and dealing with natural disasters that may threaten life or property.”
The order to which Danko referred expounded on her statement, and pointed out, “In certain circumstances, information collected during UAS missions has the potential to be valuable to foreign entities, organizations, and governments.” The order also mentioned that it had been determined that “domestic production capability for small unmanned aerial systems is essential to the national defense.”
To find out more about these developments and their impact on the North American market, we spoke to Camaron Chell, CEO of Draganfly Inc, the oldest operating commercial drone company in the world. Over the years, it has established a reputation of being a pioneering company in the field of unmanned aircraft. Founded in 1998, Draganfly made its mark in history by being the first company to commercialize a quadcopter. In 2013, the RCMP used a Draganflyer X4-ES quadcopter to locate an injured man in a remote part of Saskatchewan. It was the first time in history that a drone had been used to save someone’s life. Draganfly holds 26 patents and is the first company to have a drone inducted into the Smithsonian Museum.
Chell, who has a background in machine vision-based ‘follow me’ technology for drones, has been with Draganfly since 2014. The company currently has offices in California and a manufacturing plant in Saskatchewan, but will be expanding over the next few months. Over the course of its existence, Draganfly has sold more than 9,500 drones, and will more than likely sell its 10,000th product this year.
The company conducts advanced research and development, producing fixed-wing and rotary wing drones, as well as unmanned ground vehicles or robots. The Draganflyer Commander, for example, is a comparatively small UAV, a quadcopter, which can fly at speeds of up to 50 km/h, in winds as strong as 35 km/h. It can carry a payload of 1 kg and operate in temperatures from -24°C to 38°C. Equipped with infra-red and electro-optical cameras, the Commander can be used for digital surface monitoring, search and rescue, tactical overwatch or firefighting missions. With a multispectral kit, the same quadcopter could be used by farmers for crop health assessments or by researchers to determine a normalized difference vegetation index (NVDI). If the Commander is equipped with a QX100 camera, it could be used for 3D modelling and mapping, or by law enforcement officers for accident reconstruction.
These are just a few examples of the versatility of one small remotely piloted quadcopter. The number of tasks which can be accomplished by drones in general, is simply incredible, and technology is advancing rapidly. According to Chell, “We are now getting to a point where there is enough data for machine learning and artificial intelligence (ai) are becoming practical and useful. Twenty-four months from now, I don’t think there will be a drone out there that does not utilize ai or machine vision.” Chell continued that with the advent of 5G, cloud computing will make drones even more versatile and capable. “It will help the whole drone market realize
A Time of Opportunity
In addition to addressing a national security concern, the US government’s ban on imported drones for government use seems to be targeting foreign policy, in which foreign authoritarian governments are able to obtain data from its drone manufacturers. According to Chell, “The amount of data collected by drones is off the charts.” He continued, “Incredible amounts of data is collected, which along with other data points and ai, can paint some pretty impressive security pictures.”
As a result of the ban, North American drone manufacturers now have access to a market which had until recently been dominated by Chinese manufacturers. “There is somewhere between $600 million and $1 billion of yearly revenue that is attributable to commercial drones that are on government projects, whether that is military, industrial, infrastructure, commercial, etc.,” said Chell. That revenue is now available to North American drone manufacturers who demonstrate and meet the security criteria of the US government.
With their biggest competitors banned from supplying unmanned aircraft to a major market, this is certainly an exciting time, filled with opportunity, for North American manufacturers.
Originally published in the January-February 2020 edition of ANJ.