CLEARING FOR TAKEOFF AND LANDING
As the world’s population continues to increase, so too, does congestion on our cities’ roads and highways. For commercial deliveries, Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) technology is one viable solution quickly becoming a reality. However, deliveries are not the only new application in the sky. UAVs are also gaining traction in the areas of inspection and surveillance.
UAV Delivery Market
As the eCommerce industry grows, businesses face several logistical challenges, especially in the last stage of delivery, known as the last mile. Consumers now demand faster, less expensive, and more sustainable deliveries. But delivery trucks must navigate congested city streets, potentially delaying deliveries while also increasing carbon emissions. Truck deliveries also mean regular maintenance and repair of the nation’s roadway infrastructure. However, in a 2019 study by Transportation by America, researchers estimated that the United States “would need about $231.4 billion per year over six years to maintain and repair the nation’s roads.” (For Construction Pros) When we add supply chain backlogs and trucker shortages to the list of challenges, it is no wonder that a growing number of eCommerce companies are looking to the skies as solutions for commercial delivery.
In remote locations—or in communities that must navigate poor road conditions—air delivery of medicines, medical supplies, and time-sensitive laboratory results require specially designed UAVs that can improve patient outcomes and help save lives. UPS presents one clear example of how powerful these advanced designs can be. In August 2021, the company began “COVID-19 vaccine deliveries via drone for Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, using new cold chain packaging developed specifically for drones.” (UPS)
UAV Inspection Capabilities
Scaling tall scaffolding might just be part of the job, but inspecting the integrity of power lines, bridges, and smokestacks comes with an elevated level of risk. To put this into better perspective, “it’s been estimated that tower climbers—typically subcontractors—have an on-the-job death rate nearly 10 times that of other construction workers.” (UTC Journal)
The risk of injury when conducting inspections in confined spaces doesn’t fare much better. Recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries (CFOI) estimates that “from 2011 to 2018, 1,030 workers died from occupational injuries involving a confined space.” (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics) Completing inspections manually also means additional time and increased labor for maintenance, repair, and project completion (not to mention the increased likelihood of human error).
With all these challenges in mind, the industrial inspection sector has been one of the early pioneers to adopt UAV technology in the workplace, especially for projects that require visual inspections. In addition to saving costs associated with time and labor, UAVs help inspectors avoid potentially dangerous encounters by automating visual asset inspection with high-powered zoom lasers hovering above and below structures. Today’s UAVs can fly hundreds of feet in the air to inspect towers and power lines. They can negotiate narrow tunnels, fly into flaming smokestacks, and inspect offshore wind generators and gas flares at oil refineries within a fraction of the time needed for manual inspections—in some cases, a matter of hours as opposed to several days.
UAVs can also perform critical infrastructure inspection and operate systems on critical environmental controls involved in the infrastructure for bridges, power lines, and vent systems on smokestacks. How well UAVs continue to perform critical inspections, however, will depend significantly on several engineering, design, and manufacturing factors to address areas such as hover capabilities, battery weight and efficiency, and flight control stability. Smaller, lighter, and more capable sensor packages are also increasing the depth and breadth of inspection applications, going beyond the bounds of visual inspections with acoustic sensors, lidar, infrared, and more.
UAVs are ideal choices in emergencies within the public domain. The critical importance of providing police and fire departments with “more eyes in the sky”—especially in life-and-death situations—cannot be overstated. UAVs with greater autonomy and specialized technology allow the professionals on the ground to stay focused on the situation at hand.
Some UAVs are now being built specifically to support law enforcement and fire departments with innovative designs capable of adapting quickly to different situations police and firefighters might encounter. For example, drones equipped with heat sensors help firefighters identify the weakest spots in a structure fire that may collapse, or find a toddler lost in the desert on a dangerously hot day. With the potential for high-hover and battery efficiency, advanced technology to zoom in on activities below, and lighting systems that can illuminate large areas of land, it is likely we’ll see a growing number of these specialized UAVs in the years to come.
Despite these many benefits to UAV adoption, however, as more UAVs enter the skies, increased congestion will lead to mounting concerns regarding safety, security, and privacy, resulting in more stringent regulations.
Challenges to UAV Adoption
As use cases for UAVs increase, governments around the world are developing regulatory frameworks to govern their use within their borders and the United States is certainly no exception. But FAA regulations and certification requirements are only one challenge among many that UAV manufacturers must tackle.
From flying beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) concerns to managing the scheduling, sequencing, and proper distancing between aircraft, safety concerns are not in short supply. While many safety regulations are still being developed, the burden for air traffic management rests on the operator. As UAVs begin to generate additional air traffic, UAV companies must design for safety, building effective digital communication and navigation solutions to address issues with traffic management. Considering the unique needs of each design, manufacturers must combine varying sensor data to ensure their aircraft is flying safely.
Operational integrity in extreme weather conditions and system malfunctions are top of mind for many engineers. But current limitations also involve battery life (and battery density) affecting distance, cost per kWh, and recharging speed.
Flying over residential neighborhoods and businesses also means managing the potential for negative public perception and a reluctance to accept this innovative technology. In a recent Deloitte survey, while respondents were in favor of using UAVs to address road congestion, 80% worried about safety.
The public is also concerned about the potential for irresponsible UAV use. While law enforcement often argues that specialized aerial surveillance helps to reinforce situational awareness, privacy protections will, undoubtedly, remain a heated topic for years to come. After all, UAV sensors include cameras capable of capturing sufficient detail for facial recognition applications even from a long distance. For this reason, law enforcement in the U.S. is reluctant to use UAVs designed and manufactured in China. Among several specialized sensors, lidar aboard UAVs can easily penetrate otherwise thick barriers to detect even minor changes in the landscape.
UAVs are some of the greatest rising technologies we have witnessed in recent history. As more UAVs take to the skies, competitive rivalry will drive investment in design innovation and advanced manufacturing capabilities. As you strive to adopt increasingly sophisticated designs and more efficient production processes, turn to Benchmark as your design and manufacturing partner of choice.
With over 40 years of experience and expertise in aerospace and defense, Benchmark is the ideal partner for UAV manufacturers. We offer secure and advanced technology and work directly with you to develop fully customized solutions to complex challenges in the UAV market.
"Benchmark’s expertise and unparalleled design capabilities with sensor fusion, digital design, and RF design give you the cutting edge against your competition."”
Our specialized teams will help you identify and integrate the best designs and technologies to address your unique needs, including size, weight, and power (SWaP) reduction, sensor integration, onboard computing, and efficient power solutions for autonomous flight. With experience designing for system certification for both commercial aerospace and defense, Benchmark also brings you advanced knowledge in manufacturing, automation and test design, and engineering technical depth. Our support helps reduce overall costs and time to market, paving the way for you to launch your competitive product in the marketplace ahead of your competition. Simply put, Benchmark’s expertise and unparalleled design capabilities around sensor fusion, digital design, and RF design give you the cutting edge against your competition.
Not all UAVs are made equal, and not all are developed with the future in mind. When you partner with Benchmark, we’ll help you rise above the competition. dam
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