Drones: emerging hardware opportunities

The drone market in recent years has completely changed character. A new report by IDTechEx demonstrates the hype is gone The price wars have also taken their toll with the Chinese winner having forced many to give their hardware (platform) play completely.

The IDTechEX report “Drones 2018-2038: Components, Technologies, Roadmaps, Market Forecasts” sees a plausible scenario in which the drone market (hardware and software) will reach some $33.5Bn by 2028, up from around $4.5Bn in 2017/18. Therefore, the journey is not yet at its finale. The question is what opportunities will exist given the current difficult market condition?

The IDTEchEX offers short-, medium-, and long-term forecasts segmented by 8 application areas and 12 components. It looks at technology and market evolution trends whilst analyzing the key existing and emerging players. Here we will look at hardware trends and opportunities, since these might impact logistics.

The investment shows that companies have gone cool on hardware (full drone platform). This follows reason since the consumer platforms have been commoditized. Indeed, the winning design is now firmly in control of the prosumer segment too and is increasingly blurring the boundary between commercial and other segments. At best, rival suppliers hope to be the best number two or three, hoping that the value chain will wish to help them survive to break the monopolistic power of JDI (drone maker) and to allow them to hedge their bets should some unforeseen catastrophe befall the incumbent.

Towards Autonomy
Already drones have come a long way from the first generations that required manual remote control. Wayward or GPS-coordinate following is well established. See-and-avoid and see-identify-and-follow are also becoming commercial. Autonomous flight, however, is not yet commercial.
One reason is legislation that still requires drones to stay within the line (or the extended line) of sight. Here, the pilot must stand ready to intervene should a drone fail. This externally-imposed limitation seems out of step with long-term technological capability. Indeed, as safety is improved and as societies become more accustomed to autonomous mobility in general, IDTechEX expects regulators to loosen their grip. This is because without autonomous mobility the full benefits and productivity gains of drone use cannot be realized in many applications.

This evolution from manual remote control to autonomous beyond-line-of-sight (BLOS) navigation requires a suite or fusion of sensors. These will include sensors that see close and afar in day and night. As such, they may include ultrasound sensors (commonly used already), RGB cameras (commonly used already), radars, Lidars and so on. However, all these sensors will need to be drone compatible, meaning that they need to be lightweight, lower-power and low-cost with some built-in redundancies. As such, they represent opportunities for innovation and product development.

Towards larger drone sizes and powers
All major suppliers now offer multiple drone sizes, seeking to cover the entire spectrum from small consumer to large commercial drones. Furthermore, some are seeking to carve out niches in the form of drones that are more rugged and weather-tolerant, enabling them to achieve high uptimes in harsh environments.
In parallel, drones are targeting markets in which they must carry heavier loads. In these applications, the drone might act as an aerial farm sprayer, a research, and rescue device, a delivery vehicle or a passenger air taxi. This increased payload would, of course, be in addition to the extra weight that features such as autonomous mobility would impose.

Towards increasing flight time
Drones today offer limited flight time. The energy storage is the primary constraint. This limits flight distance and reduces drone productivity since charging time will increase drone downtime. It also places severe limits on the drone’s payload carrying capability. Interestingly, it appears that in multicopters the additional battery capacity is not used to extend flight time but to improve payload carrying capability. This consideration will change as autonomous or BLOS flight becomes viable. In general, the energy source for drone will remain an area of opportunity. Improvement here will be essential to render larger-sized and/or autonomous drones possible.

More opportunities
In conclusion, drones are always evolving. In particular, they are becoming larger, heavier and more autonomous. This will open numerous new applications in time and will represent a growing opportunity for drone companies as well as for many in the value chain including those focused on various sensors, light weight body materials, electric motors, speed control circuits, energy storage, and so on.


Drones – emerging hardware opportunities and trends
by Dr Khasha Ghaffarzadeh, Research Director, IDTechEx

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