Hey Fly Guy: Drones are more than just toys

Drones. We’ve all seen them. They’re in Hollywood. They’re on National Day. They’re in your FB feed. They’re taking over the supply chain that delivers your Amazon purchase, and helping support global conservation, whether it’s rescuing stranded koalas in Australia or protecting endangered elephants in Africa.

While a lot of us still think of drones as recreational toys – albeit very cool ones – the reality in just the last few years is that UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) have become so much more in terms of the almost limitless possibilities they provide.

The industry is seeing double-digit growth every year. It’s estimated worldwide spending on drones (both commercial and recreational) will top US$100 billion between 2016-2020 – and someone considering enrolling in a drone-related programme now will be graduating at literally the exact moment UAVs become huge.

How it got so big

Anyone can learn to fly a recreational drone – that’s why the market for UAVs has grown exponentially. Drones are perfect for any job that’s too complex, dangerous or expensive to risk doing with a multi-million dollar aircraft (and its crew). They’re also ideal for fitting into tight spaces, whether it’s search-and-rescue operations, or flying into a sewer tunnel to see what’s causing a blockage. They’ve become highly-mobile, low-cost platforms for mounting complex, lightweight tech such as lidar sensors (radar that uses lasers) to make 3D maps of almost any structure or landscape.

Some of today’s fastest-growing applications for drones are in areas as diverse as agriculture and insurance, with drones heat-mapping farm fields to determine where to water or assessing risk factors facing a city.

Drones & Aviation Industry

This game-changing drone industry is worth billions, and will be worth even more in the future. However, you don’t have to be a student of technology or engineering to capitalise on it – there are so many aspects to drones that require students from many backgrounds and fields, including:

• Analytics, Big Data, Engineering and Post-Flight Data Analysis

Gathering, managing and deciphering Big Data is a huge area of future growth for the UAS industry. For example, a drone equipped with lidar sensors and 3D mapping software can accurately create a digital model of a complex indoor space such as an MRT tunnel, or accurately calculate how much paint is needed to cover the outside of a skyscraper, in just a fraction of the time and cost it would take a person to do it.

There are opportunities in everything from conceptualising the physical hardware, such as new measuring tools and sensors, to pioneering the post-flight data analysis software that crunches the numbers, and makes sense of the vast amounts of data collected. Drones are important machines, but it’s what you do with it that counts more.

• Aviation Legislation and Policy

At their core, UAVs still operate within tightly regulated airspaces, with laws differing greatly by jurisdiction. Once you take off outdoors, you’re operating in an environment shared with professional pilots (and commercial aircraft) who have a very strict safety culture. Other aspects to consider are privacy laws surrounding airspace usage, and types of licences required to fly them (if at all).

This means the relatively new commercial drone industry needs even more future professionals with the ability to understand the environment this technology operates in – namely busy commercial airspaces. That’s where the business and tech aspects of UAS merge with abstract concepts like planning regulations and controlling air space, meaning there will be huge future growth in areas such as UAS-related public policy and legislation.

• Business / Entrepreneurship

Drones are already being used by companies like Amazon and Alibaba to deliver products, while Mark Zuckerberg plans to use a fleet of them in the stratosphere to bring internet connectivity to the entire planet.

Between those two extremes, almost anything you can imagine is possible, with the relentless growth of UASs year after year meaning they’re only going to become more a part of our daily lives. Because of that, the industry will be ripe for aspiring entrepreneurs to pioneer entirely new uses for drones, as well as the new technologies that accompany them.

Given the huge opportunities (and revenues) in the coming years, the UAV industry offers great career potential for graduates. While the future of the UAV industry will be heavily knowledge-driven, it’ll be equally imagination-driven, so even if you’re not tech-minded, there are opportunities at every level.