Exploring the Potential of Drones and the Internet of Things

By Tyler Mason, Digital Media Director, AirVūz

When people hear the phrase “Internet of Things (IoT),” many of us think of obvious applications, like being able to adjust the thermostat of your home so it’s set to the right temperature when you get home from a day of work, or like warming up the oven for dinner with the click of your iPhone on your way home from grocery shopping.

But for those following this growing industry, these applications represent just the tip of the iceberg. Drastic change is coming. IHS Markit predicts that within the next three to five years, more than 17.6 billion things will be connected to the Internet.

If you’re not familiar with the Internet of Things, here’s the overall concept. Devices such as sensors connected to the Internet provide data remotely and/or allow people to control or adjust the device to obtain a specific outcome through the Internet. Some examples of what the IoT may offer include:

  • A person in Minnesota monitoring and adjusting the temperature and humidity of their second home in Fort Myers, Florida – through a thermostat that is connected to the Wi-Fi signal in the home — during the summer months to prevent mold.
  • A farmer monitoring his herd of dairy cows through RFID tags to conduct predictive forecasts on milk production.
  • A data center manager monitoring the heat build-up on each server within the data center to reduce the risk of server failure.
  • A couple monitoring their exercise and fitness with FitBit and sharing with their friends through Facebook.

Drones and IoT

Drones are included in the growing number of Internet-connected things. Drones with cameras can not only provide real-time information about a situation, but also capture information that can be analyzed in the future.  For instance, I recently saw an online video advertising a drone for farmers. The farmer does not have to walk or drive to the field and inspect crops. Instead, drones allow a farmer to fly over the fields to do a video inspection of crops. This video can be collected and viewed later that day, or for that matter, from year to year, allowing the farmer to compare conditions of his crop on specific days throughout the growing season. 

Fire, Rescue and Law Enforcement

For example, we’ve seen many instances of drones used by law enforcement over the last few years. Drones have been used for search and rescue operations in areas that are difficult to search by foot. Recently, I talked to a police officer in Iowa who used a drone to find a man and his granddaughter on the river. Their boat became stuck on a logjam and he called the police for help. Because the area was swampy, officers could not easily reach them. Within minutes of putting a drone up in the air, though, the man and child had been located and were rescued shortly thereafter.

I’ve also seen examples of fire departments using thermal imaging cameras on drones to survey and inspect fires before sending in fire crews. The cameras on the drone detect hotspots in the building, providing valuable information to the firefighters about how to more effectively fight the fire.

Police have also been able to follow or find suspects by chasing after them with drones. Having an aerial vantage point can make those types of searches much easier than a pursuit on foot.

All of the data, including video images, can be collected in databases and used over and over again to help fire and police better understand how to react to future emergencies.

While it is not allowed for hobbyists to fly drones over large crowds, I believe law enforcement will soon use drones to monitor large public events with an eye toward watching for potential riot situations or looting. Drones may also be used for security reasons, to monitor for potential threats when a major political figure visits a city, for example.

Retail Applications

A lot of hurdles need to be cleared before Amazon or other companies can roll out drone delivery services. Some of these issues include: flying outside the line of sight; flying over and near people (delivering a pizza to a park filled with people, for example); and flying near utility lines as well as other sensitive areas, such as homes and businesses near airports. All of these issues need to be reconciled by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

Another issue is verifying the identity of the person receiving a package. Currently, many deliveries often don’t require confirmation of identification, and packages are simply dropped off on someone’s front step, even if they’re not home.

But, for businesses that do want to verify an identity, such as in the case of alcohol delivery by drone, there is a chance that facial recognition technology could make drone deliveries more secure. The technology already exists and I think people are trying to figure out what, if anything, the technology can be used for.

What about drone video applications connected to farming (inspecting fields), ranching (monitoring cattle) and remote energy applications (pipeline monitoring, wind turbine inspections)? Could drone video provide added value to those IoT applications?

Agriculture and Ranching

Agriculture is quickly becoming one of the biggest adopters of drones among any industry. Farmers can much more efficiently monitor their crops from the sky using a drone instead of hiring an airplane (or by walking the land on foot). Thermal imaging through the use of FLIR cameras or other infrared technology can let farmers know which crops might need additional watering. With $1,000 drones capable of flying up to four miles away, many farmers could easily survey their entire field of crops by standing on their front step.

Some farms are also finding ways to employ drones to spray fields for pesticides. Flight software allows for drones to follow a specific pattern that can be repeated time and time again, meaning pesticides can be sprayed in a consistent manner from the drone.

Conducting remote equipment inspections is also possible with drones. Inspecting wind turbines, pipelines, oilrigs, irrigation systems, etc., are among the biggest commercial applications of drones. Similar to farming, the use of a drone saves man-hours and, in many cases, eliminates possible safety risks. Instead of a worker climbing a turbine or power line, a drone can be flown to the same places that need inspection. High-definition cameras give a good look at what may need repairs or maintenance.

Drones using sensors and similar technologies will be paramount for digital mapping. Already, LIDAR has been paired with drones in a variety of uses. These range from inspections of buildings to topography mapping to surveying of mining sites to farm planning. LIDAR has been used for these purposes without drones, but adding a UAV to many of these applications makes it even more effective.

Citizen Journalism

Here at AirVūz, we’ve live streamed a few different events from a drone. One of them was Air + Style, a snowboard competition and music festival that was held in Los Angeles earlier this year. Our drone was used in the live stream of the snowboard event as the broadcast cut to our aerial shots to give the viewers a different perspective on the action.

We also live-streamed ultimate Frisbee games for the Minnesota Wind Chill’s Facebook page. Ultimate Frisbee is a great sport to view from the drone, as it’s able to fly along with the action and show the play unfolding while capturing the movement from end to end. The reception has been very positive, as those viewing the live stream have enjoyed the addition of the drone to the broadcast.

There have been other examples of citizen journalism or important events that have been uploaded to airvuz.com. One recent case was of two drone racing pilots who saw a man illegally dumping trash and chased after him with a drone to get the license plate number. We’ve also had videos of flooded areas where pilots have used their drones to make others aware of the devastated areas. Another example: drone video coverage of the protests of a new oil pipeline near the Standing Rock Reservation.

Travel Planning

When it comes to travel planning, drone videos are a great way to prepare for a trip. If you’re able to find an aerial video of a location you plan to visit, you can get a better feel for the destination.

AirVūz recently partnered with a start-up called Vugo, which places tablets in the back of ride-share vehicles (Uber and Lyft) to allow drivers to make additional money through advertising. Videos from AirVūz were used on the tablets, which had the ability to recall specific videos of locations or landmarks based on where the rider was traveling.

There are plenty of untapped possibilities for travel and drone videos as well. For example, travel apps could use geolocation of a traveler’s phone to show them drone videos of their current location to show them landmarks nearby, or an aerial overview of the city. Travel and drones are becoming more popular as the drones themselves are becoming more portable. That means pilots are able to capture footage of more places than ever and, as a result, travelers can now find videos of just about anywhere.

What Lies Ahead

I definitely think the amount of commercial drone pilots will continue to increase at a steady rate in the next handful of years. When the FAA introduced the Part 107 test — which drone pilots need to pass to fly commercially — standardization made the point of entry much easier for anyone wanting to become a commercial drone pilot. Before that, you had to first obtain a pilot’s license before getting what was called the Section 333 exemption. The current format is much easier, and the FAA has said that more than 30,000 pilots have passed the Part 107 as of early April 2017.

As more people become professionally licensed to pilot drones, I believe you will see an avalanche of applications involving drones and the Internet of Things. With tens of thousands of drone videos on AirVūz, we can see the difference in just the two years that our website has been functional. Drone videos are not just becoming better produced and edited, partly because people are getting better at operating their drones, but we’re seeing more diverse uses for drones. Like the entire category of IoT, the creative applications seem endless.