The future of drones in the manufacturing industry

Two years ago, I discussed the future use cases of drones in my blog “The use of drones in industry.” While things have changed since then, there are still some limitations to the commercial use of drones. In this blog, let us focus on the future of drones in manufacturing industries.

Roadblocks are easing, but challenges remain

Unfortunately, some of the challenges that existed two years ago are still applicable today. This is especially true of the technical challenges, although legal limitations have been eased to a certain degree. In the US, the FAA has selected eight companies to support them in establishing the technical requirements for developing a remote ID protocol, wherein drones must broadcast their identity and location during flight in national airspace. In early 2021, the FAA also approved autonomous drones to fly over people, a major prerequisite for drone-operated transportation services.

The new EU regulation on leisure and commercial drone operation came into force on January 1, 2021, harmonizing regulations concerning the manufacturing and operation of drones by taking a risk-based approach. Risk has been segmented into low, medium and high-risk categories, each with their own regulations and restrictions. Furthermore, the prohibition on beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) operations has been lifted for drones weighing more than 5 kg, but still requires final approval.

While leaps and bounds have been made in the use of this technology and its regulations, technical challenges still exist.

The use of drones for inspection in risk-prone areas like chemical and petrochemical plants is still very limited because these drones lack ATEX certification. In addition, the payload of drones used in intralogistics, for example between warehouses and production lines, is still limited to approximately 2 kg. There is clearly a lot of work ahead for drone designers and manufacturers to solve these technical challenges.

Another important topic in the future will be cybersecurity, as drones (and the data that they gather or process) must be protected against intrusions by third parties.

How technology is accelerating drone application

When considering the commercial use of drones, the focus has been on transportation use cases, such as last-mile delivery. Nevertheless, they do offer some interesting use cases in a manufacturing environment:

  1. Inventory monitoring and picking in warehouses: This will only be beneficial in manual warehouses, where drones will not only detect empty spaces in shelves, but also identify the goods stored by leveraging barcode and RFID reading. Using drones for inventory monitoring in large areas like steel plants or construction sites is promising, because they can employ built-in sensors to cover large areas.
  2. Intralogistics: Drones can be used to transport materials or parts from the warehouse to the assembly belt of the production center on the shop floor.
  3. Asset monitoring and compliance: Drones can be used to monitor the conditions of assets by using thermal and infrared technology, even in locations that are inaccessible or hazardous to human beings. Leaks or other anomalies can be detected and maintenance and/or safety measures initiated — preventing damage to workers and equipment.
  4. Asset management and planning: By using drones to scan factory infrastructure, we can develop 3D digital models that can trigger preventive maintenance in combination with KPIs. This can be used to improve factory and production flow planning, as well as for training purposes.

Drones will be increasingly integrated into the operational technology found in shop floors to process the sensor data they provide. We might also see drones that are enhanced with analytics capabilities, enabling them to not only scan data but to process it, thereby providing a thorough analysis. This is referred to as a transform capability, enabling tasks such as remote maintenance operations or corrosion protection in metal smelting plants, shipyards or chemical plants. Most use cases in assembly monitoring will only require visual and sensory capabilities, but intralogistics will require motion capabilities to group and carry objects.

The future of drones: Functionality, enhancements and adoption

The adoption of drones depends heavily on their technical capabilities. Battery life is a major issue. The heavier the payload, the lower the range. Therefore, one major focus of technical R&D is to increase battery capacity and the density of battery cells to allow longer operation time.

Tethered drones are not viable options in shop floor environments, since they require cabling to a ground unit. Here, technologies such as laser range finders (like simultaneous localization and mapping or SLAM), ultra-wide band radio signals or motion capture systems need to be applied for automated drone flight. Automated drones will need to recognize and avoid objects and employ algorithms to control flights, as well as requiring continuous updates to their navigation infrastructure.

Only then can drones deliver positive business benefits such as cost reductions and increased productivity, in turn accelerating the spread of drones in the manufacturing industry.

By Stefan Zimmermann, Global B&PS CTO Industry 4.0

Posted on: September 16, 2021


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About Stefan Zimmermann
Global Head of Incubator Portfolio Industry Manufacturing
Stefan Zimmermann is responsible for the innovation and portfolio development in Industry 4.0 at Global Atos B&PS. He aims at helping industrial companies to identify business opportunities enabled by Industry 4.0 during their digital transformation process, embracing the Industry 4.0 framework. He’s got a very strong industrial background, having worked for companies like Siemens (>10 years) and Rheinmetall Group and also comprehensive consulting skills gained when working for Roland Berger & Partner.

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