With over 2.5 million drones snapped up by consumers in 2016 and that total set to triple in 2017, it’s unsurprising that the average person conjures up an image of a four-winged flying toy upon mention of the word drone. But the true scope of the different types of drones run the gamut from these hobby pieces to the sophisticated unmanned weapon delivery vehicles used by the military, with a whole new breed of commercial drones taking up the space in between.

However, the flight path of a drone has been much smoother sailing than the process of transforming what is essentially a toy into an industrial-grade tool. The challenges in taking a hobby flier and altering its DNA until it is first a safe, reliable and cost and time-efficient commercial asset, and then transforming that asset into a groundbreaking multi-tool with a wide range of applications have been significant. Yet these challenges have been overcome.

The evolution of drones to reliable, always available and automated tools

The different types of drones used for commercial applications are a far cry from the type soaring overhead at the beach, taking aerial photographs of a family vacation. Turning these toys into tools that can improve business processes across a variety of industries by providing unprecedented data gathering and analytics capabilities has required much more than a rebrand.

As Airobotics CEO Ran Krauss says in his IoT Global Council Webinar, there were numerous challenges when it came to fulfilling what Airobotics saw as the potential of industrial drones, chief among them were considerable barriers to industrial adoption. These most markedly included subpar technology that lacked the reliability and safety necessary for commercial use, and the need for an operator or drone pilot, which was not only prohibitively expensive when it came to routine drone usage, but also presented issues with precision, availability and response time. As Ran states in his address, every minute counts in terms of cost and human lives when it comes to incident response. To overcome these barriers, Airobotics set out to develop an automated drone that is self-sufficient, completely automatic and permanently on-site for 24/7 availability.

The resulting product is a drone-in-a-box type system, built from the ground up by Airobotics with parts and components far superior to anything available in the hobby drone market – in order to achieve the required technological reliability, precision and safety. This included incorporating an additional development Ran created: the Parazero pyrotechnic parachute system, which quickly deploys to salvage drones through crash prevention.

These industrial drones are built rugged to withstand the elements while flying, and then house themselves in a robust docking station that protects it when not in use and completes all necessary servicing. Both the drones and their docking stations are fully automated, meaning no human intervention is required for complete drone usage including deployment, flight, landing, battery and payload changing, and data gathering and transmission.

Thanks to these types of advancements, the global market value of drone services has doubled every year for the past three years and shows no signs of slowing.

Multi-tools: different types of drone applications for a multitude of missions

According to Ran, one of Airobotics’ main goals was to create a commercial drone that would be an incredibly efficient tool on the premises. This meant developing drones that would function as multi-tools capable of completing a wide range of tasks. To enable these automated drones to function as multi-tools, the docking stations are equipped with a robotic arm that swaps payloads, equipping the drone with different types of drone sensors or cameras necessary for the task it will be undertaking.

Furthermore, these automated drone multi-tool systems can be equipped with a variety of software that transform the data collected by the drone into actionable insights. These could be programs that employ thermal imaging to recognize intruders, for example, or image processing software with automated counting used to provide accurate inventories.

The nearly limitless visibility, data gathering and analyzing capabilities provided by automated industrial drones are being put to use in sectors ranging from energy, mining and agriculture to insurance and construction. Mapping and surveying are two of the tasks undertaken by drones that would have previously required significant hours invested by employees, not to mention the use of planes or helicopters. Inspections are also quickly and efficiently being completed by drones and in some cases – namely in mining and energy – eliminate the risk human workers would be exposed to in open pit areas or while climbing electrical towers. For industries like construction, insurance and agriculture, some of the main benefits of drones lie in improved logistics and coordination of workflow.

Drones are also being used to maintain and protect critical infrastructure, including seaports, pipelines and power plants, helping to improve operational efficiencies by completing routine tasks including maintenance checks, traffic flow monitoring, environmental monitoring and chemical detection. Security across industries, including at these critical infrastructure sites, is also significantly bolstered by the use of drones for routine sweeps and perimeter security as well as on-demand emergency response. Every application listed above can be accomplished by one automated drone thanks to the robotic arm and swappable payloads, which turn the drone into a multi-tool – the Swiss Army Knife of drones.

From toys to tools to multi-tools

For the general public who is still used to viewing drones as those expensive gadgets forever being crashed by their gearhead neighbors, the transition from not just toy to industrial tool, but to industrial multi-tool, is going to seem abrupt, perhaps even easy given how quickly the evolution seemed to occur. But for the players who have been meticulously developing the different types of drone technology behind the scenes, the challenges have been abundant. As commercial drones continue their steady improvement of business processes across a range of industries, the work would seem to be well worth it.