While there is something decidedly futuristic about the concept of vehicle automation, major advancements have either already occurred or are occurring right now. From prototype self-driving cars out on the street to the automated drones revolutionizing mining and other industries, automation – both on the ground and in the air – is already in use and having a significant impact on industry, the armed forces and everyday life.
Perhaps more so than any other automated development, self-driving cars seem like science fiction. It’s hard to imagine streets and freeways filled with driverless automobiles, but every indication out of auto shows and Silicon Valley is that not only are they coming, they’re coming fast.
With over 33 corporations currently working on self-driving cars and a handful of companies testing their technologies on public roadways, Business Insider Intelligence is projecting that 10 million self-driving cars will be on the road by 2020, while Morgan Stanley estimates these autonomous vehicles will be saving $488 billion in accident avoidance every year by 2022.
These transportation developments aren’t limited to roadways, either. Train tracks supporting fully autonomous long distance trains are reportedly on target for 2023, while the Ehang 184, the world’s first passenger drone with fully automatic flight capabilities, is undergoing manned test flights.
Down the road, these innovations are poised to minimize loss of life, while increasing efficiency and cost effectiveness. Yet in some industries, automation is already demonstrating the extent of this critical potential. Take Caterpillar for instance, an early adapting company that realized the potential of these advancements and started working on manufacturing automated mining trucks as early as the 1990s – a particularly outstanding invention in the dial-up internet-using, discman-listening landscape.
The armed forces have long been early developers and adopters of automation because of the risk to human life that can be mitigated or eliminated by these technologies. Unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs), autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) and automated drones or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) with various degrees of automation are all currently in use for tasks including surveillance, reconnaissance, search and rescue, targeted attacks, and explosive ordinance disposal including landmines, underwater mines and roadside bombs.
Similar to military personnel, first responders often risk their own wellbeing in the line of duty. That’s why automated drones that provide views of ongoing crime scenes, follow suspects, survey accident sites and illustrate the extent of a fire are invaluable additions to emergency personnel departments.
The New York Police Department, for example, is embarking on a pilot project in which gunshot detectors are connected to surveillance cameras in order to better direct police officers to the origin of gunfire. The surveillance cameras as well as automated drones will be used to provide imaging of the shooter(s) and help determine when a scene is as safe as possible for officers to enter.
Automated drones entered the public consciousness as an important military tool, but they have evolved into major players in industries ranging from mining and energy to agriculture, even helping to protect critical infrastructure sites.
In the mining sector, automation is being incorporated into nearly every aspect of the industry, increasing productivity by some 25 percent, as mentioned in a recent article by our CEO and co-founder Ran Krauss. This increase is being driven by automated solutions such as drilling tools, blasting systems, haulage trucks and railcars, as well as drones that can initiate and complete a range of missions with no human intervention, including take-off and landing, and data processing.
Furthermore, the ability to operate in even the most remote and hazardous sites has made drones the logical choice for obtaining mapping data and completing road inspections, blast analysis, stockpile evaluations as well as real-time perimeter surveillance and facility inspections to identify maintenance issues. Many uses of drone automation are safety related, as they can perform necessary duties in mining environments that would otherwise be life-threatening to workers on the ground.
Energy companies have also streamlined operations by turning inspection duties over to drones, eliminating the need for planes, helicopters and professional climbers. In agriculture, the time-consuming task of monitoring crops has been simplified by automated drones, which are capable of quickly gathering and sharing the necessary data to improve logistics and workflow, not to mention increasing yield by providing targeted monitoring and pest control.
At critical infrastructure sites with obvious concerns about security and operational efficiencies, such as seaports or power plants, automated drones perform essential routine tasks including mapping, perimeter security, inspecting mechanical equipment and monitoring traffic flow and can also be used for emergency response.
Industries are still uncovering the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the benefits of automated drone usage. The unprecedented access to data provided by drones offers a staggering competitive advantage to businesses and other entities dedicated to harnessing this information and extracting and acting on its key insights.
The far-off future is doubtlessly full of wonders that will make lives safer and more exciting while bringing increased efficiency to industry all over the world. But the present and very near future are accomplishing those same objectives with the astounding progress made in automation on the ground and up in the air.