Drones, by one definition, are neither high-tech toys nor lethal weapons. They are worker bees that are the foundation of a colony. And that's where the future lies in nondefense industries like farming, insurance, and construction, which, Goldman Sachs predicts, will drive a $13 billion industry through 2020. The skies are beginning to buzz. From late 2014 to last April, the FAA issued 3,100 exemptions to nonpilots covering nearly 40 situations to fly drones. Looking at the current 5,500 exemptions, the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, a trade group, found that the majority of them have gone to small businesses.


In a sector known as precision agriculture, drones can create optimal planting schemes, monitor crops, and apply precise amounts of pesticides and herbicides. The eBee SQ, from Swiss manufacturer SenseFly, captures crop data across four multispectral bands, plus color imagery. Farmers plug the data into their existing management systems.

Kansas State University employs drones to help farmers assess problem areas and boost yields. One anticipated use: targeted application of nitrogen.

Disaster assesment and insurance claims

Allstate Insurance recently used two drone companies, EagleView Technologies and Kespry, to test-inspect roofs in Texas for hail damage, which could improve the speed and efficiency of claim resolutions. Drones have already been deployed in Haiti and other countries to survey scenes of earthquakes and other natural disasters and help rescue missions deliver aid.

In remote Alaska, startups Aquilo and K2 Dronotics are offsetting a growing shortage of bush pilots by using drones to handle non­transport duties such as infrastructure inspection.

Economic development

The Central New York Regional Economic Development Council identifies the unmanned aerial systems industry as a job creator, estimating that 1,300 positions could be gained in R&D, manufacturing, and other drone businesses. The council is funding up to $250 million in drone projects through 2020.

Public safety

Drones made by L-3 Unmanned Systems are being used to survey hazmat disasters safely. Other drones are fighting wildfires. 1st Rescue is developing a rapid response telemedicine system; along with delivering a medical kit with an automated external defibrillator, it will integrate a two-way video connection and biotelemetry software. In Rwanda, Silicon Valley-based Zipline has delivered blood products to hospitals and health centers using winged drones.

Last summer, Iowa's Kossuth County emergency management agency used its newest tool--a DJI Phantom 4--to shortcut an extensive search to locate a cardiac-episode victim near a logjam river.

Construction and real estate

Construction firms can track progress and assets and examine joints and welds. A gravel supplier, say, could use Kespry to measure stockpiles, manage inventory, lay out new pits, and survey quarry locations. Once things are built, the real estate industry sees drones creating detailed video of commercial and residential properties for sale. If only they washed windows, too.


PrecisionHawk, a Raleigh, North Carolina, drone maker focused on mapping and analytics, is also researching broader parameters. The company wants to expand drone technology to deliver intelligence across a range of industries. It has created aerial data software called DataMapper; acquired drone image provider TerraServer; and launched Latas, a low-altitude traffic and airspace safety platform for drones.

Alabama-based Lidar USA is using drone-mounted lidar (light detection and ranging) to provide mobile mapping systems for surveying, civil engineering, forensics, and even archaeology. BNSF Railway is testing drones to inspect its rail infrastructure in isolated areas.

Media and entertainment

The first FAA exemptions for commercial use were given to film producers to capture aerial footage without costly heli­copters. The Belgian-based Flying-Cam, an early innovator, has received two Oscars, including the Scientific and Engineering Award for the Flying-Cam Sarah 3.0 used in the 2012 James Bond movie Skyfall. As costs have fallen, advertising agencies have gotten into the game. Soccer and football teams are using drones for tactical analysis.

CNN is participating in the FAA's Pathfinder program to gauge the safety of flying drones over large crowds. A proposed rule will free drones weighing 4.4 pounds or less to fly over people.


DroneDeploy, a drone software developer, is a partner in a program designed to increase the efficiency of solar panel installations and inspection through drone-based thermal imagery capture and analytics. The use of onboard thermal imagery helps ensure that equipment is positioned for maximal production.

GE's Oil and Gas Technology Center is using drones to detect methane leaks at oil wells. AT&T uses drones to inspect cell-phone towers.

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