Commercial drones

Europe’s drone opportunity

China may have a corner on the recreational market, and the US on military uses, but Europe is poised to find its own niche.

The take-away

  • European innovators are taking the lead with commercial drones. The market will grow from €85 million in 2016 to €2.6 billion in 2025.
  • They are used for environmental monitoring, industrial inspection, rescue missions and even underwater inspections.

If you have spent any time this summer picnicking in a park or walking in the countryside, your tranquillity will likely have been disturbed by the hum of a drone overhead: there are now an estimated 1.5 million buzzing around Europe. Yet though Europeans are buying them, they are not making enough of them. Taking its cue from Apple’s user-centred approach to product development – keep it simple, high-quality and affordable – China’s Da-Jiang Innovations (DJI) dominates the market, holding a staggering 75% market share worldwide. In comparison, the second biggest consumer drone manufacturer and only European competitor, France-based Parrot, has a market share in the single digits and last year announced job cuts resulting in the loss of a third of its employees.

But if Europe has lost the battle for dominance of the civil drone industry, there are other opportunities for a slice of the global pie, projected to reach about €45 billion by 2025.

One is military. Several European countries are reclaiming control of their military drone fleets after years of reliance on US and Israeli imports. Developing combat and surveillance drones of their own through the likes of Airbus, Thales and others, European military drones range from the tiny Norwegian Black Hornet, which UK soldiers have been using to look over walls and around corners in Afghanistan since 2013, to Airbus’s huge EuroMALE surveillance drone expected to be soaring through the skies in 2025.

A drone for all circumstances

With US innovators hamstrung by regulations and Chinese competitors like DJI only now starting to transition their efforts to the enterprise market, Europe’s opportunity is in commercial drones. Though “leisure drones” – the ones intended for recreational purposes – will remain the biggest sellers over the next few years, the European commercial drone market is projected to grow from €85 million in 2015 to €2.6 billion in 2025.

Much of this growth will be driven by sectors like agriculture, oil and gas, construction, building inspection and public safety. But European drone innovators are increasingly finding new and varied uses in less obvious places, with both large established manufacturers like Parrot and small start-ups vying to satisfy every conceivable need.

The Technical University of Denmark (DTU) is particularly active in this space. Aiming to realise the Danish government’s new strategy – using drones to solve important tasks within the public sector – DTU projects include the development of a long-distance drone with vertical take-off and landing capability at sea. Called Smart UAV, the helicopter–aeroplane hybrid can be used for environmental monitoring, rescue missions, locating unexploded mines and even pirate surveillance.

Also being developed at DTU is an autonomous hexacopter drone. Combining visual, infrared and cutting-edge luminescence imaging, the DronEL project will bring the drone to market for full solar-power plant surveys. “A detailed evaluation of a power plant with 10,000 photovoltaic modules would take an inspector weeks,” explains team member Gisele Benato. “Not to mention that small installations on rooftops represent a safety issue for the inspector.” Instead, DronEL will rapidly survey the site from above, not only saving time and cost, but also detecting a wider range of panel failures like hot-spots, solar-cell cracks and potential-induced degradation.

Where no drone has gone before

Elsewhere, robotic helpers are finding use in the most unexpected places. Flyability, a spinoff of Switzerland’s École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), has created Elios, a drone with a collision-tolerant carbon-fibre protective exoskeleton, allowing it to inspect the most confined environments (see “Drones designed like bugs”). Explains CEO Patrick Thévoz: “Elios can be used for the inspection of power plants, storage tanks, mines and ships, or to explore sites of natural disasters.”

Looking at a different type of complex environment, student teams at the Eindhoven University of Technology have been developing a healthcare-assistant drone since 2015. The idea is that the drone will sense, learn, understand and communicate with users, flying around autonomously and safely, while assisting patients and medical professionals. Already the drone has been playing games with child patients at the Máxima Medical Centre near Eindhoven.

Drones are even heading below the sea. École Polytechnique spinout Forssea Robotics is equipping underwater drones with augmented reality, computer vision and machine-learning technology. Working with bad visibility, freezing temperatures, huge pressures, corrosion and of course no GPS – Forssea has developed the world’s first autonomous submarine connector, called ATOLL. When launched in 2019, it will inspect, move, and provide power and data to various subsea systems like other drones, subsea oil and gas equipment and scientific experiments at one-tenth the price of today’s solutions.

Parrot, EuroMALE, Smart UAV, DronEL, Flyability, Blue Jay Eindhoven, Forssea Robotics