Drones have become more and more sophisticated. It is said that the commercialization of drones started in 2010 when Parrot of France introduced the AR.Drone. Since then, many companies have released drones for both commercial and private use and competition in the drone market has become increasingly intense. Market estimates are that the global drone market will grow at a compound annual growth rate of 32% between 2015 and 2020 into a US$5.6 billion industry.

Drone applications in manufacturing

Drones are being used for equipment inspection in factories. Ford Motor Company has developed its own drone equipped with multiple cameras. Previously, an inspection team of 20 staff took 12 hours to inspect a factory. Now with the drone, however, Ford’s maintenance staff can complete the inspection in just 12 minutes. In addition to the huge time saving and labor saving benefits, the use of a drone significantly improves staff safety, because inspection no longer involves a person having to work in a high location.

ZF Friedrichshafen of Germany obtained official approval for automated drone flights of spare parts over factory premises, which is the first permit of its kind. The company plans to use drones to transport goods on its plant premises. They have already completed test flights, and as soon as the drones are properly deployed, such flights will reduce vehicle traffic at the plant and save time on goods delivery. Using drones on factory premises is an addition to ZF Friedrichshafen’s activities in the Industry 4.0 sector, and they see long-term business potential in it.

Examples of Japanese companies using drones

Drones are also getting much attention in the logistics industry. Many companies are busy conducting experiments of drone delivery. Nikkei Sangyo Shimbun reports that Rakuten plans to start their drone delivery service. Rakuten also intends to use drones for regular delivery to sparsely populated areas. Once Rakuten’s delivery drone becomes operational, it will be the first drone-based delivery to consumers in Japan. Using IT, Rakuten reportedly aims to build its own fully-automated delivery network.

Japan Post is also conducting drone tests, which they plan to use in their Yu-Pack parcel delivery in the future. They started transporting goods in Fukushima in November 2018 in which advertising catalogues and brochures were sent between post offices some 9km apart. A drone takes 15 minutes to deliver them while it currently takes 25 minutes by a light truck.

YAMATO HOLDINGS is developing an unmanned cargo aircraft. They aim to commercialize the “flying truck” by 2025.

ANA tested a drone flight beyond the visual line of sight of the operator. It was the first case for a drone to fly over the sea without an operator checking it. There are over 420 populated islands and 15,000 marginal settlements in rural areas with mostly senior populations. It is expected that drones will provide logistics solutions for these areas.

China is leading the drone market

Globally, China is leading the growth of the drone market. China’s Da-Jiang Innovations (DJI) has over 70% of the global market share for the consumer drone industry, with revenue of US$2.7 billion in 2017.

An extremely diverse population density in the country poses logistics challenges for China as conventional road-based transportation is both time-consuming and costly. A drone can deliver a parcel quickly and easily to mountainous village without paved roads. The commercial use of drones is rapidly increasing in China partly because its environment makes the use of drones very useful. Drones are also used in many fields. Drones are used to spray insecticides and monitor crop growth. Drones also offer safer and more efficient solutions for the inspection of infrastructure facilities. China not only leads the world in drone manufacturing, but also in developing and providing drone-based services.

Drone training has become very popular in China. Since being a drone pilot has become an officially recognized job, a number of such schools have been established. Other jobs recognized by the Chinese government include AI engineering technicians, IoT engineering technicians, big data engineering technicians, cloud computing engineering technicians, and digital managers – reflecting the strong government focus on high-tech industry including drones. It is estimated that 400,000 drone pilots will be needed by 2020 in China.

In 2016, the Chinese government used drones for security purposes when it hosted the G20 summit in Hangzhou. Such security drones were deployed by police across the country. China’s security and military use of drones also attracts global attention.

The trade war between the United States and China, however, may significantly affect the prospect of Made-in-China drones. The US blacklisted Huawei in May, and the company lost most of its high-profile partners such as Google and ARM. The drone industry could be the next target of a US blacklist should the trade war continue to intensify.