If not Pizza, What are Drones Actually Delivering in NZ?

Front NewsNews

Precis:  A short article examining the state of NZ Commercial Drone use in NZ since the creation of the new drone laws – Civil Aviation Regulation CAR 102.

Author – Andy Grant is the Chairman of UAVNZ – the NZ professional association for Commercial UAV (Drone) operators

Drones, UAV, UAS, RPAS…call them what you will, there has been plenty of NZ public interest in these flying robots in the past few years.  While there has been a media focus on the errant operators that have flown drones in the vicinity of manned aircraft, and the delivery of Pizza Boxes, what is the actual state of the commercial industry?

What are drones delivering in New Zealand

Photo / Open2View.com

New Zealand is widely seen a progressive country when it comes to drone regulation.  2015 heralded in a new regulation regime called Civil Aviation Regulation (CAR) 102 that was risk-based.  In essence; if you could dream it, and prove you could do it safely with a drone, you were allowed to do it.  This was a real departure from the very prescriptive nature of regulation in other parts of the aviation industry, but was an inspired move.  Given the rate of change and development in the drone sector it would be very difficult, otherwise, to create a set of rules that could stay relevant with the technological developments.  Of course there has been a great deal of scrutiny on what was being proposed and how the risks were to be managed. However, this innovative move by the NZ Government has stimulated a good deal of quiet innovation in the last two years.  To date, the Civil Aviation Authority has certified 92 NZ companies with a 102 certificate; with the approximate spread of the commercial activity occurring as follows:

70% – Aerial Photography

8% – Powerline Inspection

2% – Agricultural Work

(There is also a wide range of other activities conducted – aerial mapping, media operations cinematography, etc)

It is not surprising that the aerial photography is leading the push – with camera gimbals and high-spec cameras distilling down from the early adopters in the film industry.  In New Zealand, Commercial and Residential real estate are currently the biggest consumers of aerial imagery, with at least one Real Estate Company, taking the opportunity to gain 102 certification and establishing an in-house drone capability.  Other real estate companies rely on specialist commercial drone companies, established around the country, to get that aerial perspective.  However, an aerial overview is quickly becoming a required offering in real estate marketing.

Another growing sector is survey work with drones using photogrammetry and LIDAR techniques to produce 3D models (point-clouds), accurate to within a few centimetres – the drone flying a grid pattern and taking an image every couple of seconds.  There are several specialist software products specifically designed to produce fast and accurate 3D models from drone images.  These are being used in NZ for many functions, including the accurate calculation of loads of woodchip being embarked on a ship; with the drone system calculating, before and after volumes of the woodchip stockpile.  This technique was also used to produce a 3D model of an air accident site and to quickly map the relative location of all of the crashed aircraft parts.  This software can also seamlessly stitch together 1000s of high resolution images to provide the classic wide area aerial image, but in very high resolution.

Drones are also being used to inspect infrastructure at height.  It has proved really useful in Christchurch – with the ability to inspect structures quickly and safely without the risks or costs associated with specialist height-safety equipment.  It has also found a niche in the energy sector where power lines, poles and pylons provide an obvious area where rapid, safe inspection methods are core business.

The greatest potential area for growth is perhaps in other business processes. The industry is slowly making in-roads into different sectors, through the important tenants of service delivery:  offering a service that does something, safer, better, cheaper (or any combination thereof).   Developing payloads and drone solutions that make a business-process safer, better, cheaper is the main focus of a number of NZ companies; with the few NZ drone manufacturers creating specialist solutions for niche applications.  These include – providing drones to CNN in the US, providing specialist solutions to global agriculture and forestry companies, and even re-inventing the fishing kontiki to be an airborne variant.  Specialist drones have also been created to rapidly access natural disasters in areas such as the South Pacific; proving especially useful in areas where the support infrastructure for manned aircraft has been impacted by the disaster.  Rather than competing with many other companies across the globe to build generic drones, it is apparent that NZ manufacturers are targeting niche areas and developing full solutions.

A few NZ companies and tertiary education providers have commenced programmes to train drone pilots and support CAR 102 certification. Airways NZ, the providers of Air Traffic Control and Air Traffic Management services in New Zealand, have also been actively involved in creating foundational services for drone traffic management – a definite area of future growth.

The speed of development in the drone-sector is breath-taking.  The drones themselves are almost daily increasing in payload capacity, endurance and range.  Their on-board sensors are increasing in sophistication and they are becoming progressively more autonomous.  The next major break-through will occur when technologies are developed to allow drones to safely work beyond the line of sight of operators.  This is not far away and it will unlock a lot of the drone potential – especially in the agricultural and industrial sectors.  It will also create a few issues and raise questions as our skies have more and more drones conducting more work more autonomously and at greater ranges.  To help navigate through these difficult issues, the commercial drone industry has established UAVNZ; a professional association to be the voice of the industry and to help ensure that commercial drone operations are conducted to the highest standard, while supporting innovation and industry growth in NZ.

Lists of 102 Certified Operators are available on the CAA website – https://www.caa.govt.nz/script/avdocclientlist?Details_ID=8390

Airshare is provided by Airways NZ Ltd and is the Drone Hub of NZ – providing information on commercial operators, rules, airspace and safety: