The market for drones is still evolving, as individuals and the private sector use these vessels for innovative tasks. People still enjoy flying these unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for leisure and companies are increasingly utilizing these machines for search and rescue, data collection and even package delivery.

Market research firm IDTechEx recently released a report titled “Electric UAV Drones: Autonomous, Energy Independent 2017-2027”. This report discusses where the electrically powered UAV industry is headed over the next 10 years, and explains issues and technologies associated with these machines. According the report, the market value of UAV drones is expected to grow from 2.5 million in 2017 to 6.1 million by 2027, with exceptional growth for military and upper atmosphere uses.

To learn more about the future of the UAV drone industry, R&D Magazine interviewed Dr. Peter Harrop, Ph.D., one of the report’s authors and founder of IDTechEx. In the interview, he talks specifically about pricing changes in the toy and hobbyist market, UAV for drones agriculture use and other trends he sees on the horizon.

R&D Magazine: What was your goal in publishing this report?

Dr. Peter Harrop: To assist those involved or likely to be involved in understanding where the technology and demand is headed and what will be good and bad strategy to participate successfully in the industry. We seek to assist investors, legislators, developers, manufacturers and other interested parties with their involvement in the subject over the coming ten years.

R&D: What are the advantages/disadvantages of operating drones with this type of power source?

PH: Electric drive is more controllable and pollution free and where necessary it goes best with autonomy of navigation, task and energy (eg making all its electricity from light). For monitoring animals, security surveillance and for military operations, the relative silence and lack of heat signature provides useful stealth.

R&D: The report predicts that pilots operating small toy drones or flying them for leisure will remain the largest market during the forecast period. Why will these categories remain popular during the forecast period and how could pricing change in the same time frame as well?

PH: The largest market by number of electric drones will be toy and hobbyist, but their prices have collapsed and there is no going back. Their prices will drop a lot further, maybe another 70%– the only sectors to suffer this degree of commoditization. The biggest electric drone hardware value market is already commercial/ industrial/ police, and in 2027 it will be military by value but only just ahead. Indeed, in 2027, the toy plus hobbyist value market for electric drone hardware will have dropped further to a mere 3% of the total hardware market for electric drones.  Overarching all this, the overall electric drone software and services market will be even more than the hardware market and almost none of that by value will support toy plus hobbyist versions. Bottom line – electric drones are and will remain mainly a software and services business plus a significant hardware business, all notably industrial, commercial and military. With these, prices actually rise because they get larger and/ or more sophisticated.

R&D: How will electric-powered UAVs revolutionize agriculture? Can you discuss specific applications for these machines?

PH: Electric drones are used or planned for crop spraying to surveying. Measurement and action can be directed at individual growing plants, thus saving up to 99% of herbicides, fungicides and fertilizers, so this is at once environmental and a threat to the conventional agri-chemicals and farm crop management vehicles. Electric drones provide a means of obtaining aerial images and maps of farms, enabling farmers to obtain data and to take data-driven action, thus moving closer towards precision agriculture. Electric drones are best for small areas and/or in cases where rapid or frequent imaging is required. The smaller agricultural electric drones are even used for indoor micro-farming in Japan.

R&D: Can you discuss any other trends that could impact the commercial drone market?

PH: Tethered electric drones are made for two purposes, both likely to become significant markets. Firstly, a conductive tether lets the drone hover for a very long time doing surveying, security monitoring and so on because it supplies non-stop electricity for power. Secondly, an appropriately designed tethered drone can fly autonomously into position and reverse its propellers or act as a kite, in both cases providing large amounts of green electricity in farms etc. at lower cost than conventional wind turbines. They are transportable and not polluting and noisy like diesel. This is only a taster. Other developments include disposable delivery drones and multi-copters flying on sunshine alone.

R&D: What obstacles or opportunities do you see arising when it comes to building these machines, designing software to pilot them, regulations for pilots etc.?

PH: Proving safety to all concerned, getting insurance, air traffic control and permission to fly and cyber-crime.

This interview was edited for clarity