Artificial intelligence ready to move drones to the next level

by Fabrice Ciais Associate Director, AI, PwC United Kingdom

by Craig Roberts UK Drones Technical Lead, PwC United Kingdom

In our latest CEO Panel survey more than three-quarters (77%) of CEOs expect an enduring shift toward automation and one sector where exciting developments are expected is drones. AI technology is making drones smarter and enhancing the capabilities of human operators. Together, this is plotting a path to fully autonomous drones.

One common use of drones is in supporting audits by measuring the volumes of stockpiles or verifying measurements already completed. This has led to numerous benefits in sectors including energy, construction and mining. Drones are safer, faster and more cost-effective than traditional land-surveying approaches and comparably accurate.

The current drone workflow breaks down into four stages: permission (to fly), capture, processing and sharing.

If we consider audits, we can see the current semi-autonomous state of two of these phases, capture and processing. Capture usually involves a pilot at a site. The drone is flying a predetermined route but, legally, the pilot must have ‘eyes on’ at all times, ensuring safe flight. Images captured by the drone are then processed into 3D models of stockpiles using photogrammetry software, another semi-automated task with a human at the helm at all times.

Within five years, these phases will automate further. We will see computer vision AI better integrated into drone data capture and analysis, leading to safer and more efficient collection and processing of data. Computer vision AI in the drone could be part of a technology concert that delivers effective ‘sense and avoid’. In other words, enabling the drone to dynamically map its environment in 3D and make evasive manoeuvres to avoid crashes.

For human operators, AI and associated technology will offer the chance to operate drones remotely, increasing speed and quality. This could include running multiple simultaneous missions from a central command and control location, often many miles from the audit site.

AI may also deliver a significant increase in the scale and pace of drone-captured data processing, with proven automation cutting through onerous manual tasks and offering humans an opportunity to develop higher value skill sets.

It is vital, however, to remember that both drones and AI exist in a social context. Regulations must evolve to allow for these advancements and social acceptance will need to grow. In order to take advantage of drone technology, it will be key for businesses to develop the right ‘guardrails’ to respect regulation and act in an ethical manner. Respect for individual privacy, cyber security, creation of codes of conduct and ensuring human expertise stays in the forefront of decision making are necessary elements of good governance for these AI-based systems.

All of that said, drones can deliver significant advantages to businesses right now, even in their semi-automated state.

PwC is ready to show you how drones and AI can benefit your organisation and help you to plan for what they will be able to do in future.

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If you’d like to understand how drones and AI can integrate to support your businesses, please get in touch with us using the contact details below.

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by Fabrice Ciais Associate Director, AI, PwC United Kingdom

by Craig Roberts UK Drones Technical Lead, PwC United Kingdom

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