Tuesday, December 11, 2018
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Drones are a disruptive technology

Commercial UAVs.Valter Adao is not a drone specialist. He’s Deloitte’s chief digital officer and he’s fascinated by technological disruption. Drones, he told the attendees at DroneCon 2018 at Vodaworld in Midrand, will disrupt our world just like Uber, Airbnb, Amazon and Netflix have already done.

The trajectory is exactly the same: the six Ds of technical disruption: digitisation, deception, disruption, dematerialisation, demonetisation and finally democratisation. Legacy companies that have taken years to get to where they are in terms of market share look askance at the fledgling tech start ups and don’t take them seriously with all their false stars and glitches, but then when they iron out the kinks those start ups fly past and the legacy companies end up wondering where their market share has vanished, taken by competitors who threw out the playbook entirely.

“This kind of debate is happening with every form of new technology; Blockchain, crypto-currency, drones, artificial intelligence. The battle to unlock innovations equals opportunities and threats. We have to be cognisant of the threat, not just the cyber threat, but the human threat too.

“Moore’s Law holds true now more than ever. The 50-year-old theory that technology doubles in capacity and halves in price every 18 months. Music went form the gramophone to the iPod and five years later the iPod is obsolete.

“We are often dismissive of the threat because it takes so long to get there and then there’s chaos and amazement like the taxis and Uber or video stores and Netflix. The same thing is happening with drones,” he said.

Adao was involved in a project in Rwanda where lasers mounted on mini drones were being tested in a scheme to obliterate mosquitoes. The experiment failed but it led to many other innovations; notably using drones to deliver pesticides and even sterilized mosquitoes to breeding areas.

“This was Moore’s Law in practice. In some areas in Africa it was taking 3-5 days because of the impassable roads – even if the weather was good - to get medicine to the poorest of the poor. Using drones this was cut to 3-5 hours in Rwanda. The drone lands on site or parachutes the medicine to the recipients.”

The lesson, he says, has been that it is not the drone itself that has been the disruptor but rather how it has been able to work with other technology to achieve things that truly would have been impossible beforehand.

Independent tech consultant Jacques Swart agrees, describing how drones have used biomimetics, mimicking biology to improve technology whether being inspired by the dragonfly to develop technology for more stable flight handling in strong winds for micro-drones or the eagle’s legendary eyesight able to see rodents in the veld from kilometres away to create foveated imaging for camera lenses.

Micro drones have even been created to mimic bees to help pollinate plants.

“We don’t want to replace bees, but we have been responsible for their decline, so now we are using technology to augment them,” he explains.

When drones are used in tandem with AI, the possibilities become endless, like flying in GPS denied navigation areas using dynamic sense and avoid technology or using machine vision to perform inspections for defects in the oil and gas industry.

Then there’s process automation, where the drone flies autonomously in an area like a warehouse, avoiding obstructions and counting stock or, if supplied with the barcode, fetching the particular item.

“The drone is either the deliverer of the facilitator of the disruption. There are more IPOs happening, more funding, more mergers and acquisitions,” Adao enthuses.

Veteran economist Dr Roelof Botha agrees: “This is a sunrise industry, as opposed to a sunset one like the typewriter,” he quips. “McKinsey says 25% of all jobs will be lost because of robotics by 2025. What they don’t tell you is how many will be created as a result of this disruption. The industry turnover at the moment is R23 billion a year, with 40 627 formally employed.

“This is a very important business. Its scope is expanding, it will have an incredible role to play in the next 10 years.”

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