Fully automated, pilotless drones are already taking over Australia’s mining sites, but the “holy grail” is their use in smart cities.
The global drone market is expected to increase by 34 per cent to $US11.2 billion by 2020, according to Goldman Sachs, and the Australian mining industry is providing fertile ground for global start-ups to prove their worth.
“Our drones are being used for security, mapping, surveying, measurements and inspections, but all of that is in the industrial space,” says Efrat Fenigson, the head of marketing at Israeli automated drone start-up Airobotics. “If you want to talk outside the industrial space, which is our vision, our vision is to fly in cities.
“To get there, mostly because of the regulation, you have to prove you are safe enough,” says Fenigson, who was in Australia recently for the International Mining and Resources Conference (IMARC). “Drones are so well suited to mining because of the wide open spaces and well-defined perimeters.
“Obviously you can talk about delivering a pizza or a package but if you compare that to saving lives, that is the holy grail. Think about a fire happening – you could send a drone there in a couple of minutes before the fire truck gets there to give a live feed of video from the area to help the firefighters know what to do when they arrive. Same thing with blood samples or a police chase providing live surveillance.
“There are a lot of applications in smart cities, even helping congested cities deal with parking areas, traffic jams or inspection of infrastructure. For Australia another great use is beach patrols, shark alerts and bush fires.”
When asked by AFR BOSS magazine about potential security applications, Fenigson says: “They could also be key for border security and homeland defence.”
Venture capitalists, including Microsoft Ventures, China’s BlueRun Ventures and Singapore’s Pavilion Capital, seem to believe the hype. Airobotics, founded in 2014 by young Israeli entrepreneurs Ran Krauss and Meir Kliner, is already providing automated drones to South32 and BHP, and recently raised $30 million to take its total capital raised to more than $100 million to further scale up in the United States and Australia.
Fenigson says most mining companies are still buying toy drones off the shelf, but are realising these are not reliable or accurate enough.
“Our customers used to rely on once-a-month fly-overs in a helicopter or a plane to do a LIDAR scan, which would cost them anywhere from $20,000 to $30,000 for one flight,” she says. “Now we give them LIDAR on a drone for around the same cost and fly it three or four times a day and also have thermal, video and mapping.”