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Australia-based Wildlife Drones provides animal-tracking services to private industry, government agencies and research institutions.Wildlife Drones

Sunda pangolins are odd-looking creatures, with long tongues and bodies covered in scales. These housecat-sized animals are critically endangered: poached and sold on the black market for traditional medicinal ingredients.

Save Vietnam’s Wildlife, a non-profit conservation organization, has been working for years to rescue and rehabilitate them. But the organization kept hitting snags when the pangolins were released back into the wild: They became difficult to track and collect data on, hindering efforts to improve their long-term survival outcomes.

Thanks to advances in drone-based technologies, the organization can now keep closer tabs on the pangolins long after their rescue.

Using drone-enabled, radiotelemetry technology, Save Vietnam’s Wildlife tracks released pangolins across several habitats, including dense lowland forests and mountainous terrain, says Dr. Debbie Saunders. The conservation ecologist is also founder and CEO of Wildlife Drones, an Acton, Australia-based startup providing animal-tracking services to private industry, government agencies and research institutions.

The information the company gathers offers a rare look into what happens to endangered mammals in the wild, generating invaluable data that can be used to aid anti-poaching efforts. Save Vietnam’s Wildlife, for instance, has used drones to track at least 12 Sunda pangolins post-release since 2019.

“I think that drone sensors and applications are only limited by our imagination,” Dr. Saunders says.

The Wildlife Drones technology is one example of the increasing number of commercial, civil and research applications for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), more commonly known as drones. A wide range of sectors are now touched by the technology – with marine search and rescue, seed planting and construction planning among the ones finding uses for drones.

The global commercial drone market hit US$8.15-billion in 2022, and it will rise to US$47.38-billion by 2030, according to Strategic Market Research – and North America is the leading market for commercial drone applications. The combination of automation with drone technology brings together two rapidly advancing fields in new and increasingly complex ways. The global autonomous drone market is expected to be worth US$56.5-billion US by 2030, up from US$15.5-billion today, according to a report by Markets N Research.

Those applications cut across industries, with both technological advances and growing adoption in the construction, agricultural and logistics industries driving the market. Jeeves Drones in Denver specializes in drone services for the real estate, construction and promotional photography sectors. UAVs are used to capture photos and videos of properties for sale, to make property assessments for insurance and telecommunications companies using infrared data and to assist with animal rescue and first-responder volunteer services.

Recent advancements in drone technology have already improved business applications such as photo capture, or made new ones possible, says Jay Hanna, co-founder of Jeeves Drones. Automation makes those applications faster, more accurate and more secure.

Drones also offer significant potential advantages for delivery services, says Dan O’Toole, CEO and founder of Dronedek, which is developing smart technology-enabled mailboxes for autonomous drone deliveries.

As they mature, drone delivery services can offer cost and time savings over traditional methods, with added benefits like cutting the number of vehicles on the road and reducing labour needs, Mr. O’Toole says. Data released by McKinsey earlier this year indicated the number of daily drone deliveries continues to grow and that as it matures, the tech has the potential to lower both costs and carbon emissions compared with other forms of delivery transport.

“Drones could become an important part of the delivery supply chain,” the report reads, noting that more than 2,000 commercial drone deliveries took place each day in early 2022.

“The low-hanging-fruit use case that comes to mind is the medical field,” Mr. O’Toole says. The ability to deliver high-value and urgently needed items quickly and securely can lower costs and improve patient care and outcomes, he adds.

Drones can also enter and travel within areas that are geographically remote or otherwise difficult or dangerous to access. This has obvious implications for resource industries, where drones can be used to monitor or deliver supplies to sites like mines and rigs. There are also potential benefits for northern and remote regions of the planet, from more routine applications such as deliveries to more complex and continuing ones like wildlife and weather monitoring. For example, UNICEF uses drones to serve some of the world’s hardest-to-reach communities.

However, enjoying these potential advantages requires good telecommunications resources as well as further technological advances in terms of battery life and payload capacity. As automation and machine learning become increasingly sophisticated, so will the potential of the UAV sector, and its impact on hard-to-reach industries and corners of the world.

“The ability to scale up the operational capability of these drone platforms and sensors across increasingly large and remote landscapes, with fully autonomous launch/land/recharge docking stations and integrated airspace visibility, is really where a lot of additional potential will get unlocked,” Dr. Saunders says.

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