The next time you find something in the soup it could very well be a drone. According to the figures, they have proliferated to such an extent that they will soon be dealing with the flies on a one-to-one basis. To get an idea of ​​the evolution of the drone market: in Spain there are already 3,000 specialized companies that offer all kinds of services with unmanned gadgets by 3,700 registered pilots. According to calculations by the European Commission, drones will generate 150,000 jobs in the EU until 2050. It is firmly the trendy profession, one of the most attractive occupations of the labour market, according to sources within this nascent sector.

These autonomous guided vehicles can be quad-copters, hexa-copters, octa-copters -according to the number of propellers-, helicopters or also terrestrial and even aquatic vehicles, although we must recognize that when we think of a drone we tend to imagine it in the sky. To cite just one case of a water vehicle, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology works on a prototype capable of entering a city’s water facilities and detecting leaks, moving even against the tide.

Drones are also often thought of as recreational, as a hobby with which to participate in competitions – be they races or stunts – or record videos, but it is in the industrial field where applications are multiplying. For example, thanks to additive manufacturing, oil plants can print on site the part they require at any time without having to have a complete stock of spare parts, saving space and costs.

In the case of drones, they have consolidated their place as a consumer product among the general public – with starting prices from 20 euros -,but we also find  a wide variety of examples in all economic sectors. Thus, energy companies such as Endesa or Iberdrola review their windmills and other facilities from the air; Repsol uses them to access remote locations of its oil plants and even to capture images of areas that can be exploited; Navantia in its shipyards to check the condition of inaccessible parts for an operator; Intel Falcon 8+ drones are being very helpful in the restoration work of a Gothic cathedral in Halberstadt, in Germany, to analyze the pieces that need intervention.

“On many occasions, drones are an alternative to human labor that provides greater security, precision and efficiency in operations.” This is explained by Manuel García Sañudo, CEO of Terra Solutions at Maxam. This company has just won an award with its X-Copter for the Best Idea of ​​Use of Drones in Civil Engineering. Where appropriate, being equipped with gas sensors, this drone monitors any blasting from the air.

Training schools

According to the State Aviation Safety Agency (Aesa), within our borders we can find 74 training schools in the piloting and construction, as well as around 20 manufacturers. Throughout the European Union, it is estimated that these unmanned devices could reach 10% of the civil aviation market by 2028, at a rate of 15,000 million euros per year.

Laws have a lot to say in this development. Precisely, the sector is experiencing a very sweet moment since in 2015 the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in the US granted hundreds of new exemptions for companies to operate with these devices. That same revolution could occur in Spain, where the Council of Ministers approved last December 15 to modify Law 18/2014, which is currently much more restrictive.

Although it will be necessary to wait for the publication of the Strategic Plan of Drones – planned for this first quarter of the year – the Royal Decree already approved, expands the regulatory framework and contemplates, for example, to be able to fly over buildings, towns and gatherings of people outdoors. Another novelty would be permission for night flights. In any circumstance, all this would require prior authorization by AESA.

Julio Memba, one of the top experts in drones in our country, explains that “the previous legislation has improved a lot and can contribute to the professionalization of the sector, but it still has things to improve.” In his opinion, “it is still very permissive with the recreational industry and quite the contrary with the professionals.” And he gives an example: “I can fly a two-kilo drone in a park at night without asking permission, but if I want to record a wedding professionally I have to ask for permission six months in advance and I don’t even know if they will answer me” .

Nor have the EU states been able to reach an agreement and, currently, each country has its own initiative and regulation in the use of drones. The European authorities have proposed a plan, the U-Space, to integrate and improve legislation on security in drones that fly at low altitude and which they want to enter into force in 2019. “I do not think we will see a single legislation in Europe in such a short timeframe, but it’s only a matter of time” according to Memba, who also designs his own drones and is chief pilot at Alpha Unmanned Systems.

From Maxam they consider that “any measure aimed at promoting technological innovation is important, as long as the safety of operations is guaranteed”. He adds that the regulations of each country have a fundamental influence when it comes to facilitating the use of these devices even more so, as it is a global company: “The existence of a harmonized regulation would greatly help in the deployment of these devices and systems, ”he concludes.

Experts do not cease to be surprised at the advances in this field. “After 20 years flying all kinds of devices, I have seen almost everything, and the best thing is that I continue to be surprised. The last thing that left me with my mouth open is the image stabilization by software obtained by the Alpha 800. I think it’s science fiction,” adds Memba. In his role as a designer, he adds that “now the biggest challenge is that the platform performs any mission automatically, safely and without human intervention,” he explains.