Over 76,000 drones could be in the UK skies in 12 years’ time – and it could add as much as £1.1 billion (€1.3 billion) to the amount generated through farming and other primary industries.

Drone technology has the potential to increase the UK’s gross domestic product (GDP) by £42 billion (or 2%) by 2030, according to new research from PwC.

The report, ‘Skies Without Limits’, estimates that more than a third of these could be used for agriculture, mining, gas and electricity.

In the agricultural sector, drones are already being used for crop spraying and health assessments.

Certain drones combine normal and thermal cameras to deliver a level of insight into field crop health that is not obvious to the naked human eye.

For example, thermal imaging can detect dry areas and ensure water is delivered where required.

Low running costs

Low flight costs also offer an opportunity to frequently fly over field crops and create a time-lapse view highlighting any issues.

In the future, the use of drones will be driven by routines to collect crop information based on a particular trigger event – be it periodicity or an unseasonably wet or dry spell.

The drones will fly autonomously and the data captured will be analysed by artificial intelligence.

Actions – such as harvesting, irrigation or spraying – may then be launched, using the appropriate combination of autonomous robots.

Potential GDP increase percentage by sector:

  • Agriculture, Mining, Gas and Electricity: £1.1 billion; 1.1% increase;
  • Construction and Manufacturing: £8.6 billion; 1.6% increase;
  • Wholesale, Retail Trade, Accommodation and Food Services: £7.7 billion; 2.5% increase;
  • Transport and Logistics: £1.2 billion; 1.5% increase;
  • Technology, Media and Telecoms: £1.2 billion; 2.1% increase;
  • Finance, Insurance, Professional Services and Administrative Services: £10.4 billion; 1.6% increase;
  • Public Sector, Defence, Health, Education, and other services: £11.4 billion; 2.3% increase.

The report finds that drone technology could help the UK achieve up to £16 billion (€18.2 billion) in net cost savings by 2030 through increased productivity.

As changes in productivity and consumer demand resulting from drone usage emerge, PwC estimates there could be as many as 628,000 people working in the UK drone economy by 2030.

Elaine Whyte, UK drones leader at PwC, said: “The UK has the opportunity to be at the leading edge of exploiting this emerging technology, and now is the time for investments to be made in developing the use cases and trial projects needed to kick-start our drone industry.

“I envisage that the advantages of drone technology will be well established within the decade – not only for business purposes – but also for helping to protect our society; for example, through being used by the emergency services.

In order to realise the full potential from drones, the immediate focus must be on developing society’s confidence in the technology to help drive acceptance and increase adoption.

“While drones are often currently viewed as more of a toy, by combining this emerging technology with the right business understanding and human insight there is a huge opportunity to help solve some of business and society’s most important problems.”