How has COVID affected drones? The drone industry — like most industries — was dramatically disrupted, especially in the early days of the pandemic. Initially, drone business owners panicked as they saw their work, which can’t be done sitting on a couch or in a home office all day, put to a standstill. Drone conferences were cancelled for back-to-back-years. Big players including GE Aviation and Airbus underwent layoffs.
But the bad news quickly passed. Happily, the way COVID affected drones didn’t take long to change, and luckily for the drone industry, new opportunities arose out of the coronavirus pandemic.
And these days, drone pilots overwhelmingly say that the coronavirus crisis has had a positive impact on the drone industry as a whole in the long-term.
That’s according to the recently-released Drone Industry Barometer 2021 from Germany-based research firm Drone Industry Insights. The report, which collected 678 survey responses from drone users in August 2021 across companies both large and small, as well as across the hardware, software and service provider sectors, is optimistic.
52% of respondents in 2021 say COVID affected drones for the better. 33% said the pandemic has had a negligible impact, and just 15% said COVID affected drones for the worse.
That said, not all aspects of businesses are seeing positive impacts. While 23% of businesses reported an increase in demand in 2021, a disappointing 35% saw a drop in demand. 29% reported no impact. The most important metric that caused drones to see a positive impact was that the pandemic provided an opportunity for companies to reorient their business models. While 9% reported layoffs, it wasn’t all bad news. Companies saw new use cases, which included direct involvement in COVID-19 mitigation efforts.
“All of this could be a sign that companies found a way to adjust after a few months of 2020 so that in 2021 there would be less impact by the virus and lockdowns,” according to an analysis from DII.
That data corroborates with other information we’ve seen on similar topics in the past. Another survey, also from DII, showed that drone companies such as including Skyfish and DroneDeploy, increased their staff in 2020 by a collective average of 15%. So where was all that positive growth?
The most positive ways that COVID affected drones
Hardware sales: Drone hardware sales saw a huge surge in 2020. A huge sector for growth was agricultural spraying, where hardware sales rose 135%, according to the Drone Hardware Sector Report (2021 – 2026).
Hobby piloting: The commercial side saw growth in hardware sales, but the pandemic incited a resurgence in the hobby side. Maybe it’s because drones are a fairly solitary activity (or at least can be). Perhaps it’s because most drone flights occur in remote places anyway. And maybe it’s because drones are an ideal road trip buddy, perfect for taking photos of cool roadside billboards or rock formations in the middle of nowhere.
Agriculture in general: Hardware sales were up in agriculture, but quite frankly just about everything in the agricultural space is up when it comes to drones. Drone software company DroneDeploy said they saw a 33% increase in drone takeoffs among U.S. agricultural clients from mid-March to mid-April 2020. The global agriculture drone market is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 31.1% from 2019 to reach $5.19 billion by 2025.
Deliveries: Drone delivery saw its moment during COVID. An April 2020 memo from the Federal Aviation Administration specifically addressed the fact that drones can aid in a number of coronavirus-related use-cases. In particular, we’ve seen drones delivering COVID-19 vaccines to remote locations in Africa, as well as delivering supplies to vulnerable people in the U.S.
And not only did drone deliveries help the drone industry, but they helped the businesses using them. Mockingbird Cafe, a bakery in Christiansburg, Virginia, that works with Wing on drone deliveries, said drone delivery has accounted for about 25% of its sales during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Promoting social distancing: Beyond helping make contactless deliveries, drones could show off how businesses are enabling social distancing. Drone photographers found gigs showcasing aerial footage of outdoor dining or a socially-distanced outdoor bootcamp workout classes.
Investment: And expect growth to continue into the coming years for one key reason: the past year saw record investment in the drone industry, meaning you can expect to see the fruits of that for years to come. Investment in the global drone industry hit a record $2.34 billion in 2020. That’s nearly double the amount invested in 2019 (almost $1.3 billion invested) which was a record on its own.
“Undoubtedly, the global health pandemic will likely continue to impact the drone industry, as demand for automation increases and consequently special permissions for various drone operations increase in number,” according to a statement from DII. “Therefore, the true impact of coronavirus pandemic remains to be seen in the long term as the industry awaits further integration of drones into airspace, especially urban and suburban areas that are currently heavily restricted. Governmental investments into unmanned research projects and initiatives are increasing, as authorities are witnessing automation emerge as a tool for them to tackle 21st century challenges. Commercial drones, for the first time, had a chance to shine and they did not just live up to the expectations; they largely exceeded them.”