Drones, the Italian market returns to growth. But the legislation is holding back the momentum

The 2021 scenario photographed by the Polimi Observatory. Turnover at +29% but has not yet recovered compared to pre-pandemic levels. There are 713 active companies. "Tricolor" projects forerunner in Advanced Air Mobility for the transport of people and goods. Investment in R&D is still insufficient 08 Feb 2022

Drones, let's start again. After the slowdown caused by the pandemic in 2020, 2021 has recorded a restart for the sector demonstrating the potential of the market. The professional market in Italy reached the value of 94 million euros, +29% compared to 2020, which, however, was not enough to return to pre-pandemic levels (117 million euros in 2019). Today there are 713 companies active in the sector at national level, with 45 closures in 2021 (111 if we consider the period 2018-2021), indicating the evolution taking place in the sector. The two fronts of the market It emerges from the research of the Drone Observatory of the School of Management of the Politecnico di Milano, according to which the market has begun to be divided into two distinct segments. The "operational" one, consisting of medium/small drones capable of carrying out value-added activities for the most traditional sectors, is currently the only one that generates revenues. The other segment is the "Advanced Air Mobility", larger drones capable of transporting goods and people, still in its infancy but with a great perspective, on which today there are 21 projects (tested or only announced) in Italy, forerunner in Europe with the National Strategic Plan 2021-2030 for the development of ENAC Advanced Air Mobility. The application cases of total drones surveyed by the Observatory worldwide are 755 between 2019 and 2021, of which almost 42% were carried out in the last year. After the 20% reduction recorded in 2020, in 2021 applications began to grow again, exceeding even the value of 2019 (there were 245). Focus on Beyond Visual Line of Sight flights "2021 has been a year of decent recovery for the professional drone market – explains Marco Lovera, Scientific Director of the Drone Observatory -. The sector is experiencing a strong evolution: several small companies are gradually exiting the market and others are acquiring a leading role. However, the sector is not yet mature and several scenarios have yet to be developed for full operation of the applications, starting with the prospects of the Bvls flight, Beyond Visual Line of Sight". "We are in a delicate phase for the drone sector: the choices of the actors can strongly determine its full development or its marginalization – adds Paola Olivares, Director of the Drone Observatory -. The growth of the operating market segment on the one hand can enable experiments able to spread a greater social acceptance of drones among citizens and on the other hand provide ready-to-use solutions for the new Advanced Air Mobility market, of which rules, technology, services, regulations and business models are still to be defined. A segment that in the coming years may represent an important discontinuity in freight transport and in the mobility of people in urban and extra-urban areas". The weaknesses of the EU regulation "85% of Italian companies expect a market to grow strongly within the next 3 years, compared to 80% in 2020 and 71% in 2019 – says Cristina Rossi Lamastra, Scientific Director of the Drone Observatory -. One of the main barriers for the development of the market, however, remains the legislation, indicated as a significant constraint by 81% of respondents". 41% believe that the European Drone Regulation is already giving a strong boost to the market (against 32% of companies more skeptical). What seems to be missing is its full applicability, considered a strong brake by 64% of respondents. Poor investment in R&D The growth of the sector, especially in the operating segment, must pass through the innovation process and companies are investing mainly in the efficiency of processes and business organization (55%), marketing and sales (43%). Less on hardware development (30%) or software (26%). In fact, 69% of companies invest less than 30% of their spending on Research and Development in the drone business. A percentage not enough to bring real innovation on the technical and technological front. Social acceptance 80% of Italians consider it useful to transport goods with drones to reduce city traffic (43%) or improve the services offered to citizens and reduce delivery times (both to 36%). Nine out of ten Italians consider a service of delivery of medical material (drugs, medical devices, organs, blood) useful, testifying to how much the object of transport can strongly impact the social acceptance of the service. Users less enthusiastic than the transport of people: only 57% of the population sees its usefulness. On the usage front, 34% of citizens say they are more likely to use a self-driving car than an unmanned drone on board, which would be the first choice for only 7%, one in 4 citizens considers the use of the two vehicles indifferent, while the remaining 35% do not feel safe in using either of them. The outlook for the operating segment Consisting of medium/small drones capable of carrying out value-added activities for the more traditional sectors, at the moment this is the only sector of the drone market that generates turnover and in Italy it is worth 94 million euros in 2021 with a growth of 29% compared to 2020. Composed mainly of small businesses, 81% have less than 10 employees, born in recent years (50% were born after 2014), focused on the role of operator (85% of market players mainly carry out this activity) and concentrated mainly in northern Italy (52%). It is a market that has already reached a good level of efficiency and effectiveness, but still retains ample room for improvement from a technical and functional point of view. In this context, there are 550 cases worldwide, of which 33% are in experimentation, 30% are one-off use, 23% are operational, the remaining 14% are declarations of intent. The main applications concern inspections and inspections (42% of the cases surveyed), security and surveillance (21%), mainly in the agricultural sector (12%). At the level of sectors, in the first places the Public Administration (42%) which has been recording a strong surge in cases since the pandemic, environmental protection (17% of the cases surveyed), utilities (9%). The transport of goods and people It is the segment made up of large drones, up to hundreds of kg, capable of transporting goods and people, completely emerging, but which is attracting strong interest from public opinion and governments. The application cases surveyed worldwide by the Observatory are 205 between 2019 and 2021, of which 93% concern the transport of goods with drones and the remaining 7% the transport of people. The nation that records a higher number of cases are the United States with 57 applications, followed by Italy which has 21, Australia with 9 and China with 8. Italy, among the European nations, is moving as a trailblazer on the subject, with ENAC publishing on 30 September 2021 the National Strategic Plan 2021-2030 for the development of Advanced Air Mobility in Italy. In the transport of goods with drones there are 190 cases worldwide: 61 concern the delivery of medical material, 33 deal with food, 23 of postal packages, while only 4 concern heavy loads. The main types of transport are last-mile deliveries of small packages to individual customers (36%), followed by deliveries to healthcare facilities (18%). Less widespread, the transport of heavy loads. This market could reach maturity before the passenger transport market, which imposes even more stringent safety requirements. In passenger transport there are only 15 cases registered worldwide, which are divided almost equally between experiments and simple announcements. However, there are more than 200 eVtol projects (drones characterized by vertical take-off and landing) mapped by the Easa studio currently being studied and certified. However, the full development and deployment of such solutions will face regulatory, social acceptance and infrastructure development challenges. What the future holds The two areas on which to focus attention in the short term are the development of Bvlos flight and that of autonomous flight. In the Bvlos flight, ENAC has authorized 11 trials in 2021 and the interest at the Italian level is high: 52% of companies are interested in carrying out these experiments. Autonomous flight is the first priority indicated by the companies of the offer: 63% are extremely interested in the development of these systems.