I love drones. No, not the big high-altitude ones like the Predator Drone, I mean the smaller low-altitude ones like Aeryon, Flexrotor, Phantom, and PrecisionHawk, that do everything from 3D mapping, to cinematography, to forensic inspections, to precision agriculture. I love making, programming, and piloting small unmanned aerial vehicles (sUAVs), and over the past several years I have made it an avocation to understand the impact this innovative technology will have on the future of business.
In this blog I discuss what I believe is the largest impact: big data cloud-based services.
Hardware is already a commodity. Today, much of the buzz about small unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS) is focused on the technology itself — their components, their payload capacity, how fast they fly, how long they stay up, the latest camera, etc. But honestly, those are quickly becoming non-differentiated product features. What is considered an innovation today– such as a stabilization gyro or avionic CPU – gets quickly mass-produced in Taiwan, China, or Mexico tomorrow. Airframe materials are generally the same—made of tried and true materials like light-weight shapeable foam and carbon fiber. For the buyer, it’s more a question of how much you’re willing to spend — like with a bicycle or laptop.
Software isn’t the differentiator either. For all drones, the interaction between the user and the aircraft is mediated by software. True, the quality of the pilot experience can be driven by the features and the quality of implementation, but this, too, is quickly becoming commoditized. For example, consumer-level vendors like 3DRobitics, DJI, and MikroKopter have software running at “ground level” for mission planning. The basic feature set includes: setting altitude, waypoints, speed, camera angles, and capture points. All vendors import Google Earth to help with that, and what once was done on a notebook PC and ‘uploaded’ to the aircraft prior to mission start is now performed on a tablet in real-time. Surely in the months ahead, usability will increase as planning software begins to import 3D models and perform pre-flight simulations, but that too will be a common feature across vendors. FAA regulations and public sentiment aside, we could, in fact, see Jeff Bezos’ vision of ‘Amazon Prime Air’ drone delivery technically feasible soon enough.
The greater value is in the data captured. Because small drones can fly at low-altitude, they make perfect precision image and data capture vehicles. Right now, it’s more efficient to fly an inexpensive drone over a large land area than it is to traverse it in a vehicle — and even more efficient than sending out an expensive multi-person surveying team. Keep in mind a digital photograph or video is not simply an image or composite of images. Rather, it is the result of processing visual light (blue, green, and red) as a binary numeric representation of a two-dimensional image—in other words, light becomes digital data. As cameras become more resolute, the amount of data captured goes up — as does the potential value of those images. But prices are coming down. For example, what once was available a few years ago only from a high-value satellite image service provider now comes from a drone affixed with a consumer level camera and off-the-shelf PC software. The software can automatically build textured 3D models from still images. And then there’s infrared cameras. They are now small enough, light enough, and cheap enough to mount on a drone. Infrared cameras don’t just let you see differences in heat; they let you measure those differences. So, there’s even more valuable data to evaluate.
Big farms mean big data. Dr. Kevin Price of Kansas State University says that about 80% of the money that will be spent on unmanned aerial vehicles in the next 10 years will be spent in the area of agriculture. He and others predict this will be a $100 billion industry by the year 2025. While we dont agree with those numbers, we do see many agriculture applications for drones currently in development include data collection on crop health, vigor and yields; tracking the spread of invasive plant species; and monitoring cattle feedlots. Field images from cameras mounted on drones can be captured within an inch of accuracy. You can’t get that from a satellite or commercial aircraft image. Small drones are agile enough to provide ‘anywhere, anytime’ remote access. That means farmers and ranchers can do daily surveys to find exactly the right time to harvest or replenish feed stock. Similarly, changes over time can be equally revealing. By doing regular surveys and using software to highlight differences over time, it’s possible to zero in on anomalies. This valuable information, of course, can be used to improve productivity.
Cloud-based services are the future. You can buy a decent image-capture drone off the shelf for about $1200 US, but that doesn’t make you an image information specialist. The first thing you need to realize is that flying a drone and taking pictures is merely the first step in the data collection process. Images need to be corrected, calibrated, processed, stored, and evaluated. For precision agriculture and mapping, data quality and post-processing are critical to getting real value from the images. And helping the customer attain that value is the role of a data services provider. Already PrecisionHawk offers a service they call PrecisionMapper (now called DataMapper), “a cloud-based application that gives anyone the ability to upload, store, process, and share their aerial image data.”
By gathering data on a large scale over time, service providers will be able to process unprecedented levels of detail data and turn it into usable information for farmers. This vision is confirmed in a recent article where PrecisionHawk’s president Ernest Earon says ” the company views itself as a data company, rather than a drone company. He envisions an “app store” model that would allow, say, somebody in North Dakota with a top-notch algorithm for detecting potato blight, to license it to other farmers.”
There you have it. This is the future of small drones and I suspect as their use and applications increase small and medium business (SMB) niche service providers will flourish. And as they flourish these firms will differentiate themselves based on processing speed and the salience of their insights. Certainly the use of a cloud-based in-memory computing platform to accelerate analytics, processes, and predictive capabilities will be foundational to that differentiation.
Feel free to leave a comment telling me about your interest in this innovation.
Image credit: Shutterstock
This post also appears on SAP Business Innovation