The War is Not Over: Why Agriculture Drones Deserve a Closer Look

As many of you know I’ve been researching and writing about agriculture drone solutions since early 2012. I recently came across this OpEd in PrecisionAg titled “Opinion: The Agricultural Drone War Is Over, And They Lost” and read it with great interest. Two and half years ago, our research indicated the same thing—that small drones might not be able to deliver more usable data to a farmer or provide a cost benefit over the existing image solutions available to them.

Even last year I had my doubts. In our June 2016 report, The Truth about Drones in Precision Agriculture, we looked at how drones have been used as remote sensing devices in agriculture thus far, reviewed competitive and traditional approaches using incumbent technology (like satellites and manned aircraft), and discussed the opportunities and challenges posed by the technology itself.

But a lot has changed since then.  Agriculture drones have matured, and so have the sensors and analytical solutions that support them.  A rising number of software vendors are targeting the agriculture space with increasingly useful solutions. And a new generation of drones is delivering much-needed functionality.

Not all agriculture drone solutions are created equal, so it pays to do a bit of research before committing. There are many factors to consider, from software compatibility to price to technical capabilities such as:

  • Can you get all the components—drone, sensor, software, and analytics—from one company?
  • Is an internet connection required in order to process data?
  • Will it integrate well with your existing tools?

The research process to find the best solution can be overwhelming and time-consuming, but there is some good news. We’ve done a fair amount of this work already which you can access in our latest report, Using Drones to Ensure ROI in Precision Agriculture.  You’ll also find a checklist there to help you determine which solution is the best fit.  Here is an excerpt:

Nearly all agriculture drone solutions process RGB color, near infrared (NIR), and normalized difference vegetation index (NDVI) data.  But not all solutions provide additional analytics and tools better matched to the needs of growers and agronomists. For example, only one solution we know of in the market allows users to view live NDVI data via streaming video while the drone is flying without an internet connection. This means you can more easily fly missions and see critical information at the field’s edge without requiring a trip back to the office. This eliminates a huge bottleneck. Most solutions require that you upload images from the UAV to a mobile device, a laptop or cloud service where they are stitched together to create a base map and the underlying spectrum data is processed into a usable NDVI layer.  In most solutions, you have to wait for that information—sometimes for hours. But with this solution you don’t have to do that, and the added benefit is you can use the time savings to gather additional inputs from the areas the real-time map shows as suspect.

The report goes on to detail the following:

  • The importance of timely inputs
  • New analytics and tools
  • The importance of an integrated solution—sensor, drone, and analytic data platform
  • The challenges of understanding ROI
  • The benefits of end-to-end solutions

You can get the report, plus an End-to-End UAV Solution Checklist for Precision Agriculture, here. 

Look for another report from us on this topic soon. If you have questions about information in the report or would like to comment on it after reading, write me at


Image credit: Sentera


Five Valuable Business Lessons Learned About Drones in Construction

We just released a new research report titled “Five Valuable Business Lessons Learned About Drones in Construction.” This is the first in a new series of white papers sponsored by BZ Media intended to share lessons learned in specific industries and how to maximize the value drones can deliver in those industries. This year, we are building on the analysis we did for the 2016 “Truth About” papers by incorporating real-world experience gained from businesses and drone pilots operating under the Federal Aviation Administration’s Small Unmanned Aircraft Regulations (aka FAA Part 107).

In the report we demonstrate what drone operators servicing the architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) industry have learned about what works and what doesn’t. We explore both the benefits and limitations of drones for Building Information Modeling (BIM) projects and offer practical advice to would-be adopters. We answer questions like: What have construction companies learned about creating their own internal drone operations groups? And where do we go or what can we expect from here?

Here is an excerpt:

“The $8.5 trillion global construction industry is both massive and far flung—there is no place in the world that does not build things. The industry’s problems reflect an age-old tradition of architects and engineers throwing plans over the wall to be reworked by contractors and subcontractors. It’s not that the system doesn’t work—it’s that the rework eats up increasingly thin margins, wastes huge amounts of material, and creates massive delays. And since much of it is on paper, trying to integrate and keep track of complex projects is no easy task.

In a June 2016 report, McKinsey quantified the problem: “Large projects across asset classes typically take 20 percent longer to finish than scheduled and are up to 80 percent over budget. Construction productivity has actually declined in some markets since the 1990s.” Of the 22 industries McKinsey analyzed, the construction industry is second to last; only agriculture has made less progress digitizing its workflows.

The sheer scale of the problem led Goldman Sachs to write that the first large-scale use of commercial drones will be in construction. It makes perfect sense. Visual line of site (VLOS) works just fine on construction sites. A growing group of software vendors are targeting the space with increasingly useful solutions. And a new  generation of drones is delivering much needed functionality.”

The report goes on to detail the business lessons learned from drone-based projects done by hundreds of firms across the globe—not just for construction but also for engineering and architectural firms. It also provides insights from Richard Lopez, VDC (visual design construction) Manager at Hensel Phelps, a $3.1B 80-year-old construction company in Greeley, CO.

You can watch a brief video on it here:

You can get the free report here.

If you have questions about what’s in the report or would like to comment on it after reading it, write me


Image credit: BZ Media

Who Benefits from Airmap and its Digital Certificates for Drones?

Airmap, with its low-altitude airspace management platform for drones, continues to garner international market share and new investment, but some uses for its digital certificates raise questions about their role in future airspace regulation.



AirMap provides low-altitude navigational data and communication tools to the drone industry. In February 2017, they announced $26 million in Series B funding from Microsoft, Airbus, Qualcomm, Yuneec, and Sony, with Microsoft leading the round. At the same time, they announced a partnership to deliver their airspace services for SenseFly drones directly integrated with senseFly’s eMotion flight and data management software. This comes on the heels of many other partnerships and integration efforts with the likes of 3D Robotics, DJI, Hover, Intel, Kittyhawk, Lufthansa Systems, and The Weather Company.



The Airmap smartphone app—available in the App Store and Google Play—is a very useful tool for drone operators. I first became acquainted with it when Hover began using it as the map for their app. I use it to determine (among other things) if the location where I want to fly has any flight restrictions. Flight restrictions include controlled airspace (Class B, C, D, and E), airports, heliports, and caution areas (like Temporary Flight Restrictions, wildfires, prohibited and restricted airspace, national parks, and marine protected areas). All of this of course just augments the geofencing systems that are already built into many drones (like the DJI GEO), which can lock you out of flying in restricted areas.

Another unique feature is Airmap’s Digital Notice and Awareness System (D-NAS), which allows users to communicate flight intentions to the more than 125 airports worldwide that accept digital flight notices. With D-NAS airports can view past and current drone flights, and communicate with drone operators.

At any rate—kudos to the managers and development team for their attention to detail and expanding capabilities. I suspect we’ll see more partnerships and integrations as a result of the AirMap Platform announced in August 2016. This developer platform offers Airmap airspace information and services capabilities for anyone who wants to integrate it with their own software for drones, mobile apps, or web applications.

But here’s the thing

What I think has gotten lost in all the euphoria of recent announcements is the significance of Airmap’s announcement in December 2016 of Drone ID.  Basically Drone ID is a digital certificate for your drone.  Digital certificates are important tools used to secure the internet and other digital communications. The certificate establishes a pair of digital “keys” that are used to encrypt information shared between websites or devices and users. If you are an online shopper you are no doubt aware of browser security that ensures no one can “snoop” in on your transactions. The ‘S’ at the end of HTTPS stands for ‘Secure’. It means all communications between your browser and the website are encrypted. For this to work, an organization needs to install the SSL Certificate onto its web server to initiate a secure session with browsers.  In Airmap’s case, the certificate is issued by them and DigiCert to enable secure connections with drones.

Airmap says the way it works is:

“Drone operators that register their drone online will receive a digital Drone ID certificate, including a unique, validated aircraft identity number that can be loaded onto the drone and shared with others in the drone ecosystem. That identity can be used to digitally sign information coming from the drone, enabling more efficient and secure communication from drone to drone, between drones and other aircraft, and with platforms providing airspace information and services, like AirMap.”

Hmmm.  That’s not like a browser, a device, or a user. That’s other things and other people too.

Drone ID isn’t public just yet.  It’s scheduled to be released in Q1 2017 for drones built with the Intel® Aero Platform for Developers.  At that time, it will also be immediately available to other manufacturers and developers interested in the free service.

So why do you need this and who benefits?

Airmap says Drone ID is designed to “facilitate instant verification of an unmanned aircraft’s identity via a digital certificate, enabling authentication and encryption for drones.” Possible use cases include:

  • Enabling encrypted video to be sent from a drone to a pair of first-person view (FPV) goggles
  • Authenticating commands to each drone in an automated swarm
  • Ensuring that ground communication is “talking” to the right device
  • “Signing” information sent by a drone, such as data from an ADS-B transponder, to verify that it comes from the right drone and isn’t being spoofed

Airmap’s concept of using digital certificates for regulatory purposes first caught my attention when they released the white paper Robust and Scalable UAS Registration – Key Technology Issue and Recommendations in February 2016. Here are the opening paragraphs:

“The growing Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) ecosystem requires accountability of operators, availability of airspace, and security of communications, particularly a confidential, authenticated, and accessible registration system. The FAA’s recent launch of a web-based registration service starts the UAS registration system in an excellent direction. Nevertheless, the scope and scale of the system’s future capabilities remains a concern. The anticipated growth and diversity of UAS use suggests the need for a globally-integrated system more capable than today’s.

A robust and scalable registration system considers the right technologies for its organization, registration information, queries, and security as the UAS ecosystem expands. This paper argues that careful selection of current Internet technologies and protocols can help enable the creation of a registration system that serves present needs but will also evolve as technology advances.”

But their service didn’t get included in the FAA’s small UAS registration, so now what?

Airmap has progressively worked together on an ongoing basis with regulators and other private companies on the various Unmanned Traffic Management (UTM) projects. UTM refers to efforts to build an air traffic management infrastructure for drones worldwide, such as the NASA-FAA UTM project. That project is a collaboration between regulators and private industry partners like AirMap.  You can read Airmap’s statement on UTM here.

One of Airmap’s ideas is to have their D-NAS system at the center with drone operators submitting digital flight plans to airports to receive authorization to fly. The other idea is to have their digital certificates be “the thing” that identifies the aircraft and its owner.

Pregnant pause

Right now all aircraft identification is achieved by physical means commonly referred to affixing an “N” number to the aircraft.  It’s like the license plate on your car.  It’s a semi-private number and it’s tied to your car’s registration. But cars and aircraft don’t have digital certificates.

Don’t get me wrong. I think using digital certificates for data security is generally a good idea. The data collected on the drone should be secured for lots of legal reasons—chain of custody being the most important. But that’s the data—not the drone aircraft itself—and that has nothing to with registration or remote identification of the aircraft for regulators or within an air traffic control system.

There are other solutions for aircraft identification that don’t involve certificates or a digitally enabled UTM system. For example, Vigilant Aerospace completed beyond line-of-sight flight testing of its new FlightHorizon collision avoidance system for drones at NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center in the Mojave Desert without a complex system. You can read about that here.

Airmap is not alone in their quest to be at the center of UTM. That’s because everyone assumes—and no one questions—that UTM is needed right now because “we’re heading fast towards a future in which tens of millions of drones fly billions of flights.”  Airmap says it this way:

“Whatever future you can imagine for drones – from package delivery to flying cars – we are confident that the drone industry has the potential to surpass even the most bullish predictions.”

Sorry.  We don’t see it that way.

I’ve written a detailed piece on why the drone network of tomorrow is farther away than you think. I make the case why airspace integration and management solutions for drones continue to garner new investment, but most options are based on fairytale scenarios and raise more questions than answers. I won’t repeat what it says but the bottom line is the vision of tens of millions of drones flying in the NAS alongside manned aircraft is vastly overstated. Our research shows that the vast majority of operations over next decade will be done largely single purpose drones in visual line of sight (VLOS), not beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS).


There are several Airmap competitors.  Whereas Airmap clearly dominates the “Sky Atlas” space in the U.S., there are other companies that do the same thing. B4UFLY is the “sanctioned” FAA smartphone app. Altitude Angel is the choice in the U.K., and DRONE COMPLIER the choice in Australia.

Even with Airmap’s competition, many operators find a sectional chart to be more reliable, and this is why competent Part 107 operators won’t use these apps. Several drone lawyers tell us they get calls from their clients asking, “Can I fly here? Because Airmap says I can’t.”  Over time, operators are finding that Airmap and B4UFLY say you can’t fly in a lot of places when in fact you can legally fly there. Perhaps the apps are overly restrictive to cover themselves legally.

One thing is for sure. What the FAA showcases in this video is a system of record based on an Esri ArcGIS platform. That platform provides the FAA and air traffic controllers everything from navigational charts to ensuring drones and planes can safely share the national airspace. The presenters indicate the drone data is provided by FAA’s Pathfinder Program partners. There’s no mention of Airmap.

In the digital certificate arena, Airmap seems to have no competitors. But I suspect when one of the Department of Defense (DoD) contractors like Lockheed Martin or Harris wakes up, they’ll just pull the right government levers to secure the business. You can see what Harris is doing already with BVLOS testing here.  We’ll see.


Airmap thinks Drone ID with its extra authentication layer will bring security to drones—and for data, we think that’s a good idea, but not if it’s to secure a live link. There’s a valuable lesson to be learned from the management of Air Force drones. Major General James Poss writes about his experiences in It’s the Data Link, Stupid. He says:

“Generally, the less encryption a link uses, the more reliable it is.  Encryption requires lengthy “handshakes” for link nodes to establish identity, then it uses encryption keys to establish a secure link. Too many things can get bungled with an encrypted link. The nodes can fail their handshakes, making it impossible to establish a link. The complicated keys must be the precisely the same on both sides and some human (probably named Murphy) inevitably keys the wrong key at some point.”

General Poss goes on to point we have not figured out how command and control can be performed reliably over the cellular network.

But let’s assume for a minute the “tens of millions of drones” volumes are true. If so, then it’s understandable that any company would want to be in the middle of an internet enabled UTM with a controlling piece—like aircraft registration via digital certificates. Surely at some point in the future it would produce a steady revenue stream. In the Internet world, there are various classes of digital certificates and they range in cost between $18 and $120. Most have to be renewed after two years. The simple math says if those hyped drone volumes come true and if regulators require certificates, then the digital certificate provider could stand to make a lot of money—perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars in the first year of implementation. So, ask yourself, who is benefiting from Airmap’s digital certificates? You as a drone operator, governments, or Airmap?

As always, I’m always interested to hear your thoughts and insights about this topic.  Please comment below.

Image credit: Airmap

Why the Drone Network of Tomorrow is Farther Away than You Think

Airspace integration and management solutions for drones continue to garner new investment, but most options are based on fairytale scenarios and raise more questions than answers.

I’ve been doing research on the commercial drone industry since early 2012, and it never ceases to amaze me how much hype there is.  A week doesn’t go by where I find a new fantasy forecast or see an announcement on how this or that drone networking solution is “game changing.”

How real are those claims that drones will one day be filling our skies and delivering packages? Where and when will we see massive industry growth and is that growth dependent on the existence of a drone network?  In this post, I’ll go over a few misconceptions, discuss the harsh reality, and offer two lessons learned that I hope will help make the conversation a bit more rational.

The hype

Question: How much spin is out there on drone networks?  Answer: A lot.

Take this piece, for example: In The Drone Network of Tomorrow (It’s Closer Than You Think). The author wants you to believe that the drone network of tomorrow is a few hurdles away.  In this futuristic world, users will remotely dispatch multiple drones right from their offices. They’ll specify the flight path, and the drones will fly there autonomously and collect data. In this world, there will be drones-for-hire stationed at key locations and you will just click on button to summon them at your command. It will be “the Internet of drones” and it will be accomplished via the LTE network, the same network to which every smartphone is connected today.

Investors buy it.

Read The Big Money Continues to Bet on Drones, which discusses Verizon’s recent acquisition of Skyward. Read Airmap’s own take on their announcement of $26 million in Series B funding from Microsoft, Airbus, Qualcomm, Yuneec, and Sony, with Microsoft leading the round.

The press buys it.

Read this recent article in Recode. It says:

Drones are, after all, flying computers that connect to the internet—connectivity on a drone is often used to share flight information with other drones, report to air traffic control or send aerial imaging back in real time to the operator.

I bought it, too.

In December 2014, I wrote Why Drones Are the Future of the Internet of Things.

But since that time I’ve done a lot a research to find evidence supporting industry claims, and the truth is, at every turn I’ve come up empty handed and found many misconceptions.

The misconceptions

Many in the industry have worked together to move forward the various Unmanned Traffic Management (UTM) projects. UTM refers to efforts to build an air traffic management infrastructure for drones, such as the NASA-FAA UTM project and GUTMA. Those initiatives are a collaboration between government regulators and private industry partners. At the center of those initiatives is the enablement of routine beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS–sometimes just BLOS) operations for commercial drones. Good. We need that. To see some of that work, download the latest presentations from the 2016 UTM Conference here.

While the NASA-FAA UTM initiative may have started out with some simple solutions, it’s now blossomed into an expensive “one-size-fits-all” behemoth that is proposing ways to control flight scenarios that don’t need them—those flights where no data exists showing any risk those operations pose to the NAS or nonparticipants on the ground. That hasn’t stopped UTM participants, along with the Drone Advisory Committee (DAC), though, from suggesting those controls.

I think it’s a good idea that’s gone bad. I am not alone in perceiving that many UTM and DAC participants think their charter is to integrate the Internet and the cellular network into the National Airspace System (NAS). The leader of GUTMA thinks his organization can do for drones what ICANN does for the Internet. Face palm.

Now, the snowball effect is these companies (and investors) believe drones are Internet-of-Things (IoT) devices that are going to magically multiply like rabbits once we have a drone network. Truth is, drones aren’t IoT devices; they’re data-gathering aircraft.  Yes, they collect data that looks a lot like the data from an IoT device in motion (see my presentation on that here), but equating them with IoT devices assumes way too much—like the need for constant connectivity to the Internet, for one. Here’s a clue: Drones from DJI, the dominant market share leader, don’t have it, nor do 99.9% of drones that operate in the NAS today.

The harsh reality

So, to put it bluntly, the vision of tens of millions of drones flying in the NAS alongside manned aircraft is overstated. Visionaries like to point to the 100,000 or so flights that happen today as the bellwether indicator of what’s to come. They point to the headlines that say package delivery drones will fill the skies as reality. But drone delivery has been seriously debunked, and the bellwether argument is a non-sequitur. The vast majority of the flights happening today happen in uncontrolled Class G airspace, happen around 200-300 feet above ground level, happen without any automated traffic control interaction, and happen without incident.

Also, our research says the growth of drone use by industries will be much more measured than the hyped growth figures that visionaries tout, and the bulk of operations will happen mostly as they do today within visual line of sight (LOS).  We don’t see huge volumes for BVLOS operations happening for many, many years—if at all. There are other factors hindering drone adoption beside regulations and air traffic control.  There are other reasons why companies will stick with incumbent technology like satellites and manned aircraft.  We have written much about hype in the drone industry, and if that’s new to you, then you can start your research with this SlideShare.

Two lessons to take to heart

Regulators and experienced military users know flying drones safely and securely in BVLOS operations is not easy. Because of its complexity, we now have a new term in aviation: Performance Based Navigation (PBN). PBN describes requirements for separating aircraft and avoiding collision. PBN is a combination of systems both on and off of the aircraft that affect its ability to navigate. And that takes us to our first lesson.

Lesson 1: Buried in the recent announcement of regular BVLOS flights of Aeryon SkyRangers at the Foremost UAS Range in Alberta was the fact that Ventus Geospatial had to meet very stringent criteria from Transport Canada (Canada’s civil aviation authority). The requirements prescribe a host PBN including:

  • Sense-and-avoid system to provide traffic separation and a means for collision avoidance. That system will have to detect the traffic in time to process the sensor information, determine if a conflict exists, and execute a maneuver according to the right-of-way rules.  That system must possess the capability to detect both cooperative aircraft (aircraft with a means of electronic conspicuity (transponder, TCAS, ADS-B, etc.)) and non-cooperative aircraft.
  • Some ground-based radar systems may be utilized to provide a means of meeting sense and avoid requirements.
  • Traffic Alert and Collision Avoidance System (TCAS) / Airborne Collision Avoidance System (ACAS) that employs a collision avoidance system with reactive logic, so that any maneuver resulting from a perceived threat from another aircraft will not reduce the effectiveness of a TCAS/ACAS resolution advisory maneuver from that other aircraft.
  • Automated Dependent Surveillance Broadcast System (ADS-B), with the caveat that ADS-B does not have the ability to detect non-cooperative aircraft, it is not an approved strategy, in and of itself, for mitigating the UAV sense and avoid requirements.
  • Use of multilateration, which is a type of secondary surveillance system that is based on the use of conventional transponders and stationary receivers that provide an aircraft’s position using triangulation principles.
  • Separation and Collision Avoidance Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) addressing:
    • Take-off/launch and landing/recovery procedures;
    • En-route and terminal procedures;
    • Loss of control data link; and
    • Abort procedures following critical system failure.

I could go on, but you get the point. There’s no uber-integrated automation system for PBN and there won’t be for a long time.

Lesson 2: Major General James Poss writes about his experiences with the early days of managing military drone systems in It’s the Data Link, Stupid. He says:

A commercial drone ground relay LOS network would have advantages and disadvantages compared to the Air Force system. Advantages are that existing cell phone tower networks are ideally positioned to provide the backbone for ground relay LOS networks for commercial drones. Cell phone companies have already leased the land, dealt with all the FCC regulatory restrictions and, most importantly, obtained the spectrum that could be used for BLOS drone link operations. They also have world class cyber defense centers.  The disadvantage is that today’s providers struggle to get enough bandwidth for existing cell phone coverage as it is, their cell tower antennas point down to cover ground users, vice up to cover drones, and their 4G link reliability won’t be high enough to satisfy FAA BLOS requirements. For something as critical as BLOS drone control, the FAA won’t tolerate ‘dropped calls’.  It’s that reliability thing, again.

He goes on to say:

Problems would remain even with this type of system. Although low bandwidth directional drone links using commercially available spectrum wouldn’t use scarce 4G service spectrum, they would take up physical space on already overcrowded cellphone towers. Directional antennas are expensive and must be positioned carefully to avoid radio frequency interference.

And I’m afraid 5G (the next-generation of mobile networks beyond the 4G LTE mobile networks of today) isn’t a silver bullet. Right now, forecasters say 5G adoption will be slow and most of that extra bandwidth will be used by consumers for mobile video viewing.

But General Poss raises great points. Why would anyone invest in these systems if they’re riskier than either military drones or manned aircraft, particularly when the regulatory environment is unclear?  Just how would the FAA regulate a drone network? If the control portion of the network would be an aviation safety critical system, would the FAA even have the authority to regulate it when it’s the Federal Communication Commission’s charter to regulate cellular communications?

All I can tell you is, Buckle up and stay tuned in. It’s going to be a long bumpy ride.