Just how automated are drone operations today? We dive into the data.
Last time we covered autonomy we debated twitter spats and laid the foundation for looking at drone autonomy. This included adopting the levels of driving automation to drone flight and establishing that autonomous drone solutions goes beyond just simple flight – covering everything from data capture and processing to analyzing and acting.
But just how common are autonomous drones today? And at what part of the drone stack is automation happening? As we’ve seen 2022 bring a variety of 1st and 3rd party drone in a box solutions, manufacturers are betting that customers are increasingly automating their operations.
Drone Flight Leads the Autonomy Charge
In our 2021 report, we asked over 1,000 business and agency users which components of their drone operations were “mostly” automated. Just over 50% of drone programs said their drone flights were mostly automated, followed by data processing.
The least automated step (at just 14% of programs) was data insights / analytics. This makes sense when considering that both the data itself can be hard to interpret and that without repeatable, automated flights advanced AI/ML techniques cannot yield great results. Take for example a vertical asset inspection of a telecom tower or power pylon, where solutions such as Skydio’s 3D Tower Capture can reliably automate the flight and data capture. Yet the operator may have thousands of variations of tower configurations and individual components installed over decades that make deploying AI at scale to detect parts and schedule maintenance of specific components difficult.
Which Missions Are Most Likely to Be Automated?
This ties into the types of missions – and industries – where drone operations are most easily automated. We have seen mapping missions be the first, requiring a simple, software defined mission plan for covering large, flat areas like construction sites or farms with minimal onboard intelligence. Vertical assets (like the aforementioned telecom tower or power pylon) can forego the mission plan for smarter onboard systems and obstacle detection sensors.
The holy grail is to automate situational awareness or tactical missions for public safety. Where time is of the essence, and situations are inherently unique. Pilot teams often struggle to properly position the aircraft in the best position, optimize camera controls for the best intel and – most critically – relay that information to the incident commander.
When we break out our data by sector, we see these mission realities come to life. With simpler mapping missions in Agriculture and AEC / Construction making these the most automated sectors while Public Safety is the least.
So When Do I Get My Drone in a Box?
While this data shows that the state of drone autonomy is positive in 2022, there are more steps to installing thousands of remotely deployable drones in boxes, particularly on the regulatory side of things. We have seen some progress – with limited approvals for leaders such as American Robotics – but the scalability of such regulations is unclear. Waivers tied to specific sites or operations is inherently slow to scale and will be the main bottleneck for deployments.
In the meantime, manufacturers and developers have identified the Robot-as-a-Service (RaaS) business model as the best path to scale. This lowers upfront costs for customers, and its predictable nature makes funding growth – once regulations are in place – a simple proposition for investors.
New suggestions set forth by the FAA’s BvLOS rulemaking committee earlier this year move in the right direction to more scalable, autonomous, remote flights. With public comment on the suggestions ending just yesterday (June 29th), the FAA will move to consider final BVLOS rules that hopefully release in the next 8 months.
The potential for automated drone ops at scale has never seemed closer, but we’ll continue to see a divergence across industries as certain missions benefit from relying more on intelligent controls, but not necessarily full automation.
In the meantime, be sure you’re subscribed to our newsletter (find the form on our homepage here) to be informed about the latest drone news and get notified when we conduct our 2022 survey that is right around the corner.