Evaluating the Economics of BVLOS Drone Operations

We just announced the release of our latest research on commercial drone operations. The Economics of Using Drones for BVLOS Inspections is a white paper sponsored by PrecisionHawk, the leading provider of drone technology for the enterprise, which provides a foundation for businesses to evaluate when it’s best to use traditional ground and manned aviation, line of sight drones, or BVLOS (for “beyond visual line of sight”) drone inspection approaches. It’s designed as a comprehensive primer of drone inspections in specific industries.

The paper answers questions like:

  • What’s the best way to enable an effective drone strategy?
  • What are the economic benefits of operating drones?
  • What are the costs, benefits, and risks of using drones for BVLOS operations?
  • How does that compare with traditional inspection methods?

Here is an excerpt:

As the commercial drone industry continues to evolve, widespread BVLOS drone inspection has the potential to significantly change business models for oil and gas, utilities, insurance, and other industries. Representatives we spoke with in those industries point to four main drivers motivating them to explore BVLOS operations:

  • Safety, as in preventing fatal helicopter crashes or accidents from having to manually climb towers to take readings;
  • Costs, or reducing dependence on a $1,500-per-rotor-hour helicopter and personnel and even cutting the time and expense of the multiple flights needed in flying drones within visual line of sight (VLOS);
  • Data inconsistency and lack of quality, since manual data collection sometimes involves photos taken from a helicopter traveling at speed and at different heights for each flight—which leads to inconsistency—or hand-written notes taken while visually inspecting with binoculars—which leads to imprecise or poor quality data;
  • Time to value, meaning that BVLOS flight can cover a wide area and collect high-quality data much more quickly than traditional means, so, for example, insurance claims of total loss can be indemnified faster.

The 21-page report also provides a guide for when—and how—to deploy drones to inspect assets, use cases for how drone missions compare with traditional methods, and insight from PrecisionHawk’s customers about how they’re refining their inspection strategy—and their results.

You can register to get the free report here: http://bit.ly/2Rn8z6y

Image credit: PrecisionHawk

Drones in Public Infrastructure: Quick Start Guide

We’ve just announced the release of our Quick Start Guide to Drones in Public Infrastructure. This new report is the third and final series of white papers we’ve done to provide a complete primer to drone use in specific industries.

The report consolidates our best insights into the challenges and solutions drones add to inspecting assets like bridges, dams, highways, towers, and railways. It shows how drones add value to digital representation of physical assets and what information companies and public agencies are gleaning from the data their drones collect.

The paper answers questions like:

  • How big is the public infrastructure inspection drone market, and who are the major solution providers?
  • How do state DOTs, civil engineers, railroads, and telecommunications firms use drones and what challenges must be addressed?
  • What do you need to know about regulations, pilot certification, insurance, and training?
  • What are the best practices for adopting drones into existing workflows?

Here is an excerpt from the Drone Use in Public Infrastructure section:

“MDOT estimates that a standard bridge deck inspection takes eight hours, a crew of four people, and heavy equipment – costing at an estimated $4,600. The same inspection with a drone, however, requires just two people and two hours to complete at an estimated cost of $250.

A March 2018 survey, by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, found that 35 of 44 responding state departments of transportation (80%) are using unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) for a wide range of purposes. The survey also finds that 20 state DOTs have incorporated drones into their daily operations. All 20 are deploying the technology to gather photos and video of highway construction projects. In addition to photography, 14 states also reported using them for surveying, 12 for public education and outreach, 10 for bridge inspections, eight for emergency response, six for pavement inspections, five for scientific research, two for daily traffic control and monitoring, and one for conducting high-mast light pole inspections.

Of the 35 states deploying drones, 23 have established comprehensive policies that cover the acquisition, operation, airspace restrictions, and training and permitting of drones and pilots. Twenty-seven of the state DOTs said they were adding full-time staff to operate and maintain their drone fleets.”

The 10-page report also provides a SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats) for evaluating and designing your drone program and comes with an appendix that includes links to valuable online resources such as attorneys, advocacy groups, training & certification, and waivers & authorizations.

You can get the free report here.

 

Image credit: Emerald Expositions

Quick Start Guide to Drones in Energy

I’m happy to announce the release of our Quick Start Guide to Drones in Energy. This report is the second in a new series of Skylogic Research white papers, intended to provide a complete primer to drone use in specific industries. This year, we are building on the analysis we did for the 2017 Five Valuable Business Lessons Learned papers by providing guidance and industry-specific resources that will help you kick-start your practice. Our goal is to help drone-based service providers and business users maximize the value that drones can bring to operational groups.

This report consolidates our best insights into the challenges and solutions drones add to inspecting assets that produce and supply energy. We show how drones add value to digital 3-D representation of physical assets and what information companies are gleaning from the data their drones collect.

The paper answers questions like:

  • How big is the energy inspection drone market, and who are the major solution providers?
  • How are drones used by oil and gas companies, wind and solar farms, and utilities and what challenges must be addressed?
  • What do you need to know about regulations, pilot certification, insurance, and training?
  • What are the best practices for adopting drones into existing workflows?

Here is an excerpt from the drone use in energy asset inspections section:

“The number keeps growing, but GWEC estimates that there were over 341,000 wind turbines spinning around the world at the end of 2016. Unidentified defects can result in an unexpected catastrophic failure, causing expensive repairs, extended downtime, and associated revenue loss. Revenue losses alone from unexpected catastrophic failures can be as high as $50,000 per turbine.

Companies like AES Corporation and Duke Energy have realized tremendous cost savings using drone inspections. For example, drone-based service provider Measure can automate wind turbine data collection and inspection, making the process cost-effective and reliable. With traditional ground inspection methods, a two-person crew is able to inspect 3–4 turbines in a single day. A drone pilot can inspect 12–15 turbines in the same period. Plus, it’s a lot safer than sending inspectors out on rope harnesses high above the ground.

According to Solarplaza, drones can cut the cost of solar-farm panel inspections to between USD $2,100 and $3,200 a day, covering five acres an hour. According to one published report, a drone can survey 4,000 panels in about five minutes, while a human inspection would take more than eight days at a rate of one panel inspection per minute. The technique involves mounting a high-definition infrared camera on a drone and running the images through an analysis program to detect hotspots that might reveal the presence of faults. Maintenance teams can then visit these hotspot locations directly, without having to survey the entire solar field, which saves on operational costs.”

The 10-page report also provides a SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats) for evaluating and designing your drone program and comes with an appendix that includes links to valuable online resources such as attorneys, advocacy groups, training & certification, and waivers & authorizations.

I believe this is the perfect time to get your start using drones in the energy industry like scores of firms worldwide have done. 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 at colin@droneanalyst.com.

 

Image credit: Emerald Expositions

Five Valuable Business Lessons about Drone Inspections

We just released a new research report titled “Five Valuable Business Lessons About Drones in Asset and Infrastructure Inspection” This is the fourth in a series of white papers 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, which co-authored by Chris Korody, we demonstrate what drone operators servicing a wide variety of industries have learned about what works and what doesn’t. We explore both the benefits and limitations of drone inspection projects and offer practical advice to would-be adopters. We answer questions like: What have companies learned about creating their own internal drone operation groups? And where do we go or what can we expect from here?

Here is an excerpt:

“While both media and investors have primarily focused on opportunities for using drones in the construction and agriculture industries, inspection applications have fostered innovation together with significant returns on investment. The reasons begin with the “four Ds”—a term coined by GE Ventures to describe the unique ability of drones to meet the needs of their field services customers. The four D’s describe any activity that’s tailor-made to be performed by a drone, and are:

  • Dull
  • Dirty
  • Dangerous
  • Distant

In a 2014 interview, Sue Siegel, the CEO of GE Ventures, added a fifth “D”—for data—saying simply, “Imagine that if you’re doing it faster, you might be able to do it more often. And more data typically will give you better data.”

The four Ds+1 combination is one of the most compelling arguments for drone adoption in companies where uptime is money, crews are expensive, and structures and facilities are often expected to last 50 to 100 years.

The other compelling argument is cost reduction. McKinsey Consulting’s recent white paper “Preserving the downturn’s upsidehighlights how the oil and gas industry reduced costs by 29% in response to falling oil prices. They show that 40% to 50% of the savings came from eliminating the demand for a variety of services, including manned aviation support. The innovators figured out how to put drones to work.”

The report goes on to discuss how drones and the data from drones offer huge advantages in the oil & gas, telecommunications, and utility industries. It also provides insights from Dexter Lewis, PE, senior engineer in the research and development group at Southern Company (NYSE: SO) which brings electricity and gas to 9 million customers.

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 at colin@droneanalyst.com.

 

Image credit: Shutterstock

Is Sky-Futures Expanse Drone Inspection Software Good for All?

Sky-Futures cloud-based drone inspection visualization and reporting software squarely targets the asset inspection sector, but will it be broadly adopted?

 

THE FACTS:

No one questions whether the founders of Sky-Futures know what they are doing.  When it comes to drone inspections they have “been there, done that.”  You can read about their history and where they are going in The importance of industrial experience when enabling enterprise with drone capabilities, a post written by co-founder & CEO James Harrison. I won’t repeat all the facts, just the salient one.

When they started in June 2009, they assessed different markets, sizing them and then trying to forecast how they would look in 5 and 10 years’ time. They chose the drone inspection service market in the oil and gas (O&G) industry because of its highly inaccessible, highly hazardous and critical infrastructure, and its focus on safety and regulation. They succeeded in understanding the very specific needs of the industrial inspections market, got steady revenue stream, and have now turned to offering a software-as-a-service (SaaS) product as another generator of their future value. Their product is called ExpanseSM and is designed and built for drone-based operations management, inspections, data analysis, and reporting.

WHAT’S COOL AND WHAT’S NOT

There’s a lot to like about Expanse.  For one, it has an asset-centric view of the world—not an inspection-centric one.  In the inspection-centric view, reports provide little context for consumers of the information on the “who, what, where, and when” of problems. By taking the asset-centric view, Expanse starts with the “where” (a specific structure) and allows users to navigate to the areas of an asset that’s important to them—the “what,” like a rusty pipe or misaligned cell tower antenna. Everyone reading inspection reports has a different need (not everybody has responsibility for the integrity of pipes), so the software provides context.

The other thing that is very smart about Expanse is that all elements of the software are built around the deliverable—the inspection report. In this regard, it starts with the end in mind. How Covey-ish is that? The software enables drone inspection firms to share analysis reports with multiple stakeholders. Customers and third parties can access the media with security controls. It uses leading edge security protocols (like web-based video streaming), where unique permission holder access information is generated for each media file at runtime and cannot be shared with others. This should please enterprise privacy and risk mitigation legal beagles and IT data governance stewards.

There’s a whole host of features that users will like, such as the ability to make 3D links to objects that can be marked up with annotations, measurement, and observational classifications. Additionally, Expanse comes with image analysis tools for scaling, measurement on the incident plane, focus problem area size, comparisons over time, etc.

THE COMPETITION:

Expanse is new to the market, and it’s clear it was built around the needs of Sky-Futures’ O&G clients as consumers of the data. Sky-Futures’ hope is that its software’s features will translate to the requirements of the entire vertical infrastructure inspection market. They hope the integrity, inspection, and business drivers for a bridge, wind turbine, cell tower, and other managed facilities and structures share the same key characteristics that are addressed by their O&G-focused Expanse software.

We have written about the needs of the inspection market in The Truth about Drones in Construction and Infrastructure Inspection, and we think Expanse has a head start on the path to greater adoption. But we also think there will be a struggle for enterprises using drone data in general. That struggle is learning how to integrate the inspection data and analytics from software like Expanse into broader, more highly adopted software used for enterprise asset management (EAM), such as Infor EAM, Oracle EAM, and SAP EAM.

Infor may have leap-frogged all of this with their Drone Enterprise Asset Management Solution (DEAMS), which is also offered Drone Aviation Corp. Infor’s DEAMS uses purpose-built middleware that processes the data collected by drones’ onboard sensors and integrates it with Infor EAM and its maintenance, repair, and overhaul (MRO) applications. The data from DEAMS can also be analyzed with easy-to-use analytics to produce up-to-date information about the asset life, allowing for quicker and more effective decision-making.

BOTTOM LINE:

So, stepping back, one question remains: In the long run, will large enterprises employ service providers who use software like Expanse, or will they opt for integrated solutions like DEAMS? There may be a middle ground when Sky-Futures (or a third party) offers integration plugins for broader EAM solutions. We’ll see.  In the meantime, we expect that Expanse will continue to evolve and offer new features that other customers outside of O&G want.

Image credit: Sky-Futures

This post first appeared on DRONELIFE.com

The Truth about Drones in Construction and Inspection

We just released a new research study titled “The Truth about Drones in Construction and Infrastructure Inspection.” The free report is the second in series of studies sponsored by BZ Media that looks objectively at each major commercial market for drones and drone technology.

In the report, we show how drones have been used successfully in construction and infrastructure asset management as aerial image and data capture devices thus far, review competitive and traditional approaches using incumbent technology, discuss the opportunities and challenges posed by the technology itself, outline the lessons learned, and discuss what’s next for drones in this industry. Here is an excerpt:

“Unlike The Truth about Drones in Precision Agriculture, where satellite and manned aircraft image services have been available to growers at low costs for years, construction and inspection professionals have had historically few options.  Up until now, the process for construction planning and documenting was mostly manual and done from the ground — and hiring helicopters or aircraft to take aerial images was either too costly or logistically impossible due to airspace restrictions.  The simple truth is small drones — in particular multirotors — can fly lower and closer than traditional aircraft and capture more useful detailed information.

In the inspection world, unmanned aircraft have a distinct cost and safety advantage over using people on ropes, ladders, scaffolding, and bucket trucks.  For example, a rope-access inspection at a wind farm can involve two or three workers who need at least half a day to get the job done in order to produce a series of photos for a report.  This can cost $1,200-$1,500 every 12-18 months – in addition to the costs incurred from shutting off the turbines for at least half a day (see details here).

There are many other examples of the benefit of drones vs. traditional approaches.  This article points out that the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MDOT) recently completed a study on the benefits of using drones to inspect roads and bridges. MDOT estimated that a standard bridge deck inspection costs $4,600, takes eight hours, a crew of four people and heavy equipment. The same inspection with a drone takes just two people and two hours, at a significantly lower cost.”

The report goes on to summarize the proof-of-concept projects for drones done by hundreds of firms across the globe – not just for construction but also for civil infrastructure and asset management purposes.  We explore the major project types according to a commonly used building lifecycle framework of design, construction, operation, and demolition.

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 colin@droneanalyst.com.

Image credit: BZ Media

Market Impact of the FAA Small Drone Rule

Barriers to entry are lower, but high margin operations are still restricted.

THE FACTS:

By now you probably know that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has finally released Part 107, the Small UAS Rule (June 21, 2016), which covers operational use of commercial drones in U.S. airspace. This comes after several years of missed deadlines. You can read the FAA’s own summary of the ruling here. What’s important to note is these rules won’t be implemented until late August 2016.

WHAT’S COOL AND WHAT’S NOT:

There’s not much difference between what was proposed in the Notice of Proposed Rule Making (NPRM) in February, 2015 and the final rule. In a nutshell, the new U.S. rule is a one-size-fits-all approach that allows commercial operators to fly drones that weigh 55 lbs. or less within visual line-of-sight (VLOS) only and without obtaining a pilot’s license but with the requirement that they pass a test.

Our initial February 2015 economic assessment of the NPRM FAA Proposed Drone Rules: Market Opportunity Winners and Losers looked at the business impact and market opportunities the proposed VLOS rules would have for drone manufacturers, distributors, service providers, and investors.  Having read the newly issued Part 107, we stand by our earlier assessment and summarize it here:

  • Precision Agriculture – Winner and Loser

Demand for turnkey drone systems will increase as farmers and service providers work within the rule constraints.  However, the big caveat is drone usage alone will not “transform agriculture” just yet.  For that, we would need to see a change in the adoption rate for variable rate technology (such as applicators) — which is currently down.  Read our in-depth review The Truth about Drones in Precision Agriculture.

  • Inspection / Monitoring – Big Winner

Demand for and use of drones (especially multirotors) dedicated to asset and infrastructure inspection will see a big uptick. The new rule allows you to fly higher than 400 feet above ground level (AGL) if you stay within 400 feet of a structure (such as a 1000-foot tower), so energy, utilities, and telecommunications infrastructure stand to benefit. The rub is you can’t do night operations. So, roof inspections with a thermal camera is limited to almost useless daytime operations.

  • Mapping / Surveying – Winner and Loser

The surveying industry has the most to gain here. The door is wide open for drone operations like stockpile measurement and small open pit mine mapping.  The door is also open for laser scanning, 3D imaging capture, and data processing that architectural engineering firms can consume.  As such, there are new opportunities for dedicated and differentiated cloud-based in-memory processing data services.

  • Film / Photo / Video – Big Winner

Drones have already created new sources of demand for aerial photography, and this will continue in earnest. As with land-based photography, the financial and technical barriers to entry are low, making it easy for businesses to begin offering sUAS-based film and photography services. Now that the regulatory hurdle is low, expect aircraft vendors and specialty retailers to flourish, too.

  • Public Safety / First Responders – Uncertain

Under the proposed rules, demand for turnkey drone solutions and services for police, fire, and emergency medical services is uncertain. Operations at night – perhaps when they are needed the most – are restricted. Technology adoption by fire and rescue may be good, but adoption by local and state police agencies will no doubt be fraught with continued controversy over privacy and Fourth Amendment rights. For more information I recommend you read 3 Things Public Safety Officials Should Know about Drones.

THE COMPETITION:

A lot can be said about how drone leaders and service providers underestimate the power of competitive incumbent technologies (like satellite and manned aircraft). But there is one type of competition in the commercial drone space that doesn’t get talked about a lot, and it’s this: Now that Part 107 has been released, it will lower the barrier to entry for new drone pilots and service providers.

In theories of economic competition, barriers to entry are obstacles that make it difficult to enter a given market. Since the rules have come in as proposed—that is, with no pilot’s license required for the operator—then the barrier to entry for commercial drone services just got lowered.  It’s only natural that we’ll see an uptick of new entrants (they just have to take a test) and we’ll see downward price pressure for services offered.

We see this as a major disruption to the drone service provider market and those already operating under a Section 333 exemption.  These firms will suddenly face more competition, whether their business is real estate photography or infrastructure inspection. There simply will be more drone pilots and more drone service providers, and with that the law of demand and supply kicks in. The more supply you have, the lower prices go.

BOTTOM LINE:

Markets and businesses love regulation clarity – and with Part 107 we now have that.  But we are far away from an inflection point of “drones taking off” — if there is one. The inability to fly over people or beyond visual line-of-sight (BVLOS) restricts some high-margin operations. Because of this, in one sense we have reached a plateau. This rule took a total of 10 years to get. No one knows how long the next one will take.

This post first appeared on Dronelife.com

Six Trends Driving the Commercial Drone Market in 2016 and Beyond

“It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” – attributed to Yogi Berra

I was recently asked in an interview to discuss four or five trends that I see as major drivers in the commercial drone industry today and what manufacturers and service providers might focus on in the future. That sounds simple enough for an industry analyst, but sometimes predictions are as hard as trying determine where that quote came from. It’s not an exacting science, but it’s certainly better than palm reading.

That said, here are six trends I think will drive key opportunities and challenges for drone manufacturers, service providers, and investors for 2016 and beyond. They are:

  1. Fidelity
  2. Sensors
  3. Mobility
  4. China Incorporated
  5. Virtual and Augmented Reality
  6. Competition

Fidelity

One of the major trends we are seeing in the commercial drone industry is the desire for more fidelity – that is, better image and video resolution. This is not just true for commercial drones but also consumer drones.  So, companies like DJI and Yuneec offer integrated 4K video recording cameras and HD video monitoring for as little as $1,200.  And the price keeps going down and the cameras keep getting better.  Add to that component vendors like Amimon that now offer zero latency 1080p downlinks. I could go on, but fidelity is a major driver of technology development for drones and this will continue well into the future.

A lot of this trend is being driven by the consumer. In our homes, we now have 4K TVs, HD tablets, and smartphones with higher and higher resolution, so the expectation is that a drone will deliver that or better.  As I have reported here and here, not all drone manufacturers are moving fast enough to keep up – especially the legacy defense and aerospace ones.

Sensors

In line with the drive for better fidelity is the trend for better and smaller, more lightweight sensors for drones—such as stereoscopic, ultrasonic, LiDAR, infrared, and spectral sensors.  All of these will help drones perform tasks like collision avoidance, 3D imaging infrared thermography, or improved crop vigor analysis.

The chip manufacturers get this, which is why you see companies like Intel, NVIDIA, and Qualcomm making their investments and acquisitions and while we see better onboard imaging and better co-production image processing as the investments kick into high gear.

Mobility

A third major driver in the industry right now is mobility.  I alluded to it above.  In the consumer world, the scales have tipped from PCs and TV to mobile devices.  ZenithOptimedia expects mobile devices—either tablet or smart phone—to become the main platform for viewing online video, reaching 52.7% in 2016 and 58.1% in 2017.

Not only that, but statistics on how the majority of enterprises conduct business processes and transactions is tipping toward mobile devices. IDC predicts the U.S. mobile worker population will grow over the next five years to 105.4 million in 2020 and account for nearly three quarters (72.3%) of the total U.S. workforce. One analyst predicts that by 2017 100% of all customer-facing apps and 75% of all employee apps will be built on mobile platform software first. The ‘enabled mobile worker’ is not just a PowerPoint slide title.  It’s a reality—especially in the field service and maintenance industry where drones are beginning to play a significant role.

What this means for drone manufactures and service providers is that their application development is shifting from desktop to mobile apps and, since there is no clear winner, they’ll have to develop apps that are both iOS and Android compatible and release them simultaneously if they want to stay competitive. But I can tell you most firms are struggling with this—even the big ones like DJI.

China Incorporated

Chinese companies both large and small will be dumping consumer drones on the market either to establish market share or increase it. This year’s CES, also known as the Consumer Electronics Show, was a harbinger of things to come.  It saw booths by many newcomers from China like 9 Eagles AEE, Autel Robotics, Ehang, Hexo, and ProDrone, to name a few.

A lot of these are or will be DJI clones. This is already a fun trend to watch—and one to be wary of as Eric Cheng, former Director of Aerial Imaging for DJI, has pointed out here. The problem is DJI already accounts for over 45% of registered commercial drones in the U.S. as reported here. The only other vendor capable of competing with them based on feature and price is Yuneec.

I suspect, in an effort to save a buck, commercial drone service providers will be tempted to try a clone. Ultimately, they will need to choose a compelling user experience, but given the variety and the number of competing vendors, who has time to learn a whole new technology?

Virtual and Augmented Reality

At the top of MarketWatch’s 2016 predictions: The six tech trends that will rule is the prediction that virtual reality (VR) will shine at the consumer level and augmented reality (AR) will continue to prove itself in the workplace. Virtual reality (VR) already has proven itself in video, and Trace is betting on that horse with immersive 360-degree applications for use in both commercial and consumer quadcopter drones.

But the big money is in AR. Enterprise AR apps reduce workers’ reliance on laptops and tablets where they are cumbersome to use—like in dirty or tight spaces. AR glasses enable field service technicians with a hands-free solution that provides access to visualizations of job-critical information and expert knowledge. SAP has already led the field here. Inspection drones will only add to that benefit since the video feed to the technician is really no different from AR glasses.

Competition

A lot can be said about the power of incumbent technologies (like satellite and manned aircraft) that compete with drone services. And a lot can be said about how drone leaders and service providers underestimate that power, especially in agriculture.  We have written about that topic here, and this video of Young Kim, CEO of Digital Harvest, echoes that.

But there is one part of competition in the commercial drone space that doesn’t get talk about a lot, and it’s this:  What will happen when the proposed FAA rules (aka Part 107) become law in mid-2016? My take is it will lower the barrier to entry for new manufacturers and providers.

In theories of economic competition, barriers to entry are obstacles that make it difficult to enter a given market. The term can refer to hindrances a firm faces in trying to enter a market or industry—such as government regulation and patents, or a large, established firm taking advantage of economies of scale—or those an individual faces in trying to gain entrance to a profession—such as education or licensing requirements.

If the rules come in as proposed—that is, with no pilot’s license required for the operator—then the barrier to entry for commercial drone services gets lowered.  It’s only natural that we’ll see an uptick of new entrants (they just have to take a test) and we’ll see downward price pressure.

We see this as a major disruption to the drone service provider market and those already with a business because they’ve already got a Section 333 exemption from the FAA to operate commercially.

These firms—the ones that operate legally now—will suddenly face more competition, whether their business is real estate photography or infrastructure inspection. There simply will be more drone pilots and more drone service providers, and with that the law of demand and supply kicks in. The more supply you have, the lower prices go.

You can find more of our insights on these SlideShare presentations. I’m always interested to hear your thoughts and insights about the commercial drone market. Comment or write to me at colin@droneanalyst.com.

Image credit: The Fortune Teller, by Caravaggio (1594–95; canvas; Louvre), depicting a palm reading

Five Skills You Need to Succeed in the Commercial Drone Market

These days it seems just about anyone can get an FAA Section 333 Exemption that allows them to legally use small unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS) for commercial purposes in the U.S.  As of October 20, 2015, almost 71% of all Section 333 grants have gone to firms claiming that their primary operation/mission is Film/Photo/Video (and most claim multiple uses).  This includes companies that are using drones for movies, as well as for art and real estate, among other things. Inspection and Monitoring has seen the second highest issuance rate, at 31%, while Mapping and Surveying for land and commercial construction, rounds out the top three at 20%.

Looking further into the data, AUVSI reports that at least 84% — and perhaps as many as 94.5%– of all approved companies are small businesses. While we don’t agree with their astronomical forecast (see our write-up here), we concur with this analysis.

But here’s the catch.  With the bar so low for starting a commercial drone service, what’s the guarantee these businesses will succeed? According to Bloomberg, eight out of 10 entrepreneurs who start businesses fail within the first 18 months. A whopping 80% crash and burn. So given the risk, it makes sense to assess which markets and use cases provide the best chance of success, the skills you’ll need, and the value-add services you should be offering those markets.

Here are five services we think you should consider offering as part of your commercial drone business:

  1. $ – Video
  2. $$ – Mapping
  3. $$$ – Photogrammetry
  4. $$$$ – LiDAR
  5. ??? – Spectral imaging

I’ve put dollar signs next to each service and listed them in progression to represent both the skill and value each has for potential customers. Notice I’ve got question marks there by spectral imaging.  That’s because the jury is still out on whether there is a solid ROI on this service vs. that provided by manned aircraft for precision agriculture.  Precision agriculture often gets touted as the #1 place where “drones will transform the world” but the hard reality is this is a specialized application and a very complex market.  (I have written about this extensively and you can find some very important details in a post I wrote more than a year ago called Film or Farm: Which is Largest Drone Market – Part 2?)

Skill 1 – Video

Now some of you may be wondering why I included video on my list.  We often see drone video footage on YouTube and think it’s cool. But the hard fact is commercial buyers of drone video services have a much higher standard.  So you will, too, if you want to make money in the Film/Photo/Video market.

By now you know shooting good drone video starts with selecting the right drone, the right camera, with the right lens, mounted on the right gimbal.  It’s not a secret any drone enthusiast can go out and buy a DJI Phantom Vision 3 for about $1,200 and shoot 4K video. But just because you can fly it and press the ‘record’ button does not make you a professional aerial videographer.  There is much more to it than that. For one, shooting good video requires you to be skilled in the basics of:

  • Shots (FOV, framing, perspective)
  • Moves (pan, tilt, truck, dolly, etc.)
  • Technique (zoom, action, follow, etc.)

For another, there is timeline editing.  What are you going to do with all that footage?  Hand it to the customer raw?  You could, but it’s better to have it edited or least know how it’s done so you can offer assistance or more services.  For that, you will need to be skilled at:

  • Storytelling / sequencing
  • Cuts
  • Transitions
  • Graphics
  • Lighting
  • Color grading

These aren’t all the things you need to know but if you don’t know these I suggest you get some basic film-school training and offer a better service than the kid next door with a quadcopter and a GoPro.

Skill 2 – Mapping

In researching drones and aerial photography and mapping, you might find yourself coming across new terms. One of the basic ones you should know is “orthomosaic photo” or “orthophotos.”  Orthophotos (aka ‘orthos’) are basically photos that have been stitched together to make a larger one and then corrected.  The technique is not unique to drones.  Orthomosaics have been created by aerial photographers in manned aircraft for years and used by lots of industries.

The point here is if you are not familiar with the techniques and software to create orthos, then I recommend you acquaint yourself with it because it is a valuable service for which customers in the Mapping / Surveying market will pay handsomely. There are even drone apps that automate the whole process like DroneDeploy and Pix4D.

Skill 3 – Photogrammetry

Photogrammetry is a technique which uses photography to measure the environment. This is achieved through overlapping imagery; where the same site can be seen from two perspectives, it is possible to calculate measurements. Again, this technique is not unique to drone imagery, but there is some good news here.  Off-the-shelf software, like Agisoft PhotoScan and SimActive, is plentiful and fairly easy to learn.

The hard part is providing your customer with valuable measurement information.  And the harder part is competing with firms that have been offering this service for years now using ground-based systems combined with aircraft.  For this, you will need some specialized skills and will need to be certified so that you are recognized. One way to get certification is through the American Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing (ASPRS).

An ASPRS Certified Photogrammetrist is a professional who uses photogrammetric technology to extract measurements and make maps and interpret data from images. The Photogrammetrist is responsible for all phases of mapping and other mensuration requirements, which include planning and supervising survey activities for control, specifying photography or other imagery requirements, managing projects for mapping or other mensuration requirements and interpretation. You can find more information on their programs here.

Skill 4 – LiDAR

LiDAR drones are fairly new as the units have become smaller and lightweight.  But LiDAR is not new to surveyors and engineers.  They’ve been using ground-based and airborne LiDAR scanning units for years.

The good news is LiDAR drones are great for scanning small areas like building sites and getting in hard-to-reach areas like under bridges.  In this way they provide a significant cost advantage over aircraft or helicopters with LiDAR units and have the greatest margin potential as a service for the Inspection / Monitoring market.

You can get trained and become a Certified LiDAR Technologist (CLT) through ASPRS.  A CLT is technician who performs routine LiDAR collection support and first-level data processing integrating established plans and procedures.  Find information on that here.

Skill 5 – Spectral Imaging

I put this here last because, as I mention earlier, it’s not clear whether drones provide a significant cost savings to the buyer vs. the same service provided by manned aircraft for the Precision Agriculture market.  There are ROI studies being done now, but most people who provide this service will tell you that farmers aren’t willing to pay much for this service.  Why spend $4 to $5 per acre for you to fly a drone overhead and deliver a normalized difference vegetation index (NDVI) map unless there is a clear return on that investment?  Some will – like growers of high-margin crops like fruits and nuts – but most won’t. Again, this is a competitive market that demands a lot of knowledge about precision agriculture and remote sensing techniques.

I would to hear your thoughts on these skills.  Send me your comments or write us colin@droneanalyst.com.

Image credit: Shutterstock

FAA Proposed Drone Rules: Market Opportunity Winners and Losers

On February 15, 2015, the commercial drone industry breathed a collective sigh of relief. The Federal Aviation Administration’s proposed new rules for small unmanned aircraft systems seemed, at first blush, somewhat practical.  The FAA regulations will eventually allow commercial operations of drones that weigh under 55 pounds in U.S. airspace, without requiring operators to acquire a pilot’s license. You can read the full 195 pages of proposed rules here (hereafter sUAS notice of proposed rulemaking, or NPRM) and some analysis about them here, here, and here.

In this post, I’ll focus on what I think are the immediate economic winners and losers.  My analysis is concentrated on the business impact and market opportunities that the proposed rules have for drones manufacturers, distributors, service providers, and investors.

What do investors need to know?

According to CB Insights data, 2014 investments in the budding drone industry topped $108M across 29 deals. Year-over-year funding increased 104% as venture firms jumped into the drone space with sizable bets. Still, over the past couple of years, I’ve heard VCs and potential investors discussing the FAA bottleneck and questioning whether this was the right time to invest.  Regulatory uncertainty has kept many on the sidelines. But this new clarity should help investors, including those interested in investing in operational and data / information services.

Clarity comes in not only knowing what the rules will look like, but also in the FAA’s commitment to no longer regulate UAS like they do manned aircraft — and in no uncertain terms the U.S. Department of Transportation’s (DOT) understanding of the macro-economic impact of commercial sUAS. In a document captioned Notice of Proposed Rulemaking Regulatory Evaluation, Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems, the author states:

“This proposed rule would create an enabling business environment which would encourage the growth of private sector activity in the manufacturing and operating of small UAS. Therefore, the major benefit of this proposed rule is that it would enable new non-recreational aviation activities for small UAS in the NAS where such operations are currently not permitted without an FAA-issued exemption. The private benefits would exceed the private costs if there is only one UAS and that UAS operation earns a profit.”

As noted here, it’s possible this is a leaked early draft that has since been revised or is otherwise incomplete or inaccurate. [fusion_builder_container hundred_percent=”yes” overflow=”visible”][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type=”1_1″ background_position=”left top” background_color=”” border_size=”” border_color=”” border_style=”solid” spacing=”yes” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” padding=”” margin_top=”0px” margin_bottom=”0px” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_direction=”left” hide_on_mobile=”no” center_content=”no” min_height=”none”][Update: see comment below with link to actual doc] Still, the DOT evaluation explores in depth four potential markets: aerial photography, precision agriculture, search and rescue/law enforcement, and bridge inspection. These fall more in line with what I believe are the proper commercial market segments:

  • Precision Agriculture
  • Inspection / Monitoring
  • Mapping / Surveying
  • Film / Photo / Video
  • Public Safety / First Responders

As I see it, all of these markets are winners, but some are bigger winners than others. The devil is in the details, because success in each market depends what type of sUAS operation the sUAS NPRM allows or doesn’t allow.  The FAA summarizes these operational limitations here, and I’ll discuss each market below.

Precision Agriculture – Winner and Loser

Precision agriculture is a farming management concept based on observing, measuring, and responding to inter- and intra-field variability in crops. Precision agriculture uses detailed, site-specific information to manage production inputs. Information technologies enable segmenting a farm into smaller units to determine the characteristics of each individual segment.

For the most part, the proposed rules support the farmer’s and/or researcher’s ability to locate a precise position in a field, observe it, and create maps of as many variables as can be measured — but only on a small scale. That’s because all observation and measurement would have to be done by a drone that is within visual line of site (VLOS) of the operator. The problem is that fields and farms are big– bigger than VLOS.

Sure, operators could conduct many operations in a day by moving section to section to section and stitching together larger maps, but this is costly – both in terms of manpower and time. Even if it was cheaper, the market potential for drones in precision agriculture still needs more vetting. It’s not yet clear how a sUAS can deliver more usable data to a farmer or provide a cost benefit over the existing manned aircraft or the satellite image solutions available to them today (see Film or Farm: Which is the Bigger Drone Market? – Part 2 for more on this).

Bottom line: Demand for turnkey drone systems will increase as farmers and service providers work within the rule constraints (see my list of drone vendors serving agriculture  here). However, the big caveat is drone usage alone will not “transform agriculture” just yet.  For that, we would need to see a change in the adoption rate for variable rate technology (such as applicators) — which is currently down. So, if you are banking on precision agriculture data services, you will continue to see competition from incumbents and continue to see slow adoption for now.

Inspection / Monitoring – Big Winner

With sUAS’s ability to perform functions like perch-and-stare, video capture, and laser scanning, they are poised to replace many of the dull, dirty, and dangerous functions of inspection and surveillance. The main beneficiaries are civil and public entities that perform enterprise asset management (EAM) and facilities/infrastructure management.

Never is the benefit more evident than in the energy, telecomm, and construction verticals.  For example, the sUAS NPRM mentions power-line/pipeline inspection in hilly or mountainous terrain and antenna inspections (page 8f) as examples of possible operations that could be conducted under the proposed framework.  The DOT evaluation goes further and dedicates a whole section on bridge inspection (section IV.A.1.d. page 21ff). I would add to this structures like buildings, oil rigs, refinery flare stacks, cell towers, and wind turbines.

GIS professionals should pay particular attention to the bridge example. The National Bridge Inspection Standards (NBIS) mandates that routine inspections be performed at 24-month intervals. With almost 600,000 bridges in the United States and 300,000 requiring inspection each year, the DOT evaluation report estimates that about 45,000 annual bridge inspections could utilize some form of small UAS. Multirotors in particular are highly adept at getting into tight spaces.  With advent of smaller/lighter survey grade LiDAR, the combo provides a stable and portable platform for precision scanning of bridges. I think drone products and services that target GIS firms are hot—you can read why here.

Bottom line: Demand for and use of drones (especially multirotors) dedicated to asset and infrastructure inspection will see a big uptick. There is also now a very large opportunity for firms like Accenture and IBM to provide information architecture and data integration services for drone data to existing enterprise and mobile applications like SAP EAM and Oracle EAM.  I also see opportunities for companies to provide motion imagery, video analytics, object recognition, and image metadata processing solutions.

Mapping / Surveying – Winner and Loser

As I mentioned above, the new rule supports the ability to locate a precise position, look at it, and collect the data to create maps on a small scale. Again, that’s because all observation and measurement would have to be done within VLOS of the sUAS operator. The problem here is many mapping projects are bigger than what can be captured in VLOS.  As in the precision agriculture example, operators could conduct many operations and stich together larger maps, but this may be more costly than what can be currently conducted by manned aircraft.

Rules aside, good solutions exist today that support autonomous missions beyond line of sight (BLOS) and therefore create large maps in one flight.  Some investors in this market may be disheartened by the proposed rules that restrict flight to VLOS, since so much effort has been put into autopilot / mission planning / ground control solutions.  Nevertheless, almost all of the existing solutions provide semi-autonomous flight capability where the operator is still in control (or can take back control). You just won’t be able to fly multiple drones at the same time. The proposed rules are one operator, one drone.

Bottom line: The surveying industry has the most to gain here. The door is wide open for drone operations like stockpile measurement and small open pit mine mapping.  The door is also open for laser scanning, 3D imaging capture, and data processing that architectural engineering firms can consume.  As such, there are new opportunities for dedicated and differentiated cloud-based in-memory processing data services.

Film / Photo / Video – Big Winner

The DOT evaluation dedicates a whole section to aerial photography (section IV.A.1.a. pages 16ff).  It says:

“Small UAS industry experts have informed the FAA that a proposed rule could enable a viable market for small UAS aerial photography.  These unmanned aircraft operators would likely specialize in low-altitude aerial photography and video. Consequently, once a small UAS aerial photography market becomes established, it would increase safety by substituting an unmanned aviation operation using a very light aircraft for a more complex manned aviation operation that uses a much heavier aircraft.”

Really? The photographic, film, and real estate industries have known for years small UAS are a more viable and less costly substitute for manned aerial photography.  It’s also no secret that this market is already established and towers above all others both in revenue and number of existing service providers (see what I wrote about that here).

Bottom line: Drones have already created new sources of demand for aerial photography, and this will continue in earnest. As with land-based photography, the financial and technical barriers to entry are low, making it easy for businesses to begin offering sUAS-based film and photography services. Now that the regulatory hurdle looks to be low, expect aircraft vendors and specialty retailers to flourish, too.

Public Safety / First Responders – Uncertain

The DOT evaluation dedicates an entire section to “Search and Rescue/Law Enforcement” (see section IV.A.1.c. page 19 ff).  It describes how small UAS missions can create significant cost savings to federal, state, and local government entities because they offer a more economical alternative to manned helicopters. The report estimates (page 20):

“…a significant number of public entities will contract the services of a small UAS operator. … The FAA and industry expect that some of the larger public entities would train their own operators and purchase and operate their own small UAS. The majority of the smaller public safety departments that could not afford to train their officers to fly a small UAS would contract these services out to commercial small UAS enterprises as the need arises.”

If true, this would create a viable market. But there a few catches. The first catch is the proposed rule does not allow sUAS operations at night. The second is there are or will be local rules to contend with that prohibit certain types of operations, like surveilling criminal suspects.  The third is the recent Presidential Memo creating standards for how government agencies and some recipients of federal funds will address the privacy issues associated with drones.

Bottom line: Under the proposed rules, demand for turnkey drone solutions and services for police, fire, and emergency medical services is uncertain.  Technology adoption by fire and rescue may be good, but adoption by local and state police agencies will no doubt be fraught with continued controversy over privacy and Fourth Amendment rights.

Conclusions

Almost all drone industry insiders expect the clarity about forthcoming rules to foster investment that will create new jobs and spur economic growth — if not now, certainly when the proposed rules become law in 2016 or 2017. Expect then to see increased productivity, improved worker safety, and saved lives.  In the meantime, the FAA wants to hear from you about the proposed rules (see 31 Questions the FAA Wants you to Answer).

I would love to hear your thoughts about the proposed rule for commercial drone use. Feel free to comment or write me at colin@droneanalyst.com.

Image credit: Shutterstock[/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]