Can AeroVironment Compete in the Commercial Drone Market?

AeroVironment’s new drone and cloud-based analytics platform squarely targets the commercial sector, but are they targeting the wrong vertical, too late in the game?

THE FACTS:

Earlier this month, the military and tactical unmanned aircraft systems manufacturer AeroVironment (NASDAQ:AVAV) proudly unveiled its new QuantixTM drone and a cloud-based analytics platform called the AeroVironment Decision Support System (AV DSS™).  The combo is designed with the civil/commercial markets in mind. The drone is a hybrid design that enables the aircraft to launch vertically like a quadcopter and then transition itself for horizontal flight, taking advantage of a fixed-wing drone’s aerodynamic efficiency and range.  According to the company, the drone can map 400 acres in about 45 minutes, and its overall flight time is supposed to be an hour per battery.

The Quantix is a key piece to a larger end-to-end solution AeroVironment hopes will meet the needs of the agriculture, energy, and transportation industries, among others. Key to AeroVironment’s solution is a proprietary mobile interface that works with their secure cloud-based data storage.

WHAT’S COOL AND WHAT’S NOT

It’s great to finally see AeroVironment come out with an offering dedicated the commercial drones market.  While their Puma AE was used for aerial surveys in Alaska—and was the first time the FAA has authorized a commercial UAS operation over land, this product will be the first non-military product in their lineup. So, welcome. Or should I say—I’ll welcome you when you get here. Quantix won’t be available until Spring of 2017. And the price has yet to be announced.  However, in my conversations with the company at last month’s Drone World Expo, it’s clear some among their ranks understand it will need to be priced below $20K, or it’s simply not going to sell well.

It’s interesting that AeroVironment chose to target agricultural needs with its first commercial drone. At first glance, the drone looks well equipped for that, with RBG and multispectral cameras.  But, boy howdy, are they in for some heartburn when they discover they’ve targeted the most difficult sector to penetrate. We have written again and again about the challenges drone service providers have in providing clear ROI in agriculture (and how bad the forecasts are), but I guess that won’t stop manufactures like AeroVironment from thinking they will somehow buck the trend.

The other problem I see is that their new drone is a tail sitter. Tail-sitter drones are notoriously difficult to land in any wind.  I am not alone in this assessment; see another review here. We’ll see if their system is clever enough to compensate for wind gusts, but one thing is clear: there is nothing on the drone to assure a precision landing – no vision positioning system or sense-and-avoid technology in the tail other than a two antenna GPS system. That is so “2013,” and it puts their drone in the same category as a GoPro Karma, which drifts and lands “loud and drunk.

THE COMPETITION:

Most of the companies that serve the precision agriculture market are small businesses. It was clear back in 2014 these companies were working hard to learn firsthand what farmers want from small drones. In doing so, they established networks of distributors and service providers that for the most part have locked other players out of the market.

Manufacturers of small drones for precision agriculture have long since consolidated around DJI and SenseFly because of their (or a third party’s) flight control, mission planning, data services software, and mainly their functional maturity and low cost.

The large aerospace companies and Department of Defense (DoD) contract vendors like AeroVironment do not have a presence in this sector. Even though some have participated in agricultural academic studies, those companies’ products as a whole are unknown in the farming community. They simply have not established the necessary relationships with growers, dealers, coops, agronomists, and local service providers.  As a result, it’s probably too late for them to capture any significant U.S. agriculture market share.

BOTTOM LINE:

In my opinion, AeroVironment’s entry into the commercial markets is risky. For one, they are arriving late to the party. Second, the agriculture sector in particular—at least in the U.S.—is already set. I think Aerovironment is going to struggle to move customers from established vendors.

I worry that all this will take some time for them to realize. In the meantime, there is pressure for them to perform. For years, investors have hoped that the company would benefit from the rising interest in unmanned aerial vehicles. Indeed, the recent positive performance of their stock appears to have come in part from the rise in interest in drones due to a more favorable regulatory environment in the U.S.  But it remains to be seen whether this new offering will make a difference.  We’ll see.  In the meantime, join me in welcoming them to the party.

Image credit: Skylogic Research

This post first appeared on DRONELIFE.com

Is Esri’s Drone2Map a Game Changer?

Features should appeal to Esri users, but will they appeal to non-Esri users?

THE FACTS:

In June 2016, Esri released an application called Drone2Map for ArcGIS.  Drone2Map (D2M) takes raw image data from drones and creates digital surface models, orthomosaics, 3D-point clouds and 3D PDFs that can be shared.  Data processed by Drone2Map can also be rendered in Esri’s ArcGIS online web service and integrated into ArcGIS for further processing. The photogrammetry engine in Drone2Map is Pix4D.  Esri licenses D2M as a yearly subscription for $3,500 plus a nominal data storage cost.

Esri’s ArcGIS platform provides maps and a wide variety of analytical tools to governments, business, and utilities.  Applications range from finding the optimal retail store location, to mapping pipelines, to planning public works projects.  In the past, Esri has been rather lethargic in adopting new technology, but to their credit, they have been a forerunner in recognizing the potential of drone-generated data. This new product is proof of that.

WHAT’S COOL AND WHAT’S NOT:

If you don’t know Esri, then you don’t know geographic information systems (GIS). ESRI so dominates the GIS industry that the name GIS and Esri are almost synonymous. Esri has been doing business since 1969, has 9,000 employees from 67 countries, 41 offices worldwide, and has annual sales north of $900 million dollars.

More than 350,000 organizations use Esri products, but the number of users is actually much larger because many of these companies have licensed multiple copies of their software.  In other words, Esri’s user base is large enough be a market in itself.  The D2M feature set, combined with ArcGIS integration, should be appealing to current Esri users.

On the downside, Drone2Map only becomes an end-to-end solution when it is used with the ArcGIS platform, making it an additional cost consideration for non-Esri users.  Also, sales of D2M, like other drone data solutions, will be paced by the speed at which drone technology is adopted by enterprises and the data is integrated into the GIS workflow.

THE COMPETITION:

Harris Geospatial Solutions and Icaros, Inc. have formed a partnership that enables Harris to sell Icaros’s One Button imaging processing software.  Like Drone2Map, OneButton generates 2D, 3D, and orthorectified images from drone data.  OneButton may not attract Esri customers, but it will be a compelling alternative for those who don’t use Esri tools.

There is an irony in Esri’s offering—Pix4D is both a supplier to and a competitor with Esri.  Irony aside, we see this as a win/win situation for Pix4D because, being part of Drone2Map, they profit from each Drone2Map sale and from sales to non-Esri customers.

There is another twist in the story here. Esri announced last month a beta integration of its ArcGIS software with the very popular DroneDeploy software. But right now, DroneDeploy offers much more to surveyors and mappers than Drone2Map because it offers a simple mobile app for mission planning, data-to-cloud upload, and the same sharable data analysis (digital surface models, orthomosaics, 3D-point clouds, 3D PDFs, etc.) that Drone2Map does. It seems to us a push-button integration to ArcGIS just makes DroneDeploy more valuable.

BOTTOM LINE:

Drone2Map for ArcGIS is important to Esri because it works on several different levels.  For one, the strong feature set and ArcGIS integration should attract current users. If one half of one percent of Esri’s 350,000 users purchase Drone2Map, Esri will realize a revenue gain of over $6 million.

In addition to generating revenue from their user community, Drone2Map also works as an Esri promotional tool.  Drone companies like 3D Robotics, senseFly, and Drone Deploy all want to promote their solutions as working with Esri products.  This is free publicity and introduces prospects outside of Esri’s user base to the company.

Drone2Map should sell well to the Esri user base but considering the fact that it is not a complete mobile end-to-end solution, Esri will be challenged to successfully find new customers outside their user base.  Also, the commercial drone industry is fast moving and very fluid.  Esri may have a difficult time keeping up.  However, you can never count Esri out.  Once the market settles, Esri will be a formidable competitor.

Image: Esri

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 Observations about the Camera Drone Market from NAB 2015

By Steve Maller for Drone Analyst

My brief but productive visit last month to the 2015 National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) in Las Vegas showed me just how fast the camera drone market is heating up. More than 97,000 people in media and entertainment attended this year, and the show featured for the first time an Aerial Robotics and Drone Pavilion with a fully enclosed “flying cage” for demonstrations. It was so well attended that one writer called the NAB 2015 “The Year of the Drone.”

Much has already been written about how drones impacted the show, and you can find good articles here and here.  I was particularly impressed with FreeFly System’s ALTA high-end drone because it represents what I consider to be a prime example of just how advanced unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) technology have become. You can find my post on that here.

As a post-show wrap-up I offer five observations about the state of the aerial film / photo / video drones market:

  1. LAND GRAB. Anticipation of long-awaited regulatory changes in the U.S. is creating a frenzy of opportunity and activity and a frenetic land-grab. It’s already been observed here that film / photo / video is and will continue to be the largest commercial market for drones.
  1. SPECIALIZATION. Many large and small companies are designing and marketing highly specialized camera platforms – many of which are even geared to only one of the film /photo / video applications. Take for example Intuitive Aerial’s Aerigon. It was built ground up for use with heavy, cinema industry-standard cameras like the Red Epic. This specialization implies maturing market demand.
  1. UAS-CAMERA INTEGRATION. Complete integration between UAS and camera is now common, either through proprietary cameras (such as DJI’s Inspire 1 and Phantom 3) or through partnerships with existing camera manufacturers (such as 3DRobotics’ Solo and GoPro HERO4).
  1. SAFETY. Complete or partial flight autonomy is being heavily developed by manufacturers even without solutions to complicated problems like sense-and-avoid and no-fly zones. This is a dangerous precedent as I do not believe the industry can deliver on its promise of reliably and safely without addressing these air traffic control concerns. I don’t see standardized solutions to these issues on the market yet. But fortunately operator training programs are appearing like FlySafe and Unmanned Safety Institute that can improve operating safety through education and promotion of safe practices.
  1. COOL FACTOR. Mainstream audiences are beginning to see what us aerial film / photo / video pioneers have seen for a while — that camera drones are tools for getting better shots. A year ago, the word ‘drone’ was heavily discussed by the UAS community as being sorely in need of a less menacing synonym, but today it doesn’t seem to matter. Drones are now ‘cool,’ – something that I don’t think anybody expected to happen so soon. Sure, the ones carrying Hellfire missiles and eavesdropping on terrorist mobile phone calls are still out there, but folks on the street are beginning to understand the difference.

This year promises to be the most exciting and eventful one yet for the world of camera drones.  Who knows what innovation we will see next?  In the meantime, we would to hear your thoughts on this market.  Send us your comments or write us info@droneanalyst.com.

Image credit: PerspectiveAir

Does DJI’s New Drone Hit the Target Market?

[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 9/10/2015 – See update in comments]

 

I think it’s futuristic – the drone that is.  The camera, on the other hand, is another story.

The drone

For a guy like me who not only follows the commercial market for drones but is also an avid photography and multirotor enthusiast, the new DJI Inspire 1 is, well, inspiring. It’s chock full of features I wish I had four years ago when I first started mounting GoPro cameras on quadcopter kits — things like ease of use, a simple interface, controller ergonomics, telemetry, a 3D-axis gimbal, integrated HD video downlink, optical flow for indoor flying (how cool is that!?).

Much has already been written on the Inspire 1 T600 (like here and here) so I won’t repeat it.  The question for this post is: Did DJI hit the mark for the target market?  For that answer, we need to go beyond the drone itself and look at how professional photographers and videographers use drones and cameras.

The market

As a primer, you may want to read what I have already written about this market in Film or Farm: Which is the Bigger Drone Market? and The Democratization of Aerial Photography.

Drone manufacturers understand photographers have longed for inexpensive ways to take aerial images, and DJI heralded the turnkey consumer-level camera drone with its DJI Phantom Vision. Some billed it as a toy. But it didn’t take long for professional photographers to notice its package of features and ease of use. Soon, every camera retailer, from Adorama and Amazon to B&H Foto, carried the Phantom line. Even photography software companies like Adobe tailored offerings to it. Product sales skyrocketed.

Concurrently, drone manufacturers like DJI and FreeFly Systems created larger multirotor airframes, controllers, gimbals, and componentry to satisfy the growing market for high-end aerial photography and cinematography.  On these machines, users can mount their favorite (and heavy) Sony, Canon, and Panasonic DSLR – and even Red Epics. However, these drones do not arrive ready-to-fly (RTF).  They require considerable assembly to get operational.  This left the door open for savvy resellers like Aerial Media Pros, DSLR Pros, and Quadrocopter to do that work and offer high-margin RTF packages.  Besides video and cinematography, these packages are used for the following photo applications:

  • REAL ESTATE – showcase homes, marquee properties, commercial buildings, and structures
  • LEGAL – support forensic investigations, insurance claims, and property assessments
  • CONSTRUCTION – progress reporting for commercial, residential, and civil engineering
  • LAND – landscape architecture, land development, and research

I think DJI correctly assessed the entry level and high-end camera drone markets and recognized the middle was open.  Why not offer a better turnkey package that satisfies the demands of professionals but does not cannibalize their own high-end products?

The camera

For professional photographers and videographers, it’s not about the drone; it’s about the camera. The drone is just an extension of their reach. It’s a camera platform, a flying dolly, a zooming boom, a tripod in the sky.  Mounted on a drone, a camera becomes a tool for better storytelling, and its unique aerial perspective broadens the possibilities for those stories and gives audiences a better sense of an object’s physical space and context to location. As a tool for this kind of storytelling, camera resolution matters.

But herein lies the rub for the Inspire 1 T600.  The drone has very high-end features, but the camera (see specs here) may not satisfy all intended professionals.  Clearly, 4K video meets the needs of a large population of aerial videographers, but 12-megapixel still photos will not meet the needs of aerial photographers involved in supplying images for the applications listed above.  It will if the image is destined only for the web, but not if it’s used in print (think real estate brochures) or detailed investigative work (like construction exploration, legal investigations, and land surveying).

Two factors are unknown about the T600’s camera at this point: the resolving power of the lens and the dynamic range / image noise.  These two issues matter greatly to photography professionals, who will surely scrutinize and vet these over social media.  No doubt comparisons will be made between cameras of all types – including the one on the less expensive Phantom 2 Vision+.  On the surface it looks like DJI may have got the lens right.  Apparently gone is the DJI Phantom 2 Vision+ wide-angle distortion that professional photographers and videographers had to correct post production (same problem with GoPro).  Low light sensitivity and noise is TBD.

The upgrade?

It’s hard for me to believe DJI didn’t know that still image resolution didn’t matter for the target market and it’s quite plausible that a better or different camera is coming.  And it should!  I have talked to several existing Phantom owners who are professional photographers and many say they’ll wait to buy one when a better / more versatile camera is available.  As DJI explained at its press launch, the Inspire 1’s gimbal and camera system is “modular and upgradable.”  That’s important if the company wants to keep up with professionals who demand ever better sensor and image processors.  Whatever the reason, it’s paramount that DJI get this right – especially if it wants to provision other commercial markets like GIS where the camera’s still resolution is king.

While the $2,900 price point is set right for a mid-tier turnkey camera drone system, it seems the camera spec is too skinny and the price just high enough to create a barrier for some existing customers, especially those who are professional photographers.

I would love to hear your thoughts.  Feel free to comment or write me at colin@droneanalyst.com.

This post also appears in sUAS News ‘Multirotor‘ section.[/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]

Drone Delivery: How much would you pay?

I love the look of the Tesla Model S, but I’d never get one. Somehow, the opportunity to pay $100K to drive only 300 miles before spending 4 to 9 hours recharging does not appeal to me. I also love the idea of Amazon’s drone delivery initiative Prime Air.  But, like the Tesla, the opportunity to pay a lot of money for drone delivery of the latest camera just doesn’t make sense.

Amazon has successfully painted a picture of a future in which its drones push merchandise from its warehouses to nearby consumers in 30 minutes. But to qualify for Prime Air, the order must be less than five pounds, which, according to Bezos, includes 86% of the packages Amazon currently sells. The order must also be small enough to fit in the cargo box that the craft will carry, and the delivery location must be within a 10-mile radius of a participating Amazon order fulfillment center.

What is less than 5 lbs.?  Here’s some examples from some recent online shopping trends research:

  • Consumer electronics
  • Books
  • Clothing

Sure I get that instant gratification is clearly one element why people might use Prime Air and providing outstanding service is another; as is staying ahead of the curve with innovative delivery and order fulfillment. All highly significant points in their own right to meet Amazon’s goal: “to be Earth’s most customer-centric company.” But as this article says cost of transportation is another. In 2013 Amazon’s incurred overall losses of $3.5 billion related to shipping costs. How long can that go on?

The problem is that I think drone delivery is going to cost a lot – maybe not at first but eventually. If Amazon can charge $99 per year for Amazon Prime, which provides delivery within 48 hours of placing the order, how much can it (or others) charge for nearly instantaneous delivery via drone? How much would you pay?  Would $500 per year be out of line?  How about $1,000?  What about an extra $100 (30% markup) to get your new GoPro delivered before you leave for the airport in an hour?

I’m curious what you would pay. So I’m running a poll with three simple questions:

  1. What’s the maximum amount you would be willing to pay for a package delivered by drone?
  2. Which of ten items would you want delivered in 30 minutes?
  3. Under what circumstance would you need something so quickly that you’d pay top dollar for it?

To take the poll click this link: https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/drone-delivery

I’ll run this poll for a few weeks.  Check back here later and I’ll post the results.

As always, I’m interested in hearing from you.  If have something to say feel free to comment below or email me at colin@droneanalyst.com.

Image credit: Amazon

Drone Tech Winners and Losers at the Precision Aerial Ag Conference 2014

Last week my colleague Mitch Solomon and I were privileged to be in the company of more than one thousand farmers in rural Decatur, IL, for the two-day Precision Aerial Agriculture Show 2014 (PAAS 2014).  Mitch covers five key takeaways from the show in his post about the event – including the most salient one: There is no killer drone app for farmers – rather, drones are a tool with many apps and high ROI.  In this post, I’ll give an accounting and analysis of the players in attendance that are supporting the market for drones in agriculture. Some were present, others were mentioned but weren’t present, and still others were surprisingly absent on all counts.

Bottom line

Regardless of which vendors attended or exhibited, here’s what you need to know with regard to the drones vendors serving or intending to serve the agriculture market:

  1. Most of the companies that serve this market are small businesses. It is clear they are working hard to learn firsthand what farmers want from small drones and in doing so are establishing networks of distributors and service providers that will lock other players out of the market.
  2. Manufacturers of small drones for precision agriculture are consolidating around DJI and 3DRobotics for their flight control and mission planning software – mainly because of functional maturity and low-cost.
  3. The large aerospace companies and Department of Defense (DoD) contract vendors do not have a presence in this market. Even though some have participated in agricultural academic studies, as a whole their products are unknown in the farming community. These vendors simply have not established the necessary relationships with growers, dealers, coops, agronomists, and local service providers.  As a result, it’s probably too late for them to capture any significant U.S. agriculture market share.

Present and Accounted For

AgEagle – AgEagle had the enviable booth position just inside the show floor, which made it hard to ignore. Its purpose-built fixed-wing flyer with uTHERE flight controller and Canon S100 camera goes for about US $12,500.  It’s similar to in looks to a Ritewing Zephyr II, but has an epoxy hard shell that makes it more durable. Additionally the airfoil is a semi symmetrical allowing it to carry much more weight.  AgEagle’s system comes with a catapult to get it in the air fast, where it will fly at 40 mph and cover approximately 600 acres in 30 minutes. A cloud-based aerial agronomic imagery solution is offered in partnership with MyAgCentral, a division of DN2K. This solution has a fully integrated workflow function that streamlines the process of flying fields and capturing, storing, processing, viewing, and sharing aerial images. For instance, ‘shape files’ can be imported into SMSTM Software for use with variable rate applicators. Information on that partnership can be found here.

Agribotix – Agribotix gets that what is most important in the drone market is data services — not the aircraft. The company deploys a proprietary software solution to deliver geo-referenced aerial images immediately after a flight and high-resolution color and NDVI maps within hours of collection. These images are hosted on Agribotix’s servers for access from multiple devices, including mobile devices so that growers can take them into the field while scouting.  Notwithstanding, they do offer the Hornet, which is a simple fixed-wing UAS suitable for agricultural applications.  The unique thing here is that you can rent it on a seasonal lease. It uses open-source hardware and software to keep costs low.

Crop Copter / Chief Agronomics – Matt Barnard, a farmer and founder of this drone vendor, understands what growers wants because he listens.  Crop Copter offers TBS Discover and his own more durable quad and hexacopter through Van Horn Precision Technologies. They provide the imaging services and support – and even repair – the flyer.  All units are complete and ready-to-fly.

Farm Intelligence / FourthWing / WingScan – These Minnesota-based affiliates work in tandem to provide a complete hardware and software solution for precision agriculture. WingScan is the image data and decision support software platform. Fourth Wing is the designer and manufacturer of a small unmanned aircraft system they call Vireo.  Vireo comes equipped with a dual-band sensor that is capable of capturing near infrared (NIR) and visual (RGB) data in a single pass. Farm Intelligence sells the device via its FI2 Sales and Leasing.

Field of View LLC – Field of View engineers and sells remote sensing devices for drones that service the agricultural and mapping industries. Their GeoSnap VN-TC is an add-on for the commonly used multispectral cameras.  It generates a log of image-associated position and attitude data and manages image capture by triggering the camera based on GPS coordinates.  Image log file can be imported into packages like Agisoft to get complete geo-referenced image maps.  Look for Field of View products to operate with the open-source MAVLink Micro Air Vehicle Communication Protocol soon.

Horizon Precision Systems – This company’s booth was packed – almost the entire show – and the reason is simple: Horizon offers low-cost entry-level systems. Based in Champaign, Illinois, the company is an offshoot of Horizon Hobby, LLC, which has distribution facilities in the United States, Europe, and China. It has decades of experience developing, distributing, and servicing all types of radio control products. So it is no wonder they created this agriculture-focused subsidiary.

Hoverfly – Hoverfly demonstrated its tethered UAS called “LiveSky.”  Tethered UAS, in this case a quadcopter, can stay aloft for much longer than those reliant on a battery alone since power is transmitted from a ground source to the copter via a long tether. This system is interesting because the LiveSky would maintain its position above the control device, allowing you to theoretically place it in a truck bed and drive around with it hovering above the truck. You can view a one-minute video of their demo on YouTube here.

MLB Company – During the show, founder Stephen Morris showcased his company’s $150,000 Super Bat UAV. It’s a high-end drone model that can fly thousands of feet in the air and survey up to 55,000 acres in a single day. When it took to the skies for a demo, all heads turned because it was the only gas-engine-powered drone at the show.  All others were electric, and their motors could barely be heard above the sound of wind, but of course they can’t fly nearly as long.

Pix4D – Pix4D is a software package used to convert the hundreds of aerial images that are taken by drones on survey flights into geo-referenced 2D mosaics and 3D surface models and point clouds similar to Autodesk ReCap 360. Their software is bundled by many UAS vendors – including SenseFly, which while on site, handed over the pictures from their demonstration flight earlier in the day.  This gave Pix4D the opportunity to show a 3D surface model of a demonstration field.  Pretty cool.

PrecisionHawk – PrecisionHawk’s fixed-wing Lancaster platform is impressive. Its lightweight design allows for swappable sensors, and it diagnoses and monitors in flight critical data like battery life, operational weather/wind limitations, structure cracks, and fatigue analysis. But as I have written about here, PrecisionHawk views itself as a data company, not a drone company. As such, it offers a service it calls PrecisionMapper, which is a cloud-based application that gives anyone the ability to upload, store, process, and share their aerial image data.

Precision Drone – Precision Drone LLC is an Indiana company that manufactures multirotor drones built specifically for crop surveillance.  The company also offers Precision Vision™, a crop health imaging software package that delivers a composite video overlay showing the true health of a field in color contrast, which lets growers see how much sunlight is being absorbed by the crop canopy.

SenseFly – Of all the demos given at the show, SenseFly’s fixed-wing flight of its eBee Ag drone was truly impressive. The hand-launched and self-landing eBee is constructed of EPP foam and carbon fiber, with detachable wings. It can fly for 45 minutes to a radio-link range of 3 km (1.86 miles), driven by a LiPo battery-powered pusher propeller. eBee Ag can cover up to 1,000 hectares (2,470 acres) in a single flight.

In this small demo, the operator did a great job of explaining flight operations in real-time. For example, he programmed the aircraft to fly a lawn-mower pattern up and down the demo field.  But when he commanded, the plane would divert off pattern to photograph an area of interest.  When that diversion was complete, the plane would resume the pattern where it left off.  Its images are great, too. The vehicle comes with a 12 megapixel Canon S110 NIR (near infrared) still camera as standard with various sensor options, each one electronically integrated in the aircraft’s autopilot.

Trimble – Similar to SenseFly, Trimble’s UX5 fixed wing aerial imaging solution is impressive. Their unit is fully autonomous, flight programmable, and comes with a dedicated Windows-based rugged tablet. It uses a Sony NEX-5 camera outfitted with a Voigtlander lens.  This makes for very accurate imaging. But unfortunately they do not offer it for sale in the U.S. yet.  Even so, they are working with teams that have regulatory approval for test flights and are perfecting their offering.

[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 February 18, 2015: check with each vendor for their current product offering]

Not Present but Accounted For

  • 3Robotics – Agribotix uses (and openly displayed) several 3D Robotics components, including the PixHawk flight controller.  Precision Hawk admits it now ships more units with APM 2.6 open source autopilot system, supplanting Lockheed’s proprietary Kestrel autopilot.
  • DJI – This vendor’s name was mentioned by speakers and users more than any other.  I saw more NAZA-M V2 controllers on vendors’ multirotor platforms than any other and the new app for flight planned missions was the topic of many conversations.
  • MaxMax – Here is where the vendors at the show go to buy an IR-Only, UV + IR + Visible or high resolution (HR) converted camera or send one for conversion.
  • Tetracam – The smaller and lighter the camera or image sensor, the longer the flight.  That’s why Field of View’s multispectral imaging packages are equipped with Tetracam multispectral cameras.

Not Present and Not Accounted For (not a complete list)

It’s not clear why these and many other drone vendors ignore the growing popularity of these types of events. It may be that, like Trimble, they choose to avoid selling their products in the U.S. for fear of being implicated in any wrongdoing by a rogue operator.  Or perhaps like PrecisionHawk, they are selling only to researchers who have and FAA certificate of Authorization or Waiver (otherwise known as a COA) as part of their strategy to be a friend of the FAA.  Either way, they should have been here if even to get to make introductions and know their target market better.

Wrap-up

To reiterate a point in Mitch’s post amidst the curiosity and excitement at PAAS 2014 was a lot consternation about whether commercial drone operations for agriculture will ever happen. As I have written here, if regulations are too strict, this market will collapse. Some regulations on these types of small drones are due for release to comment by the end of this year.  Let’s hope they are not too restrictive and we’ll be at an even bigger show next year.

As always, feel free to comment or you have questions and would like to discuss any of this one-on-one, email me at colin@droneanalyst.com.[/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]