Drones Are Doing More In U.S. Than You May Know, As These 3 Companies Show

Five years ago, the pundits predicted that by now we would be seeing tens of thousands of drones buzzing over our heads delivering everything from pizzas and burritos to the latest “must-have” item from Amazon. So what happened? Where are they? In a nutshell, they are here, but the general public doesn’t see them—at least not daily—and they aren’t necessarily delivering what was predicted.

The fact is that commercial drones fly in remote areas or over private property every day by the thousands. They’re performing work on farms, powerlines, construction sites, cell towers, and oil pads, especially in the U.S. where there are more than 118,000 FAA-certified remote pilots. Compare that to the U.K., where there are just under 5,000.

Delivering pizzas and burritos will likely be a very small part of what drones will be doing in the future. According to the largest benchmark study on commercial drones, the bulk of all current industrial use outside of film, photo and video falls into two categories: surveying and mapping land areas and inspecting and monitoring physical structures. And it’s these two uses that will continue to drive the growth of drones for industrial use for many years to come.

Three companies represent this growth and are worth getting to know: PrecisionHawk, DroneDeploy and SkySkopes. In many way,s they are emblematic of the current state of the growing commercial drone industry and provide insight into its future.

PrecisionHawk

Founded in 2010 and headquartered in Raleigh, N.C., PrecisionHawk was one of the first vendors to offer a full end-to-end enterprise drone solution stack. That stack included a drone aircraft with advanced sensors, software, analytics, and contracted services for inspecting things like oil well pads and utility lines and more. (“Advanced sensors” refers to specialized cameras on the drone that detect things like crop growth patterns.) With over $107 million in investment and more than 180 employees, PrecisionHawk has some large customers, including ExxonMobil, John Deere, Monsanto, and Verizon. They offer services in more than 150 countries and have a network of 15,000 pilots.

Two things illustrate how PrecisionHawk leads the industry. First is their regulatory experience and FAA partnership. Second is their focus on operating drones beyond the pilot’s ability to see them, or “beyond visual line of sight” (BVLOS). PrecisionHawk was one of a few companies to partner with the FAA on its Pathfinder Program, and the company’s work is informing current FAA regulations and BVLOS policy. PrecisionHawk also understands that as the commercial drone industry evolves, widespread BVLOS drone inspection has the potential to significantly change business models for many industries. With their programs and papers like “The Economics of Using Drones for BVLOS Inspections,” they educate businesses and help them evaluate when it’s best to use traditional ground and manned aviation, line-of-sight drones, or BVLOS drone inspection approaches. PrecisionHawk is unique in evaluating the costs and benefits of BVLOS operations compared with traditional operations, which allows businesses to plan an aerial intelligence strategy that delivers the most value for the money.

DroneDeploy

San Francisco-based DroneDeploy provides software that controls drone flight plans and workflows as well as processes the images they collect. They have more than 4,000 global customers mapping and assessing everything from construction progress, to disaster recovery, to agricultural crop vigor.  Founded in 2013, the company partnered with leading drone manufacturers to provide its software to operators in a variety of industries, including agriculture, real estate, mining, construction and many other commercial and consumer arenas. Having raised $56M in funding, DroneDeploy started by selling software directly to pilots and later added selling through the channel that supplies mid-size companies and then added direct sales to enterprises and resellers.

By every measure, DroneDeploy has the most popular non-OEM mapping flight application on the market. They boast that their software processes over 100 million images per year and measures more than 10 million distances a year (for instance, between objects). But they are not resting on their laurels. Drone use by surveyors and mappers is rapidly becoming more sophisticated, and as that’s happened, DroneDeploy has been pushing boundaries more than any vendor. Their app market is the largest set of industry-specific integrated applications available.

Part of what has made DroneDeploy (and the drone industry itself) so successful has been the consumerization of drone technology. What others missed but DroneDeploy didn’t was the foresight to see that the prosumer drone category would be the only place where sales volumes and margins would be strong enough for aircraft manufacturers to recoup R&D investment. That’s why, early on, they pivoted from open source-based aircraft to DJI drones since DJI is and has been for four years the dominant player in the space. Last year, DJI’s market share for drone aircraft was 74%. As a result, all the major mission planning and mapping applications like DroneDeploy and dozens more now integrate with or run on DJI’s products. Most of them started off with applications dedicated to their own drone, but soon found that most professionals want to use the simpler and more reliable DJI prosumer drones. DroneDeploy made that bet early, and it has paid off.

SkySkopes

Whereas PrecisionHawk offers a full drone stack and DroneDeploy offers software, this last company doesn’t manufacture anything. They provide drone services. And in a field of more than 30,000 service companies, very few stand out as full-time ventures—let alone as profitable and growing—but SkySkopes does. They succeeded because they specialized. Based in Grand Forks, N.D., SkySkopes started in 2014 and has grown from a small startup with four part-time employees to over 18 full-time employees and four offices across the upper Midwest. Over the years, SkySkopes has refined its focus to strictly providing aerial services for the energy industry and now has operations in California, Texas, Minnesota, Florida, and Europe.

What makes SkySkopes successful is they are not afraid to push the limits of drone technology. Their specialization in acquiring aerial data with advanced aircraft has landed them projects with CenterPoint Energy, Duke Energy, Xcel Energy and a host of others. SkySkopes and NASA have also teamed up over the past few years to demonstrate and test BVLOS use cases for the UTM project to integrate civilian low-altitude airspace and unmanned aircraft system operation. All this landed CEO Matt Dunlevy a seat on the advisory board of the Energy Drone & Robotics Coalition, the only event exclusively focused on the business and technology of aerial, ground/surface and subsea robotics in energy operations.

Together these three companies encapsulate the present state of the growing industrial use of drones. Clearly, that’s not what the media prefers to focus on since it’s not sexy drone pizza delivery. But it’s important work with great business benefits to specific industries.

This article first appeared on FORBES.com

Image credit: Photographer: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg, © 2019 BLOOMBERG FINANCE LP

New 2018 Drone Industry Benchmark Survey

We just announced the launch of our third annual Drone Market Sector Research survey, which promises to be our most comprehensive study of drone market trends and usage to date. The online portion of this research seeks to get information about who is buying and using small unmanned aircraft systems—otherwise known as drones. It improves upon the 2017 research by, among other things:

  • Asking more specific questions about flight operations and flight times
  • Investigating the adoption and maturity of enterprise and/or public agency drone programs
  • Diving into how users geo-reference images for maps

Take the brief 10-minute survey here: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/2018_drone_market

As an incentive for participation in the survey, there will be an opportunity to:

  • Receive a free summary report of the research results, a $95 value
  • Enter to win a free DJI Spark mini-drone package (a $425 value) or one of two $100 VISA gift cards.

What’s new?

This year’s research is designed to uncover fresh insights on which drone industry sectors are thriving (and which aren’t) and how businesses are using drone-acquired data in their day-to-day operations. Skylogic Research hopes the survey results will fill a gap in knowledge and understanding of the commercial drone industry around:

  • Actual drone and drone data usage (most reports forecast use but don’t survey actual users)
  • How and why operators and users are deploying drones now and how/why they plan to grow their use in the future
  • Baseline statistics for market share among the brands as well as information about the size of service providers, enterprises, and businesses that have drone programs

The online portion of this year’s research seeks to get information about who is buying and using small unmanned aircraft systems. This independent study is being supported by DJI, DroneDeploy, DroneInsurance.com, and Trimble.

The survey will explore:

  • Who’s buying what types of drones from which makers at which prices and for what uses?
  • How large are drone-based service providers, and how and where are they positioning themselves to whom and which target industries?
  • What most concerns businesses that perform drone-based projects and why?
  • How much are service providers, business buyers, and public agencies using flight management and data analytic software for image-based projects?

Our previous studies have found that more consumer drones are being used for professional use than ever before, the U.S. market is flooded with service providers and remote pilots but very few make enough money to sustain a full-time venture, and film / photo / video dominates both the hobby and professional uses of drones. This year’s study will continue to challenge these insights and explore further the sustainability of drone service providers.

Who should take the survey?

  • Individuals or organizations who have purchased a drone in the past 12 months for any reason
  • Commercial drone service providers
  • Businesses, enterprises, and public agencies that perform drone-based operations

Why this study?

We believe the consumer and commercial drone market needs this annual benchmark study. There is a lack of objective information on the drone industry. We find an absence of credible market-based research and little understanding of the difference between large industry forecasts and actual buyer adoption rates. This study will clarify much of that.

When complete, the research study will provide a complete view of topics like:

  • Critical industry drivers
  • Vendor and service provider market share
  • Business and public agency adoption trends and issues

The survey will be open for four weeks, and results will be available in September.

 

Image: Shutterstock and Skylogic Research

DroneDeploy: Enterprise Grade or Not?

DroneDeploy’s new App Market fills a need for commercial drone use, but can the data quality measure up for widespread industrial use?

THE FACTS:

This past week, DroneDeploy introduced its new App Market, a store for drone applications from a range of companies—including Autodesk, Box, John Deere, and 13 others—as well as a variety of industry verticals. Additionally, it includes applications from Airmap, Dronelogbook, Flyte, Kittyhawk, NV Drone, Skyward, and Verifly that help pilots and businesses manage drone operations and compliance.  In a nutshell, these apps enable enterprises and drone-based business service providers to automate their workflow and data integration with specialized tools built right within the DroneDeploy user interface.

In one way or another, the apps enable businesses to extend the capability of DroneDeploy’s automated mapping and online drone data services with apps that augment flight planning, logging, data analysis, export, and more. Apps appear in different areas of the DroneDeploy interface, depending on what they do, and you install them in your DroneDeploy account. For example, a flight planning app will appear in the flight planning interface, whereas an export or integration app may appear in the export menu. You can read about the details of this announcement here.

WHAT’S COOL AND WHAT’S NOT

The three apps that stand out in this announcement and make progress toward workflow goals are Autodesk, Box, and John Deere. In a generic sense, “workflow” is the definition, execution, and automation of business processes where tasks, information, or documents are passed from one participant to another for action, according to a set of procedural rules. Workflows automate the flow of employee tasks and activities and make processes more efficient, compliant, agile, and visible.

With the Autodesk app, users can send their maps and 3D models directly from DroneDeploy into their Autodesk Forge storage. The Box app on DroneDeploy lets users easily export maps to their Box account for easy sharing with clients or other enterprise software solutions. With the John Deere app, users can import field boundaries from MyJohnDeere, which can help align flight planning with ongoing management of farm machines, fields, and jobs.

 THE COMPETITION:

In the past, many have discounted the output of DroneDeploy’s processed data as not good enough for enterprise work. This stems largely from the fact that almost all of their users fly and capture data with prosumer-level drones from DJI. For example, one of the main criticisms I’ve heard is that the resulting point clouds are not resolute enough for construction or engineering work. However, one look at this webcast with Brasfield & Gorrie, one of the largest privately held construction firms in the United States, and you can see first-hand the specific projects that have among other things integrated DroneDeploy automated mapping in their Building Information Modeling (BIM) process. Their plan is to scale this program across their sites.

Let’s be clear. This trend toward the use of prosumer drones for enterprise work is not going away anytime soon.  All the major mission planning and mapping applications like DroneDeploy, PrecisionHawk’s DataMapper, and Skycatch Commander (and dozens more) now run with the DJI SDK. Most of these started off with applications dedicated to their own drone but soon found that most professionals want to use the simpler and more reliable DJI prosumer-level and above drones.  Additionally, the prosumer drone category is the only place where sales volumes and margins are strong enough for manufacturers to recoup R&D investment with new technology like automated obstacle avoidance.

BOTTOM LINE:

We have written about the value, ROI, and potential of drones as aerial image and data capture devices in The Truth about Drones in Construction and Infrastructure Inspection. In that report, we discuss the benefits and challenges posed by the current state of drone data integration:

Drones and the data from drone data services do not provide a complete solution, and more likely than not, you’ll need to traverse a learning curve. For example, the firms mentioned in this paper had to set up new data integration workflows for their existing ecosystem of software solutions.  Those who used aerial images from drones to do BIM design work had to incorporate those images into CAD software like Autodesk REVIT.  Those who did work plans with images had to incorporate the images into project software like Navisworks.  Both camps had to learn how to manage daily workflows from constantly changing sets of new images.  Workflows needed to focus on how to both communicate and manage change – either in the feedback to design or in the feedback to production or to both at the same time.

To be fair, the apps in the new DroneDeploy App Market don’t solve all those problems, but they’re certainly a step in the right direction.

What’s next? I suspect we will see more workflow integration from DroneDeploy (and others) this year. They’ve hinted there’s more to come from their work with John Deere.  Personally, I’d like to see a complete automated workflow from DroneDeploy to SAP. Why? Because SAP software is used by 87% of the Forbes Global 2000 companies, and SAP customers produce 78% of the world’s food. SAP has an integrated suite of applications for just about everything that encapsulates aerial data and maps – from asset management to field service management.

DroneDeploy already has a beta release of an integration with Esri, which will allow users to analyze their DroneDeploy maps in ArcGIS Online.  SAP HANA users can integrate ArcGIS maps and SAP business data throughout SAP products, but I haven’t seen an end-to-end customer-specific use-case. If you are working on that, let me know—I’d love to hear about it.  You can write me at colin@droneanalyst.com.

Image credit: DroneDeploy

This post first appeared on DRONELIFE.com