FAA May Be Off Target With Forecast For Threefold Growth In Commercial Drones

There’s some good information in the FAA’s new five-year Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) forecast, but there are reasons to doubt the accuracy of the agency’s projections in two areas that have captured attention: the claims that there will be roughly threefold growth in the numbers of commercial drones and UAS-certified pilots. Here’s the good, the bad, and the ugly in the report.

The Good

There is some good analysis in this report. For example, it seems the FAA finally gets that drones have a wide variety of price points and the bulk of commercial activity has been driven by low-cost consumer-grade aircraft:

“Currently, the consumer grade dominates the non-model sector with a market share approaching 95 percent. However, as the sector matures and the industry begins to consolidate, the share of consumer grade non-model aircraft is likely to decline but will still be dominant. By 2023, FAA projects this sub-sector will have around 85 per-cent share of the overall non-model sUAS sector.”

This insight is mostly consistent with independent surveys and reports like this one, which finds more than 91% said they bought drones costing over $2,000 for professional purposes—either governmental, academic, or business.

The other good thing in this report is the FAA’s admission that the historical commercial drone registrations outpaced their own predictions by 80%.  Previously, they predicted a healthy growth rate of more than 40%—but they underestimated it.

“Last year, we forecasted that the non-model sector would have around 229,400 sUAS in 2019, a growth rate exceeding 44 percent from the year before (2018). Actual data far exceeds that trend with over 277,000 aircraft already registered by the end of 2018. Our forecast of non-model sUAS last year thus fell short by almost 80 percent for 2018 (or 277,000 actual aircraft vs 158,900 that we projected last year).”

The Bad

A closer look at the report reveals a few oversights and curious assumptions for their forecasts. Some of the key metrics and growth trajectories came from a survey the FAA conducted in June-July of 2018 about commercial activities performed in 2017 under Part 107. The survey sent to 89,000 individuals was intended to get a snapshot of non-model/commercial mission characteristics, including locations, aircraft types used, and altitudes flown. But the response rate to the survey—which was complex and time-consuming—was low (approximately 8 percent).

Still, the report projects the U.S. commercial drone fleet (small non-model UAS) to nearly triple from 277,386 in 2018 to 835,211 in 2023, an average annual growth rate of almost 25 percent. However, the main oversight is that most people don’t deregister their aircraft.  They may if they register a new one, but if they stop using one they are not going into the Registry to delete it. This keeps the current number inflated.

Another noticeable problem is the survey results are inconsistent with internal FAA data. And to be fair, the FAA admits there are big variations between the survey results and their aircraft registry. For instance, almost a third of survey respondents use one small drone; their aircraft registry (i.e., the Registry) indicates 55 percent use one small drone. The survey indicates that, for those operating multiple small drones, 54 percent operate 2-9, but the registry claims just on third fly multiple drones.

Another issue is the survey found the largest commercial use for drones was in R&D and in training/education missions (21%). But year over year, other industry benchmark surveys find the number one use for commercial drones is aerial photography and video. This disconnect is no surprise given how the FAA worded their survey questions. In this instance, the question asked for the number of missions performed on average per aircraft in each of activity they listed, not about its major intended use. Given most businesses were new to drones in 2017, it makes sense that the FAA found a lot of aircraft flew training missions back then—not actual industrial missions such as mapping and inspections as happens today.

The Ugly

Perhaps the biggest problem with the FAA report is in the Remote Pilot Forecast section. It predicts the number of UAS-certified pilots is “set to experience tremendous growth following the growth trends of the non-model sUAS sector.”  It predicts commercial drone activities may require almost 350,000 remote pilots in five years—a three-fold increase. Many in the press have run with this assumption and taken it to mean that the commercial drone industry is set to triple in the next five years. But a closer look calls this into question and makes that forecast specious.

To start, the FAA does not maintain a database showing the number of remote pilot certificate (RPC) holders who are current.  They only report gross new RPC holders. As reported here, 126,299 individuals have been issued a remote pilot certificate as of March 15, 2019.  But as of the same day, only 7,306 individuals have taken the remote pilot certification recurrent knowledge test, which is required every two years. Given remote pilot certification started in August 2016, that means only 20% of the original pilots have renewed their license to operate commercially.  To be fair, that figure may be higher but not by much since Part 61 pilots with an existing RPC and have met their flight review requirements are considered RPC current.

If the number of certified remote pilots is the benchmark for commercial drone industry growth (because, almost uniformly around the world, regulations demand each drone operation have one pilot), it seems crucial the FAA keep and report a database on current RPC holders in the U.S. That information would enable all to predict with greater certainty the growth of the commercial drone industry.

This article first appeared on Forbes.com
Image: A drone operator demonstrates a DJI Matrice 100 drone at the Applied Drone Technology for Business Conference. Photographer: Paul Faith/Bloomberg © 2019 BLOOMBERG FINANCE LP

New Report Benchmarks Drone Industry and Refutes Hyperbole

We just released the results of our third annual drone industry benchmark survey and it’s a kicker.

The 2018 Drone Market Sector Report examines worldwide drone sales, service providers, business and public agency users, and software services. This independent research, which is sponsored by DJI, DroneDeploy, DroneInsurance.com, and Trimble, finds a growing demand for businesses to use drone-acquired data in their day-to-day operations as well as other fresh insights on major drone industry segments.

Research

Our online market survey garnered over 2,500 respondents representing over 60 industries worldwide. Our analysis yields 10 key insights that summarize the current state of the industry, plus detailed analysis of drone adoption by businesses and enterprises.

Report

The 107-page report presents the results and analyses from each survey question. It’s organized to match our survey, with four sections that correspond to the four major segments of the drone industry:

  1. Drone aircraft and payloads purchased
  2. Service providers that offer drone-based imaging or sensing services for outside hire or sale
  3. Businesses and public agencies with drone programs
  4. Software apps or online services for drone operations and imaging

The report features more than 60 helpful figures and tables and offering insight and analysis on:

  • Who’s buying what types of drones from which makers at what prices and for what uses.
  • How large the drone-based service providers are, and how they position themselves to their target industries.
  • Who the business users of drone-based projects are, and which industries have traction.
  • How much service providers, business users, and public agencies are using flight management, mission planning, and image processing software for drone-based projects.

Findings

Among the more interesting findings are that commercial drone fleet sizes are smaller than most people think. If you believe the hyperbole, there are hundreds of thousands of drones in the airspace at the same time, but the survey finds that the average commercial user has just two drones that are only flying two projects a month and most of those flights consume less than flight three hours.

There are many other insights in the report, but these three are especially worth highlighting:

  • Professional use of drones is growing. We find that almost three-quarters of all drones weighing over 250 grams are purchased for professional purposes—either governmental or business. This is up from last year.
  • DJI continues to dominate the market and has made gains this year in every category from drone aircraft at all price ranges, to add-on payloads, to software. Survey data shows DJI is still the dominant brand for drone aircraft purchases, with a 74% global market share in sales across all price points.
  • Most businesses and public agencies are new to drones, have small programs, and perform their own services. The survey finds that nearly three-quarters of businesses or public agencies have only had a drone program in place for two or fewer years.

How to get it

You can download a complete prospectus or purchase the report here: https://droneanalyst.com/research/research-studies/2018-drone-market-sector-report-purchase

 

Image credit: Skylogic Research

Why Drones Are the Future of the Internet of Things

What if you could talk to a drone?  No, seriously.  You can already talk to a locomotive, so why not talk to a drone?

For those of you following the technology, you already know that unmanned aircraft systems (a.k.a. drones) are finding their way into Internet of Things (IoT) implementations. IoT applications are typically composed of:

  • A sensor “at rest,” e.g., on a highway or a bridge or a thermostat that gathers input (like weather conditions or seismic activity)
  • A connection (via the Internet) between the sensor and a back-end data collection infrastructure
  • A back-end data collection infrastructure that’s commonly based in the cloud

So why do I claim that drones the future of IoT? For one, drone technology is evolving very rapidly. Drones are already beginning to efficiently replace the connected sensors at rest with one device that is:

  1. deployable to different locations
  2. capable of carrying flexible payloads
  3. re-programmable in mission
  4. able to measure just about anything, anywhere

To illustrate the trend and these capabilities, I’ll highlight the developments of several companies. But first – so that we are all on the same page – let’s look at what I mean when I talk about drones.

A New Kind of Drone

All drones are not equal. Some like the Global Hawk are very complex systems that are connected to satellites and are only the purview of the military. Others like the Parrot A.R. Drone are mass-produced hobby aircraft that you can control with your mobile device.  But a class of drones in the middle combines the capabilities of both complex and mass-produced systems and is specifically designed for commercial purposes. These drones weight less than 55 lbs. and are classified by regulatory entities as small unmanned aircraft systems or sUAS.  We don’t see their ubiquitous use in the U.S. quite yet, but in countries like England, Australia, and France, you will find them operating in energy, mining, mapping, and surveying companies – and quite a few government agencies like those responsible for transportation and infrastructure.

Commercial drones are truly ‘unmanned aircraft systems’.  They are not just remote controlled aircraft.  They require many things in order to run, like avionics, ground control stations, communication systems, data collection and processing software, and of course GPS for geo-referencing. There’s more, but you get the idea. These are multifaceted complex vehicles whose mission is to fly sensors and collect data.

Commercial drones are also connected devices. So they are ‘things in motion’. Most are accessible or controllable over the Internet, and the data they collect is pushed to various cloud services. Some drones are beginning to carry on-board processors as well and are now part of the growing trend of fog computing devices.

Deploy a Fleet

So, if a commercial drone is a connected device, then shouldn’t you be able to ‘talk to a drone’?  And shouldn’t you be able to – from your smartphone in California –control a drone in, say, France?

You can.  And it’s because companies like DroneDeploy and U|g|CS have figured out how to make addressable drone management platforms that control multiple drones from anywhere on any device.  DroneDeploy does it by marrying a simple 4G telemetry device to a drone’s avionics.  This enables real-time data transmission, processing, and sharing. With this kind of hardware and software combination, you can plan missions (launch, go to point A, then point B, then to point C, etc.) in a browser, upload them to a drone anywhere, press start, and away it goes.  You could do that with a fleet and monitor them all in flight.

Flexible payloads

So one of things commercial users want is the ability to mount different sensors such as thermal imaging, UV or multispectral cameras, sniffers, and microphones to sUAS. PrecisionHawk figured out early on how to offer an array of sensors that are hot swappable and just snap into place. The cool thing about their aircraft is that the body itself is made of circuit boards and processors.  They’re hardened of course on the outside, but it’s an example of the innovation happening in the commercial drone industry.

Reprogrammable in mission

So, not only can you deploy these anywhere, but they are reprogrammable while on a mission.  Let’s say you wanted to create a 3D map for a construction project and you programmed it to run its mission but in the middle you noticed something odd (because you are looking through the camera in real-time on your laptop or smart-phone). With SenseFly’s drone software, you simply point to that area on the map, and you can:

  • divert the drone
  • command it to perform another function in that area
  • then resume and complete its first mission
  • then come home and land

Measure just about anything

Every day, you can read about how measurement sensors are getting smaller and lighter. Such is the case with LiDAR, which allows you to capture minute details and measurements.  Because these units have been heavy up to now, there have been only three choices if you wanted these sensors to measure something:

  • They had to be stationary
  • They could be roving (stationary on a truck or SUV)
  • They could be carried on a manned aircraft

Stationary is the most accurate but lacks the significance of an aerial perspective.  You can get good results from aircraft, but not as good as from a drone.  With a drone can get close to the object – and as I mentioned they can be deployable on-demand. LiDAR manufacturers like Riegl and Velodyne get this, and we now see offered in the GIS market new high-performance, remotely piloted aircraft system for unmanned laser scanning, like those from Phoenix Aerial Systems and Sabre Systems. These airborne platforms provide full mechanical and electrical integration of sensor system components into aircraft fuselage.

LiDAR data models are huge, but as more low-cost in-memory computing becomes available, service providers are storing the models in the cloud and then updating them to reveal changes over time. Of course, it’s the analytics on top of that that provides the real insights – insights like structural integrity and predictive failures.  Soon, multiple infrastructure sensors – like those found on bridges and highways – will be obsolete.

What’s next?

We are only beginning to find out how drones can be used to replace multiple sensors, and hopefully I’ve successfully convinced you of how drones play into the future of the Internet of Things.  Surely this technology will push the bounds of how we can measure and analyze ‘things at rest’ and ‘things in motion’ and how they can interact with both of them.

You can find a companion SlideShare presentation to this post here.  I would love to hear your thoughts on this topic. Feel free to comment or write me at colin@droneanalyst.com.

Image credit: Shutterstock

Drones Revolution Means Big Data Cloud Services

I love drones. No, not the big high-altitude ones like the Predator Drone, I mean the smaller low-altitude ones like Aeryon, Flexrotor, Phantom, and PrecisionHawk, that do everything from 3D mapping, to cinematography, to forensic inspections, to precision agriculture. I love making, programming, and piloting small unmanned aerial vehicles (sUAVs), and over the past several years I have made it an avocation to understand the impact this innovative technology will have on the future of business.

In this blog I discuss what I believe is the largest impact: big data cloud-based services.

Hardware is already a commodity. Today, much of the buzz about small unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS) is focused on the technology itself —  their components, their payload capacity, how fast they fly, how long they stay up, the latest camera, etc.  But honestly, those are quickly becoming non-differentiated product features. What is considered an innovation today– such as a stabilization gyro or avionic CPU – gets quickly mass-produced in Taiwan, China, or Mexico tomorrow. Airframe materials are generally the same—made of tried and true materials like light-weight shapeable foam and carbon fiber. For the buyer, it’s more a question of how much you’re willing to spend — like with a bicycle or laptop.

Software isn’t the differentiator either. For all drones, the interaction between the user and the aircraft is mediated by software. True, the quality of the pilot experience can be driven by the features and the quality of implementation, but this, too, is quickly becoming commoditized. For example, consumer-level vendors like 3DRobitics, DJI, and MikroKopter have software running at “ground level” for mission planning. The basic feature set includes: setting altitude, waypoints, speed, camera angles, and capture points. All vendors import Google Earth to help with that, and what once was done on a notebook PC and ‘uploaded’ to the aircraft prior to mission start is now performed on a tablet in real-time. Surely in the months ahead, usability will increase as planning software begins to import 3D models and perform pre-flight simulations, but that too will be a common feature across vendors. FAA regulations and public sentiment aside, we could, in fact, see Jeff Bezos’ vision of ‘Amazon Prime Air’ drone delivery technically feasible soon enough.

The greater value is in the data captured. Because small drones can fly at low-altitude, they make perfect precision image and data capture vehicles. Right now, it’s more efficient to fly an inexpensive drone over a large land area than it is to traverse it in a vehicle — and even more efficient than sending out an expensive multi-person surveying team. Keep in mind a digital photograph or video is not simply an image or composite of images. Rather, it is the result of processing visual light (blue, green, and red) as a binary numeric representation of a two-dimensional image—in other words, light becomes digital data. As cameras become more resolute, the amount of data captured goes up — as does the potential value of those images. But prices are coming down. For example, what once was available a few years ago only from a high-value satellite image service provider now comes from a drone affixed with a consumer level camera and off-the-shelf PC software. The software can automatically build textured 3D models from still images. And then there’s infrared cameras. They are now small enough, light enough, and cheap enough to mount on a drone. Infrared cameras don’t just let you see differences in heat; they let you measure those differences. So, there’s even more valuable data to evaluate.

Big farms mean big data. Dr. Kevin Price of Kansas State University says that about 80% of the money that will be spent on unmanned aerial vehicles in the next 10  years will be spent in the area of agriculture. He and others predict this will be a $100 billion industry by the year 2025.  While we dont agree with those numbers, we do see many agriculture applications for drones currently in development include data collection on crop health, vigor and yields; tracking the spread of invasive plant species; and monitoring cattle feedlots. Field images from cameras mounted on drones can be captured within an inch of accuracy. You can’t get that from a satellite or commercial aircraft image. Small drones are agile enough to provide ‘anywhere, anytime’ remote access. That means farmers and ranchers can do daily surveys to find exactly the right time to harvest or replenish feed stock. Similarly, changes over time can be equally revealing. By doing regular surveys and using software to highlight differences over time, it’s possible to zero in on anomalies. This valuable information, of course, can be used to improve productivity.

Cloud-based services are the future. You can buy a decent image-capture drone off the shelf for about $1200 US, but that doesn’t make you an image information specialist. The first thing you need to realize is that flying a drone and taking pictures is merely the first step in the data collection process. Images need to be corrected, calibrated, processed, stored, and evaluated. For precision agriculture and mapping, data quality and post-processing are critical to getting real value from the images. And helping the customer attain that value is the role of a data services provider. Already PrecisionHawk offers a service they call PrecisionMapper (now called DataMapper), “a cloud-based application that gives anyone the ability to upload, store, process, and share their aerial image data.”

By gathering data on a large scale over time, service providers will be able to process unprecedented levels of detail data and turn it into usable information for farmers. This vision is confirmed in a recent article where PrecisionHawk’s president Ernest Earon says ” the company views itself as a data company, rather than a drone company. He envisions an “app store” model that would allow, say, somebody in North Dakota with a top-notch algorithm for detecting potato blight, to license it to other farmers.”

There you have it. This is the future of small drones and I suspect as their use and applications increase small and medium business (SMB) niche service providers will flourish.  And as they flourish these firms will differentiate themselves based on processing speed and the salience of their insights. Certainly the use of a cloud-based in-memory computing platform to accelerate analytics, processes, and predictive capabilities will be foundational to that differentiation.

Feel free to leave a comment telling me about your interest in this innovation.

Image credit: Shutterstock

This post also appears on SAP Business Innovation

Making Sense of Drones

What do you think when you hear the word drone or unmanned aerial system (UAS) or unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV)?

Drones come in all sizes now. Most of you know about the big high altitude Defense related ones like the Predator Drone, but you may not know about the many smaller low altitude ones for Civil and Public use like AeryonDJI PhantomPrecisionHawk, or Flexrotor that do everything from 3D mapping, to cinematography, to precision agriculture, to forensic inspections.

For sake of clarity we follow the taxonomy of Drone Law Journal and use the word “drone” to refer to remote-controlled aircraft.

Why the word drone and not another? Because it’s a one syllable word and immediately understood as something flying without a person on board. The journal says:

“Drones are not only “weapons of war.” Yes, one of their first practical uses was in warfare, but the same may be said of airplanes and helicopters. As was the case with airplanes and helicopters, drones will be used by the military, the public sector, corporations and regular people like you and me. They will be commonplace, useful and profitable. Drones will allow us to do what we have and have not done before— more safely and far less expensively for both pleasure and profit.”