In 2018, market researcher Technavio projected that global drone adoption would grow at a rate of 13.61-percent compound annual growth rate (CAGR) from 2019 to 2023. According to the company, one factor driving growth in the drone market was the variety of applications that drones could add value to.
These uses include access to dangerous or remote places, aerial photography and video recording, surveying, documentation of wildlife and forest fires, rescue missions, agriculture and military surveillance, etc.
Drone mapping software provider DroneDeploy said that the construction industry has been one of the most aggressive drone adopters, surging 239-percent from 2017 to 2018. “Builders deploy drones on jobsites around the world to increase safety, document and understand site progress, and identify potential issues before they become costly,” the company reported.
With such a surge in use, the question of implementation arises. What drone trends for 2019 should companies consider if they are planning for or adding drones to their operations?
1. Application-driven adoption that transforms drones into everyday tools
Two or three years ago, drones were a novelty that companies were just experimenting with. Since then, a plethora of practical applications in a broad swatch of industries have moved drones into everyday operations.
As an example, in June 2018, a drone equipped with a camera searched the reaches of the Pike National Forest in Colorado for two hikers who got lost after wandering off a trail. Within minutes, the drone located the hikers and their dog. The Douglas County (Colorado) Search and Rescue team commented that without the aid of the drone, the rescue mission could have taken as much as 23 volunteers and lasted all night. Results like these help drive drone adoption.
2. Enterprise adoption of drones
Research conducted by DroneDeploy in 2018 revealed a 5x increase in enterprise customer drone growth since 2016, and drone adoption at large companies was growing at a pace of 20-percent every month. As a result, the average size of an enterprise drone team grew to five pilots, with the growth of drone teams driving larger drone deployments across companies as UAVs become the go-to tool for aerial data collection.
3. The creation of drone operation centers
Larger enterprises planning to manage fleets of drones for purposes of logistics, package deliveries, etc., are creating drone control centers and staffing them with logistics experts. Those experts include certified drone pilots, and geospatial, information, and analytics engineers who have the skills to manage and get to the bottom of data, mapping the data, and visualizing it in various forms so it can deliver maximum insights and information to the business. This is creating new jobs and new departments in companies that didn't exist five years ago.
4. New technology that will weatherproof and extend fly time for drones
Projects like NASA’s lunar lander gateway have engaged commercial electronics providers in developing new technologies for deep space that can also be applied in commercial drone flights.
“One of the requirements that we deal with is the need to keep the crew and equipment safe from radiation, and also to develop sensors that are hardened for radiation tolerance,” says Tim Cichan, space exploration architect at Lockheed Martin, one of the firms that have been working with NASA. “From an electronics standpoint, this forces us to design for radiation tolerance at both the component and the system levels.”
Work like this translates into technology improvements for UAVs, which can benefit from hardened electronics and sensors, more lightweight versions of equipment and battery life improvements. Together, these advances will help extend drone fly times and survivability in adverse weather conditions.
5. Industry consolidation
At least on the drone hardware side, we are beginning to see consolidation. “Like in any market, as soon as the technology gets popular, it gets swamped with hundreds, if not thousands, of different companies who all want a piece of it,” says Chris Blackford, co-founder of Sky Futures, which provides drone inspection and training services. “However, we have now passed the saturation point and natural consolidation has started to happen. We saw this last year with increased M&A activity and some companies disappearing.”
Consolidation can be beneficial to companies adopting drones, because drone providers are putting their efforts into fewer drones and are not spreading R&D too thin. Consolidation encourages more durable and reliable drones, and it eases the burden on companies that are struggling with integrating Internet of Things (IoT) artifacts like drones into their operations because there are fewer options to integrate.
6. Attractive pricing models
“Just a few years ago, a company had to buy a $3,000 computer, around $6,000 in software and then a drone to even get started with drones,” says Kyle Miller, in-house agriculture expert with DroneDeploy. “This could easily result in a five-digit investment.”
Cloud-based companies like DroneDeploy now offer software rental and management services from the cloud to drone users for as little as $100-$300 month. The cost of some drones has fallen to around $1,000. This will enable many companies that couldn't afford the technology previously to get started with them.
7. Drones as a service (DaaS)
It’s common for people to rent a car, so why not drones too?
“Owing to the cost of commercial drones and the exorbitant costs related to pilot training, regulations and insurance, several small-scale companies are opting to rent drones—thereby driving the growth in demand for drone pilots. As a result, various companies are increasingly opting for the drones as a service (DaaS) model,” says Technavio.
In this way, companies can focus on their business—and let an outsourcer own and operate the drones, and collect, store and analyze their data for them.
8. Integration of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning
The enhanced automation with the integration of AI and machine learning will ease workloads and simplify skillsets for drone users.
“2019 will be the year that data advances drive drone technology,” Miller says. “By using machine learning and artificial intelligence, we can train computers and software what to look for, and assist companies in their analysis of drone-collected data. The AI will be able to analyze historical as well as recently collected data. It can also perform tasks automatically, such as calculating points on a map.”
So, with that all being said, what are some of the key takeaways for companies planning to use or expand the use of drones in their operations?
- Identify your best areas of immediate business application
If you want to use drones to survey and monitor remote mining sites, a good approach is to define a project, identify the business results you want to get, fly the drones and collect data, and measure the results. Projects that are structured like this work very well and are easily integrated into business operations.
In other cases, results don’t turn out as expected, and you either have to revise the project or pull the plug. In all cases, the drones are getting moved into the business right away and aren’t sitting on the shelf. This is precisely what you want.
- Decide what you want to do yourself
Even very small firms decide that they want to run their own drone operation—and they do. There are now tons of user-friendly tools on the market that take away some of the complexity of drone software, making this more feasible.
Another alternative is to fly your own drones, which only requires a fee of $150 per person to take and pass a certification at any FAA test site. Then, you can subcontract out all of your data preparation, analysis, reporting and map-making to an outsourcer such as a DaaS provider.
- Include maintenance in your operation
It is vital to maintain drones and keep them in good working order. Batteries should be charged after flights. Sensors and controls should be checked as well. If you decide to make the investment in the technology, you should also make sure to care for it.
- Have a plan for managing your data
Managing the data that drones collect is the biggest challenge many organizations face. Data management has several different facets.
First, the data must be stored in some kind of hierarchy that enables employees to get at the most used data quickly, and to less frequently accessed data with less speed and less expense. This requires some IT, so that you configure very fast (and very expensive) solid state drives to retrieve your often-accessed data, and slower, but much cheaper, disk drives storing seldom accessed data.
Second, data needs to be prepared after it is collected from the drone. This might require getting rid of unneeded data, such as the communications “jitter” that can accompany streams of data that are collected—or data that is just not needed. Then, once the data is “cleaned,” a skilled operator who knows how to store the data in a database and develop the kinds of queries and algorithms needed to mine the data for information must go to work.
A good approach is to list all of the work that will go into curating and using the data, and what will be required, and then determine if you want to do this yourself or outsource some or all of it.