Drone technology in the U.S. is still in pre-commercialization stages, but this hasn't stopped companies from thinking about how to move beyond just using an occasional drone to using fleets of drones to cover ground that crews now traverse.

The potential users of fleets of drones abound. They range from utilities to construction companies to mining companies, telecommunication firms, logistics operations and surveyors, to name a few.

“There is enormous potential in this space, but to get there, drone-generated data has to be standardized so it can be interoperable,” says Brock Christoval, CEO of Flyspan, which provides a drone fleet analytics platform.

Achieving interoperability is easier said than done.

Different drone manufacturers and industries use different data formats. At some point, these format variations have to be normalized so they all read the same and can be analyzed as a collective body of information.

“It’s’ a challenging problem because in the case of a telemetry file, there is no standard file format,” Christoval says. “As a cloud-based analytics service that takes raw data from different types of drones and extracts, transforms and loads this information (a process known as “ETL”), we convert all of the data so that it is in the same format in a single database. This enables drone operators to evaluate their drone data on apples to apples basis.”

There are three buckets of drone-generated data that services like Flyspan collect: 1) positional data on the whereabouts of the drone, 2) drone altitude data on barometric pressure readings, and 3) performance data on drone operations. “Information on the operations, locations and altitude can give the drone fleet operator enough information to know if all of the drones have sufficient battery life to make it back to ‘home port,’” Christoval says.

It is also important to be able to view incoming data from a fleet of drones through a single pane of glass in a home based “command center” that enables full fleet control.

Examples of drone fleet deployment include:

  • A telecommunications company that sends out a fleet of drones to locate and map telecommunications towers, or to check on tower status
  • An insurance company that sends out drones to inspect rooftops for water damage claims after a hurricane
  • A mining or a surveying company that needs to survey and inspect a large but remote geographical area
  • A city that uses drones to monitor a large metropolitan traffic grid

“What we usually find in these cases is that the organization has a single person or a small team of operators that run the drones and monitor them,” Christoval sys. “To affect total fleet control, they need software assistance.”

Christoval believes that the ability to deploy drones in numbers will save firms time in the field from some of their most valuable, and expensive, employees.

“We work with companies to establish business cases where both payback and time to results can be expedited,” he says. “At the same time, we continuously work with customers to learn more about new capabilities that they want.”

Some of the high-use business cases that Christoval and his team are uncovering are: drone-based inventory taking over a large geographical area (such as telecom companies counting towers), construction companies doing pre-site surveying and prep work, logistics operations tracking their on-ground fleets, and motion picture companies using drone fleets for landscape and action sequence capture.

“In one case, drone use will grow because companies are beginning to look at deploying fleets of drones instead of single drones,” Christoval says. “In another way, use will expand because of the amount of information that can be appended to basic geospatial data.” For instance, if a drone fleet takes a series of photos that can be turned into a 3D point cloud map, and data is then appended to that map to enrich its content — such as the mine sites, or topological features on the ground — the map becomes more valuable.

Although drone use is still limited in the U.S., it hasn't stopped companies from beginning to explore how they could run entire drone fleets.

“Cloud-based analytics geared to drones can help companies optimize drone fleets by collecting and preparing drone data and then running analytics on it,” Christoval says. “At the same time, companies should step up their drone knowledge so they can develop compelling business cases for fleets. The possibilities are there.”