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GIS: The Biggest Little Drone Market in the World

Last week I had the pleasure of participating in a two-day symposium on unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) hosted by the Northern California American Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing (ASPRS).  The event was held in Reno, Nevada, (otherwise known as “The Biggest Little City in the World”), and its purpose was to assemble UAS experts and enthusiasts to share information, showcase new technologies, and demonstrate systems in action – systems that support geographic information systems (GIS).  Presentations covered a wide range of topics, including everything from vehicles, to software, to data collection, to workflow, cameras, and sensors. You can find my presentation here.

By all measures, this event was a success. With more than 500 attendees, the symposium included presentations on a wide range of topics including vehicles, to software, to data collection, to workflow, to cameras and sensors and an afternoon of UAS demos.  But what struck me most about the symposium was not just the participants’ level of sophistication and knowledge (it was very high), but also the suitability of drones for the mapping and surveying market. In this article, I’ll explain why I think this market will be the second biggest commercial drone market (behind aerial photography and cinema and ahead of precision agriculture) by telling you three things I learned about how GIS professionals see and use drones.

Drones are a perfect fit for GIS – A geographic information system (GIS) lets you visualize, question, analyze, and interpret data to understand relationships, patterns, and trends. GIS benefits organizations of all sizes and in almost every industry. So, GIS professionals, like those who are members of ASPRS, are no strangers to aerial imaging.  They know cameras and aircraft – and surprisingly a lot about drones. When I asked the audience by show of hands how many are familiar with drone technology and have remotely piloted a drone, more than half said they were familiar and had been a drone pilot. This stands in sharp contrast to the audience of the large agricultural drone show I attended over the summer where most attendees had never flown a drone and were unfamiliar with the technology – let alone cameras.

As a profession, most of this audience does photogrammetry.  They are image producers.  As a profession, farmers are consumers of images. For the unschooled, photogrammetry is the science of making measurements from photographs. The inputs are georeferenced photographs.  Up to now these have been taken from manned aircraft or satellites. The output is typically a map, drawing, measurement, or a 3D model of some real-world object or scene. Since photogrammetry is used in fields like topographic mapping, architecture, engineering, manufacturing, quality control, and geology, the accuracy of images matters to these professionals.  What matters to their customers is whether the output is timely, rich, localized, and problem-specific.

So, what better way is there to get all that done than from a drone?  None.  Low altitude small drones provide an advantage over incumbent aerial technology for GIS work.  The images from these drone sensors are more resolute, can be captured more frequently, and cost less to produce.  GIS professionals are willing to spend a lot of money on drone systems — they already spend about $40K for a complete ground-based GPS rover system and more than $100K for 3D laser scanners.  So, the idea of spending up to $100K for a turnkey unmanned aircraft system is not out of line — and drone vendors know this.  That’s why those that exhibited at this event showcased their high-end turnkey systems.

GIS professionals need good drone software – There is a growing interest in and awareness of the economic and strategic value of GIS for the Global 2000, as witnessed by the recent integration partnership between Esri (world’s largest GIS software vendor) and SAP (world’s largest enterprise application vendor). But the race to the top is for the software front end to that enterprise piece. The part that mappers and surveyors use on a day-to-day basis—including  software like work management, flight controls, mission planning, aerial capture, post-processing, and mapping, and modeling.

There were more than 25 software vendors at this show – each with a bit of news.  Some of the most interesting came from DroneDeploy and Google.  DroneDeploy announced the first drone software capable of creating orthorectified maps in real time. Users have typically had to wait for four to six hours for maps to be created from drone imagery, but now they can get real-time aerial maps. This will save operators hours every time they fly their drones, and enable better decisions, as data can now be verified during a flight instead of hours or even days later as is the case with existing systems. DroneDeploy is able to achieve this real-time stitching because the drones its product manages are all internet-enabled and use cloud infrastructure for the processing.

The other interesting news from the event came from Google.  Its soon-to-be-released Earth Engine product can now mix the world’s satellite imagery with UAS images — along with trillions of scientific measurements dating back over 40 years — and make it available online with tools for scientists, independent researchers, and nations. All of whom can mine this massive warehouse of data to detect changes, map trends, and quantify differences on the Earth’s surface. Google has already worked with Skycatch and opened up the engine to other partners, so expect to hear more as they go to full-scale launch.

LiDAR drones are here

Mapping and surveying professionals love LiDAR.  They love it because it allows them to capture minute details that photos can’t — and with those details create precise digital representation of objects, buildings, and the ground. LiDAR is based on the same concept as RADAR, but it uses laser light instead of radio waves. By sending out laser beams in all directions, collecting the reflected energy, and performing some nifty high-speed computer processing, a scanner can create a real-time, virtual map of the surrounding area.  These representations have many uses.

But most LiDAR units are heavy and – up to now – had to be mounted on trucks or manned aircraft.  So over the past couple of years manufacturers like Riegl and Velodyne have reduced the size and weight of their units such that that it’s now possible to mount them on large multicopters.  Additionally, these same vendors sell or partner to sell their own dedicated drones, thereby ‘vertically integrating’ (no pun intended) their scanner offerings.  By coupling novel drone-mounted LiDAR systems with vision cameras, advanced computer processing, and GPS, it has become possible to create a remotely piloted flying LiDAR scanner. These vendors were at the show as was Phoenix Aerial Systems and XactSense, both of which have LiDAR drones.

What’s next?

What will be the next innovation for this market?  Well, maps of navigable drone highways in the sky, for one.  These would be aviation maps that would help pilots of manned aircraft know where not to fly. This BHAG is already being taken on by SkyWard, which just introduced the Urban SkyWays Project and the first end-to-end demonstration of a commercial drone network operated with full regulatory compliance. After that? Who knows.  One thing is certain: I expect to see the vendors that attended this symposium continue to innovate in big ways.  Stay tuned.  In the meantime, feel free to write me at colin@droneanalyst.com and tell me what you think about the market opportunities.

This post also appears in sUAS News ‘The Market‘.

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Drone Delivery: By The Numbers

What do medicine, batteries, and forgotten anniversary gifts have in common?  They are the most likely items consumers will want delivered by drone once that service is available.  At least, that’s the verdict from the consumers I surveyed in August and September of this year. In my post Drone Delivery: How Much Would You Pay?, I ran a poll with three simple questions:

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

These are the topline results.  You can see the companion summary presentation with more complete graphs and charts of the data here.

The max you’d pay?  First, I wanted some base data on how much people would pay for drone delivery.  So, I asked if consumers were willing to pay for the service and whether they wanted to pay a flat fee or a percentage of the price of their purchased items.  More than three-quarters of respondents (82%) told us they would be willing to pay (vs. 18% who said they wouldn’t), and the largest majority of those who’d pay (62%) said they would prefer paying a percentage of the item’s purchase price (vs. 18% who said they would rather pay a flat fee).

When we asked those who were willing to pay for the service how much they would be willing to pay, we saw big differences in preference. For instance, as I mentioned, only 18% of respondents said they’d prefer a flat fee, and 80% of those people said they wouldn’t pay more than US $50 for delivery.  That’s not a lot more than express overnight delivery fees. I doubt these consumers will be using fixed charge drone delivery services.

For those respondents who indicated they’d pay a percentage of an item’s price, more than half (51%) said they would pay up to 10% of an item’s purchase price.  Most of the rest (43%) said up to 20%, and only 6% said up to 30%.  It seems that a percentage charge could leave a delivery service with losses if the delivered items aren’t high priced.

Items you’d want delivered?  Second, I was curious to know what items consumers would likely purchase and want delivered by drone. I reviewed online shopping trends to find most popular product categories and top purchase drivers – keeping in mind the items had to fit the following drone delivery requirements:

The order must be small enough to fit in the drone’s cargo box The items must weigh less than 5 lbs.

There were clear winners and losers in the list of items consumers would want delivered in 30 minutes or less (see Figure 1).

FIGURE 1 – Which of 10 Items Would You Want Delivered in 30 Minutes?

Drone Deliver Fig 1

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Commercial UAS Market Opportunities: Do defense avionics and electronics suppliers have a head start?

This post also appears in The Market section of sUAS News.

As the Federal Aviation Administration prepares new guidelines for the use of unmanned aerial systems (UAS) in the U.S. national airspace, startups and aeronautic mainstays are chomping at the bit to start selling drones for commercial ventures, from filming to crop scouting to inspecting oil pipelines.  Some market forecasts like this one from Markets and Markets and this one from Business Insider expect the size of the commercial market for sUAS to grow significantly over the next decade. I believe they are right, but what is up for grabs is, Who will get the lion’s share of the market?  Will it be the startups like Airware and PrecisionHawk or the defense suppliers like Lockheed-Martin Procerus Technologies and AeroVironment?

I recently came across this this article in Military Embedded Systems and was struck by some of the comments.  The article starts with this assertion:

“Most analysts expect the commercial market for unmanned aircraft to eventually dwarf that of the military market. Unmanned aircraft systems have changed the face of modern warfare and created a huge opportunity for electronics suppliers that provide systems for the UAS payloads, ground control stations, and flight controls.”

It goes on to quote Ron Stearns, Research Director at G2 Solutions:

“Companies who will have the biggest head start in [the commercial UAS] market will be defense avionics and electronics suppliers who have been there and done that with this technology,” he continues. “However, it is a very different operating space for them, akin to a purely commercial electronics company trying to sell in the military procurement realm.”

What struck me first is the assertion that the commercial market for UAS will dwarf that of the military. Neither the Markets and Markets or Business Insider forecasts show that.  Business Insider is perhaps the most rational, as they predict that 12% of an estimated $98 billion in cumulative global spending on aerial drones over the next decade will be for commercial purposes.

Second, there is little evidence that those same suppliers that benefited from military drones will benefit from the eventual commercial applications of this technology.  It is not – as the Military Embedded Systems article suggests – an R&D problem.  I believe the vast differences in the ways these firms go to market is the problem that will, in fact, “throw a wrench in that transition.”

As background, I suggest taking a look at a piece I wrote back in March 2014; The Business of Drones: A Tale of Two Cities lays out the issues and the advantages of each camp. Since that time, I have attended the Precision Aerial Ag show and Ohio UAS Conference and witnessed the advancement of off-the-shelf open source technology and the go-to-market practices of commercial UAS aircraft produced independent of government contracts or sub-contracts.

Third, I see no evidence that supports the claim that defense avionics and electronic suppliers have the biggest head start. In fact I see just the opposite.  Take, for example, the software platform that runs small UAS for commercial use. You would think that when NASA solicited collaboration from outside organizations for its UAS Traffic Management (UTM) research and development to enable sUAS operations at lower altitudes, Lockheed-Martin would have jumped at that opportunity.  After all, they are an existing NASA contractor, and their Kestrel 3.0 autopilot avionics technologies incorporates data from a suite of sensors and GPS to create an accurate estimate of the vehicle’s location and orientation.  They also make the Stalker UAS, which is the same size and weight class as many enterprise level sUAS like the PrecisionHawk Lancaster.  But they didn’t.  Instead, San Francisco startup Airware answered the call.  You can see that announcement here.

NASA plans to test UTM capabilities to safely enable low-altitude operations and operational requirements for wind/weather integration, airspace design/geo-fencing, sense-and-avoid/separation management, demand/capacity imbalance management, contingency management, and enabling requirements such as communications, navigation, and surveillance. The outcome of this research is bound to impact the future market for sUAS technology in the commercial markets, and collaborating parties will receive valuable performance data about their assets and ability to operate in the mixed airspace. In this regard, I think Airware has the head start.

There are other examples of where non-military vendors – especially those in Silicon Valley – have surpassed their military counterparts. Look for those in future “The Market” articles. In the meantime, feel free to write me at colin@droneanalyst.com and tell me what you think—will startups or defense contractors get the lion’s share of the commercial sUAS market? Or another party?

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When Lockheed Meets GoPro: Ohio UAS Conference Wrap Up

Over the course of three days in August, I along with more than 670 participants at the Ohio UAS Conference 2014 in Dayton, OH, witnessed a large number of government and aerospace company attendees interested in taking drones into commercial markets.  From the dozens of presentations and interactions I had with academics, military contractors, aircraft manufacturers, parts suppliers and many others at the event, it’s clear that government and aerospace have jumped on the drones-for-commercial-use bandwagon.  But, for a number of reasons, this group’s aircraft aren’t going commercial just yet.

To be clear, the Ohio show was about showcasing proof of concepts and building partnerships – not flying and getting customers. This stands in stark contrast to the Precision Aerial Ag Show I attended earlier this summer, where many vendors demoed their aircraft and showcased their customers and established relationships with local service providers.

Why the dissimilarity?  Part of the difference is in approaches to FAA regulations.  The aerospace and military contractors play it safe by following all the FAA guidelines — regardless of which airspace they fly or test in.  But commercial vendors, whose aircraft and commercial applications are intended only in Class G uncontrolled airspace approach FAA guidelines as just that—guidelines. I wrote about these “radical opposites” in The Business of Drones: A Tale of Two Cities.

What I found interesting about the Ohio show is that it revealed evidence of a closing gap between commercial and public sector approaches to drones. I see a trend in which aerospace companies are beginning to adopt model aircraft and consumer technology. Let me explain by telling the story of three vendors I saw.

Detroit Aircraft – Where Lockheed Meets GoPro

Thanks to Detroit Aircraft, I got my first hands-on look at Lockheed Martin Indago VTOL.  Lockheed-Martin Indago VTOLDetroit Aircraft is an authorized distributor of the Indago. And it is one sleek, sophisticated machine. It is perhaps the most highly engineered quadcopter system ever built. And you would think so given Lockheed’s deep R&D pockets and experience with programs like Desert Hawk, Persistent Threat Detection System aerostats, and the K-MAX unmanned helicopter system.

But the Indago wasn’t engineered for those same purposes nor by those groups.  Rather, it was created by Procerus Technologies, a company Lockheed Martin acquired in 2012.  The target market for this system was to be public safety / first responders and compete with the likes of the Aeryon Scout and Draganflyer Guardian.

For the most part, the $45K Indago system is capable for first-responders.  The copter is compact, lightweight (5 lbs.), and folds up, so it’s packable.  It’s enclosed, so it’s all-weather. It’s got a removable two-sensor gimbal (video and infrared), an IP-based digital video and data link, a hand controller and/or full ground control station, zoom-in video monitoring, and much more.  It seems the engineers thought of everything – including putting a GPS on the hand controller so the copter can ‘follow me’ wherever it goes. But they missed a big feature. The Indago lacks pretty standard video recording capabilities — capabilities that you find on a point-and-shoot camera and hobby store quadcopter. There is no onboard HD video recording, no live stream HD, no stabilizing gimbal for the camera, no HD 1080p / 60 fps recording, and no still photography for photogrammetry or near-infrared image capture.  Bottom line: What you see and record on the downlink monitor is irresolute shaky video.  Oh my.  That’s four years behind.

Not to worry. Enter Detroit Aircraft. When they got a hold of the Indago, they realized these shortcomings straightaway.  The first order of business was to engineer a 2D gimbal mount and video feed for a GoPro HERO camera. At least now you can record stabilized HD video. They also affixed a consumer camera and an infrared trigger for photogrammetry.  More is being done.  As this firm continues testing and integration you can expect Lockheed Martin to catch up with off-the-shelf model aircraft technology.  For more on nuances of modern aerial photography see this post.

Camo LLC – Testing Open Source. 1, 2, 3

Nobody wants drones to collide with each other – let alone collide with manned aircraft.  So, you have to test prevention systems to see if they work.  Camo is doing that.  Camo LLCAs ‘system of systems’ subject matter experts, their discipline and attention to detail make them ideal candidates for this. They do test and analysis planning, execution, and reporting for integrating war fighting systems.  In layman’s terms, that means they test all the individual sub-systems to make sure they talk to one another.

Systems of systems engineering is much needed if we are to see large-scale integration of commercial drones into controlled airspace.  Camo is well equipped for testing the integration of ADS-B with autonomous flight controllers – which they are doing.  ADS-B or ‘automatic dependent surveillance – broadcast’ is a cooperative surveillance technology in which an aircraft determines its position via satellite navigation and periodically broadcasts it, enabling it to be tracked. The information can be received by air traffic control ground stations as a replacement for secondary radar.  It can also be received by other aircraft (or drone) to provide situational awareness and allow self-separation.

But here is the news. Their testing of SkyGuard ADS-B is on a Mentor-G fixed-wing model aircraft.  The auto-pilot flight controller is open source APM 2.6 by 3DRobotics.  Their flight is Mission Planner which is also open source.  What gives?  Why would a military vendor be testing on model aircraft and open source technology?  Well, for one thing, cost.  It’s cheaper than licensing a proprietary system and in some cases it’s just simply a better choice.  Open source drone software has in some ways become more functionally mature than its military counterpart.  As I said above, this is a new trend. You can find out more on open source drone technology here.

SelectTech Geospatial – The Monster Garage of Drones

SelectTech Geospatial (SG) has the local reputation of being the ‘Monster Garage’ of UAS. The Monster Garage TV series used to assemble a team of people with mechanical, fabricating, or modifying expertise to modify a vehicle into a “monster machine.” This generally meant making one vehicle that could transform into another. While the soberness of such designs was many times in question (such as when a police car transformed into a donut shop), the ingenuity of the engineering was not.  Such is the case with SelectTech.  This engineering and technical services company started as a rapid prototyping manufacturing service for military hardware and systems and soon realized the market potential for drones doing civil geospatial applications services.  SG is located at the Springfield Beckley Municipal/Air National Guard airport in Springfield, OH.  The facility is a renovated 17,000 sq. ft. hangar capable of high tech engineering and design, software development, prototyping, manufacturing and production, product validation and extensive flight testing.

At the conference, they exhibited some of their unique monster machines – like this aircraft Convertible Fixed Wing Quadcopterwith a removable fixed wing that allows it to be transformed into a multirotor quadcopter.  What they didn’t show was this UAS designed and built back in 2011 with the help of a 3D printer. This was the first non-government-built aircraft of its kind. It has a wingspan of four feet and weighs about five pounds. Powered by an electric motor and lithium polymer batteries, it flies in winds in excess of 25 knots. But here is the news.  The initial flight trials were made at the Springfield-Beckley airport under The Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA) flight rules – not under FAA rules for Certificates of Waiver or Authorization (COA) or Special Airworthiness Certificate (which are normally required for UAS aircraft). So, basically, it is an advanced model aircraft and one more example of an aerospace company adopting model aircraft and consumer technology.


To reiterate a point I made in this post, aerospace firms and military contractors have to a great degree been naive about the power of what a model aircraft drone can do commercially and how overpriced military-spec drones are for the civilian market.  It seems that trend is changing and with firms like the three I mention above, this convergence of technology will continue.

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.

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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:

What’s the maximum amount you would be willing to pay for a package delivered by drone? Which of ten items would you want delivered in 30 minutes? 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

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