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Five Valuable Business Lessons about Drone Inspections

We just released a new research report titled “Five Valuable Business Lessons About Drones in Asset and Infrastructure Inspection” This is the fourth in a series of white papers intended to share lessons learned in specific industries and how to maximize the value drones can deliver in those industries. This year, we are building on the analysis we did for the 2016 “Truth About” papers by incorporating real-world experience gained from businesses and drone pilots operating under the Federal Aviation Administration’s Small Unmanned Aircraft Regulations (aka FAA Part 107).

In the report, which co-authored by Chris Korody, we demonstrate what drone operators servicing a wide variety of industries have learned about what works and what doesn’t. We explore both the benefits and limitations of drone inspection projects and offer practical advice to would-be adopters. We answer questions like: What have companies learned about creating their own internal drone operation groups? And where do we go or what can we expect from here?

Here is an excerpt:

“While both media and investors have primarily focused on opportunities for using drones in the construction and agriculture industries, inspection applications have fostered innovation together with significant returns on investment. The reasons begin with the “four Ds”—a term coined by GE Ventures to describe the unique ability of drones to meet the needs of their field services customers. The four D’s describe any activity that’s tailor-made to be performed by a drone, and are:

  • Dull
  • Dirty
  • Dangerous
  • Distant

In a 2014 interview, Sue Siegel, the CEO of GE Ventures, added a fifth “D”—for data—saying simply, “Imagine that if you’re doing it faster, you might be able to do it more often. And more data typically will give you better data.”

The four Ds+1 combination is one of the most compelling arguments for drone adoption in companies where uptime is money, crews are expensive, and structures and facilities are often expected to last 50 to 100 years.

The other compelling argument is cost reduction. McKinsey Consulting’s recent white paper “Preserving the downturn’s upsidehighlights how the oil and gas industry reduced costs by 29% in response to falling oil prices. They show that 40% to 50% of the savings came from eliminating the demand for a variety of services, including manned aviation support. The innovators figured out how to put drones to work.”

The report goes on to discuss how drones and the data from drones offer huge advantages in the oil & gas, telecommunications, and utility industries. It also provides insights from Dexter Lewis, PE, senior engineer in the research and development group at Southern Company (NYSE: SO) which brings electricity and gas to 9 million customers.

You can get the free report here.

If you have questions about what’s in the report or would like to comment on it after reading it, write me at colin@droneanalyst.com.

 

Image credit: Shutterstock

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What’s the Future of Drone Use in Mining and Aggregates?

I just released a new research report titled “Five Valuable Business Lessons Learned About Drones in Mining and Aggregates.” This is the third in a series of white papers sponsored by BZ Media intended to share lessons learned in specific industries and how to maximize the value drones can deliver in those industries.

It seems with the ability to monitor stockpiles, map exploration targets, and track equipment, the usage of drones in mining and aggregates is vast. But there are limitations and in this report, we demonstrate what early adopters have found out about what works and what doesn’t and where we go from here.

Here is an excerpt:

“As early as 2014, mining operators and aggregate producers in Australia, Canada, France, and the U.S. were putting drones to the test.  And why not? These industries are one of those countries’ most important economic sectors. And they’re growing.  In 2016, the consumption of construction aggregates worldwide was estimated at 43.3 billion metric tons (BMT) with a value of $350 billion. Production volume is anticipated to reach 62.9 BMT by 2024.  Mining accounts for almost a quarter of Canada’s exports, and is both a major employer and source of royalties and tax revenue.  Combined, these two industries have a significant footprint, not just economically in terms of employment but also environmentally to their host communities. This footprint extends from exploration to extraction, processing, and shipping. Surveillance, monitoring, maintenance, and oversight in all these areas are monumental tasks, and current approaches to this are both capital and labor intensive.

Back in the early days, visionaries knew that drones could be used for a wide array of activities.  Turns out these visionaries have found in the mining and aggregate sectors a frontier for unmanned aerial vehicles, otherwise known as UAVs.  In recent years, small drones have helped many firms find cheaper and safer ways to map deposit sites, explore for minerals, and calculate inventory via remote control. A drone, with the relevant sensors and data integration, is an excellent tool for such roles.”

The report goes on to discuss how drones and the data from drones offer huge advantages in every part of the mining and aggregate production lifecycle including exploration, planning/permitting, operations, and reclamation. It also provides insights from Iain Allen, Senior Manager, Digital Mining at Barrick Gold, an $8.5 Billion 34-year-old mining company in Toronto, Canada.

You can view a summary video on YouTube here: https://youtu.be/Y2LZaclEnws

You can get the free report here.

If you have questions about what’s in the report or would like to comment on it after reading it, write me at colin@droneanalyst.com.

 

Image credit: Shutterstock

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The War is Not Over: Why Agriculture Drones Deserve a Closer Look

As many of you know I’ve been researching and writing about agriculture drone solutions since early 2012. I recently came across this OpEd in PrecisionAg titled “Opinion: The Agricultural Drone War Is Over, And They Lost” and read it with great interest. Two and half years ago, our research indicated the same thing—that small drones might not be able to deliver more usable data to a farmer or provide a cost benefit over the existing image solutions available to them.

Even last year I had my doubts. In our June 2016 report, The Truth about Drones in Precision Agriculture, we looked at how drones have been used as remote sensing devices in agriculture thus far, reviewed competitive and traditional approaches using incumbent technology (like satellites and manned aircraft), and discussed the opportunities and challenges posed by the technology itself.

But a lot has changed since then.  Agriculture drones have matured, and so have the sensors and analytical solutions that support them.  A rising number of software vendors are targeting the agriculture space with increasingly useful solutions. And a new generation of drones is delivering much-needed functionality.

Not all agriculture drone solutions are created equal, so it pays to do a bit of research before committing. There are many factors to consider, from software compatibility to price to technical capabilities such as:

  • Can you get all the components—drone, sensor, software, and analytics—from one company?
  • Is an internet connection required in order to process data?
  • Will it integrate well with your existing tools?

The research process to find the best solution can be overwhelming and time-consuming, but there is some good news. We’ve done a fair amount of this work already which you can access in our latest report, Using Drones to Ensure ROI in Precision Agriculture.  You’ll also find a checklist there to help you determine which solution is the best fit.  Here is an excerpt:

Nearly all agriculture drone solutions process RGB color, near infrared (NIR), and normalized difference vegetation index (NDVI) data.  But not all solutions provide additional analytics and tools better matched to the needs of growers and agronomists. For example, only one solution we know of in the market allows users to view live NDVI data via streaming video while the drone is flying without an internet connection. This means you can more easily fly missions and see critical information at the field’s edge without requiring a trip back to the office. This eliminates a huge bottleneck. Most solutions require that you upload images from the UAV to a mobile device, a laptop or cloud service where they are stitched together to create a base map and the underlying spectrum data is processed into a usable NDVI layer.  In most solutions, you have to wait for that information—sometimes for hours. But with this solution you don’t have to do that, and the added benefit is you can use the time savings to gather additional inputs from the areas the real-time map shows as suspect.

The report goes on to detail the following:

  • The importance of timely inputs
  • New analytics and tools
  • The importance of an integrated solution—sensor, drone, and analytic data platform
  • The challenges of understanding ROI
  • The benefits of end-to-end solutions

You can get the report, plus an End-to-End UAV Solution Checklist for Precision Agriculture, here. 

Look for another report from us on this topic soon. If you have questions about information in the report or would like to comment on it after reading, write me at colin@droneanalyst.com.

 

Image credit: Sentera

 

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Five Valuable Business Lessons Learned About Drones in Construction

We just released a new research report titled “Five Valuable Business Lessons Learned About Drones in Construction.” This is the first in a new series of white papers sponsored by BZ Media intended to share lessons learned in specific industries and how to maximize the value drones can deliver in those industries. This year, we are building on the analysis we did for the 2016 “Truth About” papers by incorporating real-world experience gained from businesses and drone pilots operating under the Federal Aviation Administration’s Small Unmanned Aircraft Regulations (aka FAA Part 107).

In the report, which is authored by Chris Korody, the founder of DroneBusiness.center, we demonstrate what drone operators servicing the architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) industry have learned about what works and what doesn’t. We explore both the benefits and limitations of drones for Building Information Modeling (BIM) projects and offer practical advice to would-be adopters. We answer questions like: What have construction companies learned about creating their own internal drone operations groups? And where do we go or what can we expect from here?

Here is an excerpt:

“The $8.5 trillion global construction industry is both massive and far flung—there is no place in the world that does not build things. The industry’s problems reflect an age-old tradition of architects and engineers throwing plans over the wall to be reworked by contractors and subcontractors. It’s not that the system doesn’t work—it’s that the rework eats up increasingly thin margins, wastes huge amounts of material, and creates massive delays. And since much of it is on paper, trying to integrate and keep track of complex projects is no easy task.

In a June 2016 report, McKinsey quantified the problem: “Large projects across asset classes typically take 20 percent longer to finish than scheduled and are up to 80 percent over budget. Construction productivity has actually declined in some markets since the 1990s.” Of the 22 industries McKinsey analyzed, the construction industry is second to last; only agriculture has made less progress digitizing its workflows.

The sheer scale of the problem led Goldman Sachs to write that the first large-scale use of commercial drones will be in construction. It makes perfect sense. Visual line of site (VLOS) works just fine on construction sites. A growing group of software vendors are targeting the space with increasingly useful solutions. And a new  generation of drones is delivering much needed functionality.”

The report goes on to detail the business lessons learned from drone-based projects done by hundreds of firms across the globe—not just for construction but also for engineering and architectural firms. It also provides insights from Richard Lopez, VDC (visual design construction) Manager at Hensel Phelps, a $3.1B 80-year-old construction company in Greeley, CO.

You can view a summary video on YouTube here: https://youtu.be/rGYnDAO5UZQ

You can get the free report here.

If you have questions about what’s in the report or would like to comment on it after reading it, write us as chris@dronebusiness.center and colin@droneanalyst.com.

 

Image credit: BZ Media

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Who Benefits from Airmap and its Digital Certificates for Drones?

Airmap, with its low-altitude airspace management platform for drones, continues to garner international market share and new investment, but some uses for its digital certificates raise questions about their role in future airspace regulation.

 

THE FACTS:

AirMap provides low-altitude navigational data and communication tools to the drone industry. In February 2017, they announced $26 million in Series B funding from Microsoft, Airbus, Qualcomm, Yuneec, and Sony, with Microsoft leading the round. At the same time, they announced a partnership to deliver their airspace services for SenseFly drones directly integrated with senseFly’s eMotion flight and data management software. This comes on the heels of many other partnerships and integration efforts with the likes of 3D Robotics, DJI, Hover, Intel, Kittyhawk, Lufthansa Systems, and The Weather Company.

 

WHAT’S COOL AND WHAT’S NOT:

The Airmap smartphone app—available in the App Store and Google Play—is a very useful tool for drone operators. I first became acquainted with it when Hover began using it as the map for their app. I use it to determine (among other things) if the location where I want to fly has any flight restrictions. Flight restrictions include controlled airspace (Class B, C, D, and E), airports, heliports, and caution areas (like Temporary Flight Restrictions, wildfires, prohibited and restricted airspace, national parks, and marine protected areas). All of this of course just augments the geofencing systems that are already built into many drones (like the DJI GEO), which can lock you out of flying in restricted areas.

Another unique feature is Airmap’s Digital Notice and Awareness System (D-NAS), which allows users to communicate flight intentions to the more than 125 airports worldwide that accept digital flight notices. With D-NAS airports can view past and current drone flights, and communicate with drone operators.

At any rate—kudos to the managers and development team for their attention to detail and expanding capabilities. I suspect we’ll see more partnerships and integrations as a result of the AirMap Platform announced in August 2016. This developer platform offers Airmap airspace information and services capabilities for anyone who wants to integrate it with their own software for drones, mobile apps, or web applications.

But here’s the thing

What I think has gotten lost in all the euphoria of recent announcements is the significance of Airmap’s announcement in December 2016 of Drone ID.  Basically Drone ID is a digital certificate for your drone.  Digital certificates are important tools used to secure the internet and other digital communications. The certificate establishes a pair of digital “keys” that are used to encrypt information shared between websites or devices and users. If you are an online shopper you are no doubt aware of browser security that ensures no one can “snoop” in on your transactions. The ‘S’ at the end of HTTPS stands for ‘Secure’. It means all communications between your browser and the website are encrypted. For this to work, an organization needs to install the SSL Certificate onto its web server to initiate a secure session with browsers.  In Airmap’s case, the certificate is issued by them and DigiCert to enable secure connections with drones.

Airmap says the way it works is:

“Drone operators that register their drone online will receive a digital Drone ID certificate, including a unique, validated aircraft identity number that can be loaded onto the drone and shared with others in the drone ecosystem. That identity can be used to digitally sign information coming from the drone, enabling more efficient and secure communication from drone to drone, between drones and other aircraft, and with platforms providing airspace information and services, like AirMap.”

Hmmm.  That’s not like a browser, a device, or a user. That’s other things and other people too.

Drone ID isn’t public just yet.  It’s scheduled to be released in Q1 2017 for drones built with the Intel® Aero Platform for Developers.  At that time, it will also be immediately available to other manufacturers and developers interested in the free service.

So why do you need this and who benefits?

Airmap says Drone ID is designed to “facilitate instant verification of an unmanned aircraft’s identity via a digital certificate, enabling authentication and encryption for drones.” Possible use cases include:

  • Enabling encrypted video to be sent from a drone to a pair of first-person view (FPV) goggles
  • Authenticating commands to each drone in an automated swarm
  • Ensuring that ground communication is “talking” to the right device
  • “Signing” information sent by a drone, such as data from an ADS-B transponder, to verify that it comes from the right drone and isn’t being spoofed

Airmap’s concept of using digital certificates for regulatory purposes first caught my attention when they released the white paper Robust and Scalable UAS Registration – Key Technology Issue and Recommendations in February 2016. Here are the opening paragraphs:

“The growing Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) ecosystem requires accountability of operators, availability of airspace, and security of communications, particularly a confidential, authenticated, and accessible registration system. The FAA’s recent launch of a web-based registration service starts the UAS registration system in an excellent direction. Nevertheless, the scope and scale of the system’s future capabilities remains a concern. The anticipated growth and diversity of UAS use suggests the need for a globally-integrated system more capable than today’s.

A robust and scalable registration system considers the right technologies for its organization, registration information, queries, and security as the UAS ecosystem expands. This paper argues that careful selection of current Internet technologies and protocols can help enable the creation of a registration system that serves present needs but will also evolve as technology advances.”

But their service didn’t get included in the FAA’s small UAS registration, so now what?

Airmap has progressively worked together on an ongoing basis with regulators and other private companies on the various Unmanned Traffic Management (UTM) projects. UTM refers to efforts to build an air traffic management infrastructure for drones worldwide, such as the NASA-FAA UTM project. That project is a collaboration between regulators and private industry partners like AirMap.  You can read Airmap’s statement on UTM here.

One of Airmap’s ideas is to have their D-NAS system at the center with drone operators submitting digital flight plans to airports to receive authorization to fly. The other idea is to have their digital certificates be “the thing” that identifies the aircraft and its owner.

Pregnant pause

Right now all aircraft identification is achieved by physical means commonly referred to affixing an “N” number to the aircraft.  It’s like the license plate on your car.  It’s a semi-private number and it’s tied to your car’s registration. But cars and aircraft don’t have digital certificates.

Don’t get me wrong. I think using digital certificates for data security is generally a good idea. The data collected on the drone should be secured for lots of legal reasons—chain of custody being the most important. But that’s the data—not the drone aircraft itself—and that has nothing to with registration or remote identification of the aircraft for regulators or within an air traffic control system.

There are other solutions for aircraft identification that don’t involve certificates or a digitally enabled UTM system. For example, Vigilant Aerospace completed beyond line-of-sight flight testing of its new FlightHorizon collision avoidance system for drones at NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center in the Mojave Desert without a complex system. You can read about that here.

Airmap is not alone in their quest to be at the center of UTM. That’s because everyone assumes—and no one questions—that UTM is needed right now because “we’re heading fast towards a future in which tens of millions of drones fly billions of flights.”  Airmap says it this way:

“Whatever future you can imagine for drones – from package delivery to flying cars – we are confident that the drone industry has the potential to surpass even the most bullish predictions.”

Sorry.  We don’t see it that way.

I’ve written a detailed piece on why the drone network of tomorrow is farther away than you think. I make the case why airspace integration and management solutions for drones continue to garner new investment, but most options are based on fairytale scenarios and raise more questions than answers. I won’t repeat what it says but the bottom line is the vision of tens of millions of drones flying in the NAS alongside manned aircraft is vastly overstated. Our research shows that the vast majority of operations over next decade will be done largely single purpose drones in visual line of sight (VLOS), not beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS).

THE COMPETITION

There are several Airmap competitors.  Whereas Airmap clearly dominates the “Sky Atlas” space in the U.S., there are other companies that do the same thing. B4UFLY is the “sanctioned” FAA smartphone app. Altitude Angel is the choice in the U.K., and DRONE COMPLIER the choice in Australia.

Even with Airmap’s competition, many operators find a sectional chart to be more reliable, and this is why competent Part 107 operators won’t use these apps. Several drone lawyers tell us they get calls from their clients asking, “Can I fly here? Because Airmap says I can’t.”  Over time, operators are finding that Airmap and B4UFLY say you can’t fly in a lot of places when in fact you can legally fly there. Perhaps the apps are overly restrictive to cover themselves legally.

One thing is for sure. What the FAA showcases in this video is a system of record based on an Esri ArcGIS platform. That platform provides the FAA and air traffic controllers everything from navigational charts to ensuring drones and planes can safely share the national airspace. The presenters indicate the drone data is provided by FAA’s Pathfinder Program partners. There’s no mention of Airmap.

In the digital certificate arena, Airmap seems to have no competitors. But I suspect when one of the Department of Defense (DoD) contractors like Lockheed Martin or Harris wakes up, they’ll just pull the right government levers to secure the business. You can see what Harris is doing already with BVLOS testing here.  We’ll see.

BOTTOM LINE:

Airmap thinks Drone ID with its extra authentication layer will bring security to drones—and for data, we think that’s a good idea, but not if it’s to secure a live link. There’s a valuable lesson to be learned from the management of Air Force drones. Major General James Poss writes about his experiences in It’s the Data Link, Stupid. He says:

“Generally, the less encryption a link uses, the more reliable it is.  Encryption requires lengthy “handshakes” for link nodes to establish identity, then it uses encryption keys to establish a secure link. Too many things can get bungled with an encrypted link. The nodes can fail their handshakes, making it impossible to establish a link. The complicated keys must be the precisely the same on both sides and some human (probably named Murphy) inevitably keys the wrong key at some point.”

General Poss goes on to point we have not figured out how command and control can be performed reliably over the cellular network.

But let’s assume for a minute the “tens of millions of drones” volumes are true. If so, then it’s understandable that any company would want to be in the middle of an internet enabled UTM with a controlling piece—like aircraft registration via digital certificates. Surely at some point in the future it would produce a steady revenue stream. In the Internet world, there are various classes of digital certificates and they range in cost between $18 and $120. Most have to be renewed after two years. The simple math says if those hyped drone volumes come true and if regulators require certificates, then the digital certificate provider could stand to make a lot of money—perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars in the first year of implementation. So, ask yourself, who is benefiting from Airmap’s digital certificates? You as a drone operator, governments, or Airmap?

As always, I’m always interested to hear your thoughts and insights about this topic.  Please comment below.

Image credit: Airmap

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