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Why the Drone Network of Tomorrow is Farther Away than You Think

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’ve been doing research on the commercial drone industry since early 2012, and it never ceases to amaze me how much hype there is.  A week doesn’t go by where I find a new fantasy forecast or see an announcement on how this or that drone networking solution is “game changing.”

How real are those claims that drones will one day be filling our skies and delivering packages? Where and when will we see massive industry growth and is that growth dependent on the existence of a drone network?  In this post, I’ll go over a few misconceptions, discuss the harsh reality, and offer two lessons learned that I hope will help make the conversation a bit more rational.

The hype

Question: How much spin is out there on drone networks?  Answer: A lot.

Take this piece, for example: In The Drone Network of Tomorrow (It’s Closer Than You Think). The author wants you to believe that the drone network of tomorrow is a few hurdles away.  In this futuristic world, users will remotely dispatch multiple drones right from their offices. They’ll specify the flight path, and the drones will fly there autonomously and collect data. In this world, there will be drones-for-hire stationed at key locations and you will just click on button to summon them at your command. It will be “the Internet of drones” and it will be accomplished via the LTE network, the same network to which every smartphone is connected today.

Investors buy it.

Read The Big Money Continues to Bet on Drones, which discusses Verizon’s recent acquisition of Skyward. Read Airmap’s own take on their announcement of $26 million in Series B funding from Microsoft, Airbus, Qualcomm, Yuneec, and Sony, with Microsoft leading the round.

The press buys it.

Read this recent article in Recode. It says:

Drones are, after all, flying computers that connect to the internet—connectivity on a drone is often used to share flight information with other drones, report to air traffic control or send aerial imaging back in real time to the operator.

I bought it, too.

In December 2014, I wrote Why Drones Are the Future of the Internet of Things.

But since that time I’ve done a lot a research to find evidence supporting industry claims, and the truth is, at every turn I’ve come up empty handed and found many misconceptions.

The misconceptions

Many in the industry have worked together to move forward the various Unmanned Traffic Management (UTM) projects. UTM refers to efforts to build an air traffic management infrastructure for drones, such as the NASA-FAA UTM project and GUTMA. Those initiatives are a collaboration between government regulators and private industry partners. At the center of those initiatives is the enablement of routine beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS–sometimes just BLOS) operations for commercial drones. Good. We need that. To see some of that work, download the latest presentations from the 2016 UTM Conference here.

While the NASA-FAA UTM initiative may have started out with some simple solutions, it’s now blossomed into an expensive “one-size-fits-all” behemoth that is proposing ways to control flight scenarios that don’t need them—those flights where no data exists showing any risk those operations pose to the NAS or nonparticipants on the ground. That hasn’t stopped UTM participants, along with the Drone Advisory Committee (DAC), though, from suggesting those controls.

I think it’s a good idea that’s gone bad. I am not alone in perceiving that many UTM and DAC participants think their charter is to integrate the Internet and the cellular network into the National Airspace System (NAS). The leader of GUTMA thinks his organization can do for drones what ICANN does for the Internet. Face palm.

Now, the snowball effect is these companies (and investors) believe drones are Internet-of-Things (IoT) devices that are going to magically multiply like rabbits once we have a drone network. Truth is, drones aren’t IoT devices; they’re data-gathering aircraft.  Yes, they collect data that looks a lot like the data from an IoT device in motion (see my presentation on that here), but equating them with IoT devices assumes way too much—like the need for constant connectivity to the Internet, for one. Here’s a clue: Drones from DJI, the dominant market share leader, don’t have it, nor do 99.9% of drones that operate in the NAS today.

The harsh reality

So, to put it bluntly, the vision of tens of millions of drones flying in the NAS alongside manned aircraft is overstated. Visionaries like to point to the 100,000 or so flights that happen today as the bellwether indicator of what’s to come. They point to the headlines that say package delivery drones will fill the skies as reality. But drone delivery has been seriously debunked, and the bellwether argument is a non-sequitur. The vast majority of the flights happening today happen in uncontrolled Class G airspace, happen around 200-300 feet above ground level, happen without any automated traffic control interaction, and happen without incident.

Also, our research says the growth of drone use by industries will be much more measured than the hyped growth figures that visionaries tout, and the bulk of operations will happen mostly as they do today within visual line of sight (LOS).  We don’t see huge volumes for BVLOS operations happening for many, many years—if at all. There are other factors hindering drone adoption beside regulations and air traffic control.  There are other reasons why companies will stick with incumbent technology like satellites and manned aircraft.  We have written much about hype in the drone industry, and if that’s new to you, then you can start your research with this SlideShare.

Two lessons to take to heart

Regulators and experienced military users know flying drones safely and securely in BVLOS operations is not easy. Because of its complexity, we now have a new term in aviation: Performance Based Navigation (PBN). PBN describes requirements for separating aircraft and avoiding collision. PBN is a combination of systems both on and off of the aircraft that affect its ability to navigate. And that takes us to our first lesson.

Lesson 1: Buried in the recent announcement of regular BVLOS flights of Aeryon SkyRangers at the Foremost UAS Range in Alberta was the fact that Ventus Geospatial had to meet very stringent criteria from Transport Canada (Canada’s civil aviation authority). The requirements prescribe a host PBN including:

  • Sense-and-avoid system to provide traffic separation and a means for collision avoidance. That system will have to detect the traffic in time to process the sensor information, determine if a conflict exists, and execute a maneuver according to the right-of-way rules.  That system must possess the capability to detect both cooperative aircraft (aircraft with a means of electronic conspicuity (transponder, TCAS, ADS-B, etc.)) and non-cooperative aircraft.
  • Some ground-based radar systems may be utilized to provide a means of meeting sense and avoid requirements.
  • Traffic Alert and Collision Avoidance System (TCAS) / Airborne Collision Avoidance System (ACAS) that employs a collision avoidance system with reactive logic, so that any maneuver resulting from a perceived threat from another aircraft will not reduce the effectiveness of a TCAS/ACAS resolution advisory maneuver from that other aircraft.
  • Automated Dependent Surveillance Broadcast System (ADS-B), with the caveat that ADS-B does not have the ability to detect non-cooperative aircraft, it is not an approved strategy, in and of itself, for mitigating the UAV sense and avoid requirements.
  • Use of multilateration, which is a type of secondary surveillance system that is based on the use of conventional transponders and stationary receivers that provide an aircraft’s position using triangulation principles.
  • Separation and Collision Avoidance Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) addressing:
    • Take-off/launch and landing/recovery procedures;
    • En-route and terminal procedures;
    • Loss of control data link; and
    • Abort procedures following critical system failure.

I could go on, but you get the point. There’s no uber-integrated automation system for PBN and there won’t be for a long time.

Lesson 2: Major General James Poss writes about his experiences with the early days of managing military drone systems in It’s the Data Link, Stupid. He says:

A commercial drone ground relay LOS network would have advantages and disadvantages compared to the Air Force system. Advantages are that existing cell phone tower networks are ideally positioned to provide the backbone for ground relay LOS networks for commercial drones. Cell phone companies have already leased the land, dealt with all the FCC regulatory restrictions and, most importantly, obtained the spectrum that could be used for BLOS drone link operations. They also have world class cyber defense centers.  The disadvantage is that today’s providers struggle to get enough bandwidth for existing cell phone coverage as it is, their cell tower antennas point down to cover ground users, vice up to cover drones, and their 4G link reliability won’t be high enough to satisfy FAA BLOS requirements. For something as critical as BLOS drone control, the FAA won’t tolerate ‘dropped calls’.  It’s that reliability thing, again.

He goes on to say:

Problems would remain even with this type of system. Although low bandwidth directional drone links using commercially available spectrum wouldn’t use scarce 4G service spectrum, they would take up physical space on already overcrowded cellphone towers. Directional antennas are expensive and must be positioned carefully to avoid radio frequency interference.

And I’m afraid 5G (the next-generation of mobile networks beyond the 4G LTE mobile networks of today) isn’t a silver bullet. Right now, forecasters say 5G adoption will be slow and most of that extra bandwidth will be used by consumers for mobile video viewing.

But General Poss raises great points. Why would anyone invest in these systems if they’re riskier than either military drones or manned aircraft, particularly when the regulatory environment is unclear?  Just how would the FAA regulate a drone network? If the control portion of the network would be an aviation safety critical system, would the FAA even have the authority to regulate it when it’s the Federal Communication Commission’s charter to regulate cellular communications?

All I can tell you is, Buckle up and stay tuned in. It’s going to be a long bumpy ride.

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Commercial Drone Markets: 2016 Year in Review

Last year at this time, I reflected back on the news and trends of the commercial drone markets of 2015 and wrote about the mixed state of affairs in the U.S.  Back then we saw only 2,500 Section 333 grants for commercial activity, and the press’s narrative that ‘drones are cool’ turned to ‘drones are a privacy invasion headache.’ This was tempered by a proliferation of the drone conferences that had both exhibitors and vendors scrambling to attend. We also saw the outcome of the UAS Registration Task Force Aviation Rulemaking Committee and the FAA’s rapid implementation to put hobby drone registration in place.

In January 2016, I wrote a piece titled Six Trends Driving the Commercial Drone Market in 2016 and Beyond, which articulated that, while making predictions is not an exacting science, six trends would provide key opportunities and challenge for the industry:

  1. Competition
  2. Fidelity
  3. Sensors
  4. Mobility
  5. China Incorporated
  6. Virtual and Augmented Reality

In this post, I’ll review those trends as well as other significant news for drone manufacturers, service providers, and investors in 2016.

What rang true?

  1. Competition

The biggest news all year was that the FAA Part 107 regulations are now in place. And they’re not as onerous as they could have been. Hurray! We (at least in the U.S.) have the basis for an industry and a firm regulatory framework upon which to grow.  And that’s what I saw and heard from so many companies that want to use drones for their businesses at the major drone shows.  So many were sitting on the sidelines waiting for regulations to be clear.

Several weeks ago, Patrick Egan of sUAS News wrote a piece called “Part 107 Your Golden Ticket” that sums my feelings and it’s this: There has been some grousing about what’s not in the rule. But there is plenty of work that can be done under this rule. The 10 years of uncertainty is over, and people can begin to offer services—from the real estate agent who wants aerial photos to the cellular company that wants tower inspection, to the insurance company that wants proper damage assessments, to the first responder who wants a better view of an incident. I think that’s exciting.

And so is having competition.  Many think it’s a race to the bottom on prices for drone-based business services–and that’s true in part–but the other side of the coin is there is healthy competition, which delivers customer benefits. Because everyone is working harder to produce a better product.

  1. Fidelity

The desire for better fidelity – that is, better image and video resolution – is still one of the major drivers in the commercial drone industry.  This is not just true for professional drones but also consumer drones. Last year the major brands like Autel, DJI, and Yuneec continued to offer integrated 4K video recording cameras on consumer and prosumer drones, but they did so at lower prices than in 2015.  Additionally, this past year, DJI upped the fidelity bar with its Phantom 4 Pro and Inspire 2. The Phantom 4 offers more powerful video processing for 4K videos at 60 frames per second (fps) at a 100 Mbps bitrate. The Inspire 2 tops that and offers 5.2K at 30 fps on the X4S camera. These also offer a mechanical shutter, eliminating the rolling shutter distortion that can occur when taking images of fast-moving subjects or when flying at high speed. In effect, they are as powerful as many traditional ground cameras.

  1. Sensors

The trend for better and smaller, more lightweight sensors for drones—such as stereoscopic, ultrasonic, LiDAR, infrared, and spectral sensors – was hot. I wrote about some of that in Sense and Avoid for Drones is No Easy Feat. I could fill a small book with all the announcements, investments, and product releases from companies like DJI, Intel, Parrot, SenseFly, Slantrage, and Velodyne this past year. All of these will help drones perform tasks like collision avoidance, 3D imaging infrared thermography, or improved crop vigor analysis.

But the rising star in the sensor market is Aerotenna.  In July, we saw this startup take home first prize at the NASA UTM Drone Sense and Avoid Tech Competition. It turns out Aerotenna has some incredible new technology–microwave sensors (that’s basically miniature radar) that are coupled with active sensing autopilot capability that scans the surroundings during flight and avoids potential collisions autonomously. So by combining microwave-based sensing with aerospace and control engineering, they are solving many challenges of being able to fly autonomously beyond visual line-of-sight. This will uncover new applications for UAV platforms.

  1. Mobility

A third major driver this past year was mobility. In the consumer world, the scales have tipped from PCs and TV to mobile devices.  What this means for drone manufacturers and service providers is that their application development has shifted from desktop to mobile apps.

In 2016, we saw DroneDeploy double down on this trend with the introduction of an App Market, a store for drone applications from a range of companies—including Autodesk, Box, John Deere, and 13 others—as well as a variety of industry verticals. I wrote about that here.  The App Market includes mobile device applications from Airmap, Dronelogbook, Flyte, Kittyhawk, NV Drone, Skyward, and Verifly that help pilots and businesses manage drone operations and compliance.  In a nutshell, these apps enable enterprises and drone-based business service providers to automate their workflow and data integration with specialized tools built right within the DroneDeploy user interface.

  1. China Incorporated

Throughout 2016, Chinese companies both large and small entered the world market with consumer drones to establish market share or increase it. Do I really need to explain this? Tractica (not known for accurate commercial drone forecasts) says consumer drone sales will continue to surge over the next several years, with global annual unit shipments increasing more than tenfold from 6.4 million in 2015 to 67.9 million by 2021.  While average selling prices (ASPs) for drones will continue to decline sharply during that period, they anticipate that total revenue will increase from $1.9 billion in 2015 to $5.0 billion in 2021. I won’t argue with those numbers.

What didn’t ring true?

  1. Virtual and Augmented Reality

Virtual and augmented reality for drones was a bust this year. Seriously. I expected to see a significant announcement from someone about the use of augmented reality using the data from commercial drones, but all I got was this lousy t-shirt.

What else happened?

Investment, mergers, and partnerships. That’s what happened. The major players were Airware, DJI, Intel, and Parrot. In September, Airware acquired Redbird with the intent of building a full-stack drone services empire. All throughout 2016, DJI announced partnerships with at least 14 companies including Epson, Ford, Leica, Luftansa, Measure, and PrecisionHawk.

The surprise too many of us was just how aggressive Intel got in the drone space this past year. They acquired drone manufacturer Ascending Technologies, made a further investment in data services provider PrecisionHawk, and bought Movidius and Mavinci.

Parrot took a different approach. They continued with their past strategy which was to make investments.  Previous investments included Pix4D, Airnov, and MicaSense.  This year Parrot made three minority investments in BioCarbon Engineering Ltd., a UK company that is developing a drone-based reforestation solution, Planck Aerosystems Inc., a US company that is developing drone-based surveillance solutions for the Navy, and Nano Racing S.A.S., a French company that is developing a small-scale immersion-piloted racing drone.

What about next year?

There were some hard lessons learned this past year and they point to trends I believe we’ll see next year.  For example, take Jonathan Downey’s 8 Lessons Learned Turning Aerial Data into Enterprise Outcomes. If you read between the lines, you’ll see a brutally honest confession of their hard times. Wisdom comes from experience and kudo’s to Jonathan for giving the commercial drone industry some good advice–especially #3: To drive business outcomes, provide an end-to-end solution.

But there is a scary insight from last year and it’s buried in this post by Measure: How is the drone industry moving forward? It says:

“..on October 26, the FAA and the Transportation Research Board convened a workshop to aggregate stakeholder perspectives on the expected growth of the drone market in the coming years. Key issues addressed included the drivers of and obstacles to growth in the drone industry, and how best to predict market trends. The insights provided by the representatives from the commercial drone industry, defense-oriented UAV industry, government, and aviation advocacy groups will aid the FAA as it creates its next UAV market forecast.”

So, what did the stakeholders say to FAA? At the Commercial UAV Expo I heard one say they told the FAA that their forecast was too low.  Most said we’re going to see tens of millions–maybe hundreds of millions–of drones flying in national airspace in the near future.” What else would they say?  That’s what they told their investors. Insane.

Image credit: Shutterstock

This post first appeared in sUAS News ‘The Market’

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Is Sky-Futures Expanse Drone Inspection Software Good for All?

Sky-Futures cloud-based drone inspection visualization and reporting software squarely targets the asset inspection sector, but will it be broadly adopted?

 

THE FACTS:

No one questions whether the founders of Sky-Futures know what they are doing.  When it comes to drone inspections they have “been there, done that.”  You can read about their history and where they are going in The importance of industrial experience when enabling enterprise with drone capabilities, a post written by co-founder & CEO James Harrison. I won’t repeat all the facts, just the salient one.

When they started in June 2009, they assessed different markets, sizing them and then trying to forecast how they would look in 5 and 10 years’ time. They chose the drone inspection service market in the oil and gas (O&G) industry because of its highly inaccessible, highly hazardous and critical infrastructure, and its focus on safety and regulation. They succeeded in understanding the very specific needs of the industrial inspections market, got steady revenue stream, and have now turned to offering a software-as-a-service (SaaS) product as another generator of their future value. Their product is called ExpanseSM and is designed and built for drone-based operations management, inspections, data analysis, and reporting.

WHAT’S COOL AND WHAT’S NOT

There’s a lot to like about Expanse.  For one, it has an asset-centric view of the world—not an inspection-centric one.  In the inspection-centric view, reports provide little context for consumers of the information on the “who, what, where, and when” of problems. By taking the asset-centric view, Expanse starts with the “where” (a specific structure) and allows users to navigate to the areas of an asset that’s important to them—the “what,” like a rusty pipe or misaligned cell tower antenna. Everyone reading inspection reports has a different need (not everybody has responsibility for the integrity of pipes), so the software provides context.

The other thing that is very smart about Expanse is that all elements of the software are built around the deliverable—the inspection report. In this regard, it starts with the end in mind. How Covey-ish is that? The software enables drone inspection firms to share analysis reports with multiple stakeholders. Customers and third parties can access the media with security controls. It uses leading edge security protocols (like web-based video streaming), where unique permission holder access information is generated for each media file at runtime and cannot be shared with others. This should please enterprise privacy and risk mitigation legal beagles and IT data governance stewards.

There’s a whole host of features that users will like, such as the ability to make 3D links to objects that can be marked up with annotations, measurement, and observational classifications. Additionally, Expanse comes with image analysis tools for scaling, measurement on the incident plane, focus problem area size, comparisons over time, etc.

THE COMPETITION:

Expanse is new to the market, and it’s clear it was built around the needs of Sky-Futures’ O&G clients as consumers of the data. Sky-Futures’ hope is that its software’s features will translate to the requirements of the entire vertical infrastructure inspection market. They hope the integrity, inspection, and business drivers for a bridge, wind turbine, cell tower, and other managed facilities and structures share the same key characteristics that are addressed by their O&G-focused Expanse software.

We have written about the needs of the inspection market in The Truth about Drones in Construction and Infrastructure Inspection, and we think Expanse has a head start on the path to greater adoption. But we also think there will be a struggle for enterprises using drone data in general. That struggle is learning how to integrate the inspection data and analytics from software like Expanse into broader, more highly adopted software used for enterprise asset management (EAM), such as Infor EAM, Oracle EAM, and SAP EAM.

Infor may have leap-frogged all of this with their Drone Enterprise Asset Management Solution (DEAMS), which is also offered Drone Aviation Corp. Infor’s DEAMS uses purpose-built middleware that processes the data collected by drones’ onboard sensors and integrates it with Infor EAM and its maintenance, repair, and overhaul (MRO) applications. The data from DEAMS can also be analyzed with easy-to-use analytics to produce up-to-date information about the asset life, allowing for quicker and more effective decision-making.

BOTTOM LINE:

So, stepping back, one question remains: In the long run, will large enterprises employ service providers who use software like Expanse, or will they opt for integrated solutions like DEAMS? There may be a middle ground when Sky-Futures (or a third party) offers integration plugins for broader EAM solutions. We’ll see.  In the meantime, we expect that Expanse will continue to evolve and offer new features that other customers outside of O&G want.

Image credit: Sky-Futures

This post first appeared on DRONELIFE.com

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Can AeroVironment Compete in the Commercial Drone Market?

AeroVironment’s new drone and cloud-based analytics platform squarely targets the commercial sector, but are they targeting the wrong vertical, too late in the game?

THE FACTS:

Earlier this month, the military and tactical unmanned aircraft systems manufacturer AeroVironment (NASDAQ:AVAV) proudly unveiled its new QuantixTM drone and a cloud-based analytics platform called the AeroVironment Decision Support System (AV DSS™).  The combo is designed with the civil/commercial markets in mind. The drone is a hybrid design that enables the aircraft to launch vertically like a quadcopter and then transition itself for horizontal flight, taking advantage of a fixed-wing drone’s aerodynamic efficiency and range.  According to the company, the drone can map 400 acres in about 45 minutes, and its overall flight time is supposed to be an hour per battery.

The Quantix is a key piece to a larger end-to-end solution AeroVironment hopes will meet the needs of the agriculture, energy, and transportation industries, among others. Key to AeroVironment’s solution is a proprietary mobile interface that works with their secure cloud-based data storage.

WHAT’S COOL AND WHAT’S NOT

It’s great to finally see AeroVironment come out with an offering dedicated the commercial drones market.  While their Puma AE was used for aerial surveys in Alaska—and was the first time the FAA has authorized a commercial UAS operation over land, this product will be the first non-military product in their lineup. So, welcome. Or should I say—I’ll welcome you when you get here. Quantix won’t be available until Spring of 2017. And the price has yet to be announced.  However, in my conversations with the company at last month’s Drone World Expo, it’s clear some among their ranks understand it will need to be priced below $20K, or it’s simply not going to sell well.

It’s interesting that AeroVironment chose to target agricultural needs with its first commercial drone. At first glance, the drone looks well equipped for that, with RBG and multispectral cameras.  But, boy howdy, are they in for some heartburn when they discover they’ve targeted the most difficult sector to penetrate. We have written again and again about the challenges drone service providers have in providing clear ROI in agriculture (and how bad the forecasts are), but I guess that won’t stop manufactures like AeroVironment from thinking they will somehow buck the trend.

The other problem I see is that their new drone is a tail sitter. Tail-sitter drones are notoriously difficult to land in any wind.  I am not alone in this assessment; see another review here. We’ll see if their system is clever enough to compensate for wind gusts, but one thing is clear: there is nothing on the drone to assure a precision landing – no vision positioning system or sense-and-avoid technology in the tail other than a two antenna GPS system. That is so “2013,” and it puts their drone in the same category as a GoPro Karma, which drifts and lands “loud and drunk.

THE COMPETITION:

Most of the companies that serve the precision agriculture market are small businesses. It was clear back in 2014 these companies were working hard to learn firsthand what farmers want from small drones. In doing so, they established networks of distributors and service providers that for the most part have locked other players out of the market.

Manufacturers of small drones for precision agriculture have long since consolidated around DJI and SenseFly because of their (or a third party’s) flight control, mission planning, data services software, and mainly their functional maturity and low cost.

The large aerospace companies and Department of Defense (DoD) contract vendors like AeroVironment do not have a presence in this sector. Even though some have participated in agricultural academic studies, those companies’ products as a whole are unknown in the farming community. They simply have not established the necessary relationships with growers, dealers, coops, agronomists, and local service providers.  As a result, it’s probably too late for them to capture any significant U.S. agriculture market share.

BOTTOM LINE:

In my opinion, AeroVironment’s entry into the commercial markets is risky. For one, they are arriving late to the party. Second, the agriculture sector in particular—at least in the U.S.—is already set. I think Aerovironment is going to struggle to move customers from established vendors.

I worry that all this will take some time for them to realize. In the meantime, there is pressure for them to perform. For years, investors have hoped that the company would benefit from the rising interest in unmanned aerial vehicles. Indeed, the recent positive performance of their stock appears to have come in part from the rise in interest in drones due to a more favorable regulatory environment in the U.S.  But it remains to be seen whether this new offering will make a difference.  We’ll see.  In the meantime, join me in welcoming them to the party.

Image credit: Skylogic Research

This post first appeared on DRONELIFE.com

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DroneDeploy: Enterprise Grade or Not?

DroneDeploy’s new App Market fills a need for commercial drone use, but can the data quality measure up for widespread industrial use?

THE FACTS:

This past week, DroneDeploy introduced its new App Market, a store for drone applications from a range of companies—including Autodesk, Box, John Deere, and 13 others—as well as a variety of industry verticals. Additionally, it includes applications from Airmap, Dronelogbook, Flyte, Kittyhawk, NV Drone, Skyward, and Verifly that help pilots and businesses manage drone operations and compliance.  In a nutshell, these apps enable enterprises and drone-based business service providers to automate their workflow and data integration with specialized tools built right within the DroneDeploy user interface.

In one way or another, the apps enable businesses to extend the capability of DroneDeploy’s automated mapping and online drone data services with apps that augment flight planning, logging, data analysis, export, and more. Apps appear in different areas of the DroneDeploy interface, depending on what they do, and you install them in your DroneDeploy account. For example, a flight planning app will appear in the flight planning interface, whereas an export or integration app may appear in the export menu. You can read about the details of this announcement here.

WHAT’S COOL AND WHAT’S NOT

The three apps that stand out in this announcement and make progress toward workflow goals are Autodesk, Box, and John Deere. In a generic sense, “workflow” is the definition, execution, and automation of business processes where tasks, information, or documents are passed from one participant to another for action, according to a set of procedural rules. Workflows automate the flow of employee tasks and activities and make processes more efficient, compliant, agile, and visible.

With the Autodesk app, users can send their maps and 3D models directly from DroneDeploy into their Autodesk Forge storage. The Box app on DroneDeploy lets users easily export maps to their Box account for easy sharing with clients or other enterprise software solutions. With the John Deere app, users can import field boundaries from MyJohnDeere, which can help align flight planning with ongoing management of farm machines, fields, and jobs.

 THE COMPETITION:

In the past, many have discounted the output of DroneDeploy’s processed data as not good enough for enterprise work. This stems largely from the fact that almost all of their users fly and capture data with prosumer-level drones from DJI. For example, one of the main criticisms I’ve heard is that the resulting point clouds are not resolute enough for construction or engineering work. However, one look at this webcast with Brasfield & Gorrie, one of the largest privately held construction firms in the United States, and you can see first-hand the specific projects that have among other things integrated DroneDeploy automated mapping in their Building Information Modeling (BIM) process. Their plan is to scale this program across their sites.

Let’s be clear. This trend toward the use of prosumer drones for enterprise work is not going away anytime soon.  All the major mission planning and mapping applications like DroneDeploy, PrecisionHawk’s DataMapper, and Skycatch Commander (and dozens more) now run with the DJI SDK. Most of these started off with applications dedicated to their own drone but soon found that most professionals want to use the simpler and more reliable DJI prosumer-level and above drones.  Additionally, the prosumer drone category is the only place where sales volumes and margins are strong enough for manufacturers to recoup R&D investment with new technology like automated obstacle avoidance.

BOTTOM LINE:

We have written about the value, ROI, and potential of drones as aerial image and data capture devices in The Truth about Drones in Construction and Infrastructure Inspection. In that report, we discuss the benefits and challenges posed by the current state of drone data integration:

Drones and the data from drone data services do not provide a complete solution, and more likely than not, you’ll need to traverse a learning curve. For example, the firms mentioned in this paper had to set up new data integration workflows for their existing ecosystem of software solutions.  Those who used aerial images from drones to do BIM design work had to incorporate those images into CAD software like Autodesk REVIT.  Those who did work plans with images had to incorporate the images into project software like Navisworks.  Both camps had to learn how to manage daily workflows from constantly changing sets of new images.  Workflows needed to focus on how to both communicate and manage change – either in the feedback to design or in the feedback to production or to both at the same time.

To be fair, the apps in the new DroneDeploy App Market don’t solve all those problems, but they’re certainly a step in the right direction.

What’s next? I suspect we will see more workflow integration from DroneDeploy (and others) this year. They’ve hinted there’s more to come from their work with John Deere.  Personally, I’d like to see a complete automated workflow from DroneDeploy to SAP. Why? Because SAP software is used by 87% of the Forbes Global 2000 companies, and SAP customers produce 78% of the world’s food. SAP has an integrated suite of applications for just about everything that encapsulates aerial data and maps – from asset management to field service management.

DroneDeploy already has a beta release of an integration with Esri, which will allow users to analyze their DroneDeploy maps in ArcGIS Online.  SAP HANA users can integrate ArcGIS maps and SAP business data throughout SAP products, but I haven’t seen an end-to-end customer-specific use-case. If you are working on that, let me know—I’d love to hear about it.  You can write me at colin@droneanalyst.com.

Image credit: DroneDeploy

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