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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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The Prosumer Drone Will Never Die

Innovations will flourish on drones that target the prosumer market for a long time

THE FACTS:

In the 1980 book, The Third Wave, futurologist Alvin Toffler coined the term “prosumer” when he predicted that the role of producers and consumers would begin to blur and merge. Today, the term is well accepted as a descriptor for camcorders, digital cameras, and similar goods. Prosumers are enthusiasts who buy products (almost always technical) that fall between professional and consumer-grade standards in quality, complexity, or functionality. Prosumer also commonly refers to those products.

Recently, a well-respected analyst mentioned that his firm thought that prosumer drones would disappear from the market in the near future. At the time, I thought this quite bizarre—because our research says exactly the opposite. I’m still shaking my head.

Earlier this year, we released “Drones in the Channel: 2016 Market Report,” a research study examining drone sales and distribution channels in North America. It’s the first in-depth study of drone sales that reveals the buying patterns of both consumers and professionals.  The report has a detailed analysis that calls into question the commonly held and often undefined prosumer term. I’ll summarize the salient points of that research and offer insights into why I think the prosumer drone is here to stay.

WHAT BUYERS SAY:

We approached our research without preconceptions about commonly held terms used to describe drone segments or tiers, such as “consumer,” “prosumer,” and “professional.” Since all drones sold—no matter what the price point—are purchased by a consumer, we believe the best way to sort out these terms was by understanding the purchaser’s intended use. Our findings are summarized in the chart image in Table 1.

TABLE 1 – Drone Price / Market Segments

Descriptor

Price Range Hobby Use Non-Hobby Use
Consumer Less than $500 73% 27%
$500 – $999 65% 35%
Prosumer $1,000 – $1,999 39% 61%
 

Professional

$2,000 – $3,999 11% 89%
$4,000 – $7,499 3% 97%
$7,500 – $34,999 0% 100%
$35,000 – $99,999 0% 100%
More than $100,000 0% 100%

Source: Skylogic Research

As you can see from the chart, “prosumer” is—as we have defined it—a very narrow category and the majority of prosumer buyers purchase their drone with either civil / commercial or public / governmental use in mind. Overall, the data we collected from the quantitative portion of this study finds 61 percent of respondents said they purchased a drone in the $1,000 to $2,000 price range explicitly for professional use.

What is even more interesting is what respondents said they paid for their most recent drone.  Figure 1 shows those results. More than half of buyers purchase drones costing between $1,000 and $4,000.  We calculate that the mid-price range is $1,400.  Readers should note that $1,400 is the approximate cost of the popular DJI Phantom 4, Yuneec Typhoon H, and the just released DJI Mavic Pro, and together these brands account for approximately 72 percent of all drones purchased in the $1,000 – $2,000 price range.

FIGURE 1 – DRONE PURCHASE PRICE POINTS

WHAT OTHER ANALYSTS MISS:

  1. The Film/Photo/Video market is—and will probably always be—the largest commercial drone market segment. Our survey data going back to 2014 and even our most recent report confirms this. Most analyst forecasts—even at the large firms like Gartner, Teal, and PwC—don’t account for the full potential of drones in that segment, nor do they incorporate any first-hand knowledge from those who’ve already operated in that segment. The photographic, film, and real estate industries have known for years that small drones are a more viable and less costly substitute for manned aerial photography. It’s also no secret that this market is already established and towers above all others both in revenue and number of existing service providers (see what I wrote about that here).
  1. 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 drones.
  1. The prosumer drone category is the only place where sales volumes and margins are strong enough for manufacturers to recoup R&D investment. As I wrote about in Sense and Avoid for Drones is No Easy Feat, you can see this trend now with obstacle avoidance technology.

BOTTOM LINE:

Prosumer drones have already created new sources of demand for aerial imaging, and this will continue in earnest. As with land-based photography and video services, the financial and technical barriers to entry are low, making it easy for businesses to begin offering drone-based services. Now that the regulatory hurdle is low with Part 107, more new entrants will create demand for this segment.

Image credit: YUNEEC

This post first appeared on DRONELIFE.com

 

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6 Tips for Avoiding Phony Dronie Consultants and Attorneys

How to steer clear of the wrong hire for your drone business

By Jonathan Rupprecht, Esq. for Drone AnalystTM

It seems everyone is running toward the “drone” rush to make a quick buck. The way I see it is many of the consultants and attorneys assisting businesses with drone work are in reality experimenting on their clients. Many are unqualified in aviation but skilled in selling. Others have very questionable pasts that will not be mentioned in the marketing material.

Why is the drone industry attracting unqualified individuals? Some reasons:

  • newness of the industry
  • lack of organizations willing to do gate keeping at conferences
  • lack of reporters willing or knowledgeable enough to expose problems
  • few in the industry knowledgeable enough to understand the errors or seriousness of the situations
  • unwillingness to expose others because they themselves are somehow implicated

In light of these factors, you might need some help figuring out who NOT to hire. I outline six below.

1 – Google them like crazy.

Google their name. Google their company. Google everything you can about them as this will generally bring up things that might not have been mentioned in their marketing material.  You want to break down your research into two phases:

  • research articles or mentions for the period of time they started their business and going forward and
  • research articles or mentions for the period of time before they started their drone business.

Figure out when they started their company by asking them, looking up the filing date for their company name in their state’s department of corporations or looking up the whois website domain registration date. (While on that site, also write down the mailing address and name listed.)  Use that date and plug it into Google and then hit search. Then click search tools. Click anytime. Click Custom range. Now run a phase 1 and then a phase 2 search.

You additionally might want to throw in extra words to the Google search just to see if anything hits. For example, “Bob Smith liar fraud theft steal scam criminal crime arrest scandal expose court charged lawsuit.” I’ve been noticing that in phase two, all sorts of goodies pop up. They come from other industries where they have made a name for themselves and are moving into the drone industry where they don’t have a bad reputation.

2 – Find out if they had to hire someone in aviation

This is a big giveaway that they are new to the area. Following up on point one, some are from other industries and had to hire someone with an aviation background to make up for their lack of skills in the area.

In the phase 2 search, you might have noticed a lot of hits where they indicated they were in another industry. You need to figure out WHY they are no longer in that industry and now in the drone industry.

3 – Figure out their real name

I have noticed that some individuals intentionally change their first name. You might want to try variations of their first name. Another way to figure out their true name is to look up their government documents on their state’s department of corporations website. This is likely their true name. Sometimes they might have put down their true name and address on their whois domain registry. Go back and do phase 1 and 2 research with the new name.

4 – Ask around. Call their competitors and ask if they know anything

This can yield good results, and so can asking your friends what they know. There is a lot of word-of-mouth-only knowledge floating around in this industry. The reason is that some have personal knowledge but don’t want the info to go public because it will hurt them (maybe because they have a business deal with them, they didn’t do proper vetting before recommending their clients to them, etc.).

You can make these calls when you are searching for a consultant or attorney. While talking to Consultant B, you can say that you talked to Consultant A while shopping around.  See if Consultant B says anything. You have to be careful when doing this because the vibes you give off could cause you problems. If someone was asking me what I thought about another attorney, I would be thinking they are either wasting my time because they want to maybe hire the other attorney or they are a problem client and I don’t want them.

5 – Check with the state bar – especially if they claim to be an attorney

Determine how much “legal work” they are doing. Many consultants do everything under the sun, including legal work. Basically, the practice of law is applying the law to the facts at hand. The big problem with this is many consultants are committing the unlicensed practice of law, which is a crime in most states, because they are not attorneys but are applying the law to their client’s facts. They advise you on the law while they themselves break it.

It is always interesting that I have mentioned this and immediately get blowback from the consultants who claim they don’t think it is the unlicensed practice of law. Great! I have a wonderful tie breaker. Call your state bar—or better yet—their state bar, and ask them if what they are doing is the unlicensed practice of law. They aren’t doing anything wrong, right? I’m sure they won’t mind.

Most states have unlicensed practice of law committees and hotlines just for this. (Remember that this is a crime and states take it seriously.) A simple Google search for that phone number will return results. Call it and ask some questions like, “I’m a concerned consumer and I want to know if _____ is committing the unlicensed practice of law by offering a particular service they list on their website.”  This way you can get an unbiased answer on whether they are committing this crime.

Checking the state bar will sometimes show that some attorneys have been disciplined by their state bar. Sometimes it will show worse—that they are not an attorney, or they have been disbarred. I know of one situation that was relayed to me where a person was claiming to be an attorney at a drone conference, but was NOT. Let that sink in. Their attendance at a drone conference is meaningless. Conference organizers are not policemen. Furthermore, just because a website shows their advertisement doesn’t mean anything, either.

Another benefit to licensed attorneys is they have to pass background checks and maintain ethical standards according to their state bar rules; however, consultants do not have any gatekeepers doing background checks or third-party oversight to ensure ethical or legal compliance.

6 – Ask if they have insurance.

Insurance is there to protect you if they make a mistake. Some attorneys have malpractice insurance, but I have no clue how many consultants do. Checking for insurance is great way to weed out the professionals from the posers and dabblers while also making sure you are protected. See if you can get a certificate of insurance from them or call their insurance broker or insurance provider and confirm that they are insured.

Bottom line:

In conclusion, no industry will look out for you, and this applies to drones, too. You need to take care of yourself. And it’s wise to advise your friends to do their due diligence when hiring consultants or attorneys. I suggest that right after you read this, you do research on everyone you are presently in contact with or working with and send this article around to spread awareness.

Image credit – pixabay

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