From airplane inspection to agricultural mapping, the increasing availability of drones and the information they can provide is changing how companies do business.
Businesses are learning that sometimes the best way to boost the bottom line is by reaching for the sky.
Commercial drone usage across a wide variety of industries is exploding as businesses take advantage of rapidly advancing technology and falling hardware prices to incorporate the technology into their work flow.
“We believe drones will change the way people do business, now and in the future,” said Anil Nanduri, vice president and general manager within Intel’s New Technology Group.
He said drones are able to able to help in areas of manufacturing, farming, even manual labor. “And with new capabilities such as Intel RealSense collision avoidance technology, drones can literally be a company’s eye in the sky.”
A human pilot on the ground controlled the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV), which followed a predetermined flight path and systematically took a series of pictures. The images — especially the ones showing scratches, dents and painting defects — are compiled in a 3-D digital model, recorded in a database and analyzed.
The inspection, which usually takes about two hours, took just 15 minutes with the drone. “We believe this prototype will further enable our products and our industry, as well as others,” said Nanduri.
Mapping from the Sky
“Incorporation of commercial drones is going to continue to grow exponentially,” says Darr Gerscovich, senior vice president of marketing at DroneDeploy.
To date, the aerial data consulting company’s clients have used DroneDeploy drone software to map more than 2 million acres across 100 countries. It helps dozens of industries collect and interpret drone data.
“We’re seeing a tipping point now, but it’s the first of many tipping points,” he said.
“Businesses are finding a tremendous amount of value in having aerial intelligence,” Gerscovich continued. “Getting data, and making sense of the data.”
In a little more than a year, DroneDeploy clients mapped an area larger than the state of Delaware, and they’re adding aerial data four times faster this year. Drone-captured data, it seems, is in high demand.
More than Google Earth
It’s tempting to think of commercial drone usage as a more detailed version of Google Earth, but the information is far more dynamic.
“Who are the primary users of Google Earth?” Gerscovich asked. “You and me—people with a goal of getting from point A to point B. Roads may change over time, but they typically don’t change that often.”
For Gerscovich’s clients, however, the surveyed areas change constantly.
“We’ve had plenty of examples where Google Earth or another satellite image provider just shows a bunch of trees or a wooded area, and after the drone flight, we see that there’s a full solar power plant there,” he said. “Static imagery is not sufficient.”
(Looking) Down on the Farm
One of the first, and heaviest, users of commercial drones is the agriculture industry.
“Farms have hundreds or thousands of acres,” Gerscovich explained. “They largely use drones for crop scouting. It saves the time of someone going out and driving around the fields, which is one of the ways it’s been done until now.”
Instead, a drone can fly over the entire area and spot which fields farmers need to pay attention to, rather than relying on what can be seen from the nearest driving path. Growers can then upload the images to the cloud and knit them together to make a map showing the condition of an entire crop.
“You can see the entire field and identify the areas where there’s an issue,” Gerscovich said. “During growing season, they’re trying to catch issues while there’s still time to address them.”
The condition of a crop can change with a few days of rain or dry weather, so multiple drone passes are necessary to provide a constant stream of data.
Data Mining and Construction Site Insights
The mining and construction industries have also been early and avid adopters of drone technology. While farms need quick maps of large areas, building and digging sites typically are smaller, but the need for detail is much higher.
“Generally, they want to understand site progress,” Gerscovich said. “In order to get daily or monthly status updates on the stage a project is in, for a large site, it used to take a half a day to walk the entire site. Now, they can do it in 15 minutes with a drone.”
Job sites also tend to make heavy use of 3D modeling, something that can be built from detailed drone data.
“If you’re building a tower, and you’re six months into the project, you can verify the structure is being developed according to plan,” Gerscovich said, explaining that the 3D image can then be loaded into the construction company’s autoCAD system to compare the progress to the building plans.
“It helps people on site, and it also helps people back in the corporate offices to understand what’s happening,” he said.
Aerial data can also measure volume. At construction and mining sites where there are often stockpiles of moved dirt mounds or cement materials, Gerscovich said, drones can give accurate measures of just how large the mound is. Compared to other methods, such as having people climb to the top of the mound with lasers to attempt to measure it, drone technology has its advantages.
“Drones are safer, faster and about half the cost as compared to traditional ground-based volumetrics,” said Dallas VanZanten, owner of aerial mapping company Skymedia Northwest.
An emerging market for drone technology is the inspection industry.
A DroneDeploy client in Mexico was contracted by the government to inspect 600 miles of road. Instead of employing aircraft or spending weeks driving and manually capturing data across the countryside, the company used a handful of drones and quickly produced more than eight terabytes of data.
How much is that? If the Mexican company used 16 GB smartphones, the highway data would have filled 512 of them.
Building inspectors are using drones to get a better look at the roof. Insurance companies, Gerscovich added, can use the resulting 3D images to assess damages.
“Say a tornado comes through an area,” he continued. “Instead of waiting for the claims inspector to arrive, they could fly over the area with a drone and quickly do a 3D model.”
Emergency response teams also incorporate aerial data. Drones can quickly create high-resolution maps of large areas, in, say, a wooded area, for search and rescue operations. Drones can even assist forensic specialists who need to inspect large plane or train crash sites.
“Before the inspectors arrive with cameras to start taking still images, they can create a 3D model, and then everything about the area is preserved,” Gerscovich said. “They can use it to measure distances and angles between things.”
Growth Continues to Skyrocket
In the early days of commercial drone usage, only the largest companies could afford to collect aerial data. Technology has helped lower the price of entry.
Engineering consultant Iain Butler, better known as The UAV Guy, raves that drones are, “a disruptive technology. Literally anyone can crop scout with a drone and get actionable data within minutes.”
Just a couple years ago, most of the drones used commercially were custom-made, with a price tag of $10,000 to $20,000. DroneDeploy said today companies can pay far less.
“The hardware has gotten so good, so quickly, that today a majority of drones used commercially are bought off the shelf—high-end consumer drones,” Gerscovich said.
Today, an $800 to $1,500 investment is enough to get a business airborne and collecting data.
The biggest hurdle to using consumer drones is that the batteries typically last about 30 minutes. That’s long enough to map between 60 and 80 acres before running out of power.
“Having said that, we’re seeing agricultural companies doing very large maps with off-the-shelf quad copters,” Gerscovich says. “We had one client map 4,300 acres with a quad copter. That’s 3,500 football fields—a massive effort.”
It would also take more than 35 hours and 70 battery changes. “Obviously, they’re doing this because they’re seeing substantial value. Otherwise, no one would be out there doing it for that long,” he said.
Still, companies in various industries are beginning to understand the value in the sky, and they’re finding innovative ways to use drones and help their businesses soar.