Within any new industry, there can be tendency to use buzz words to give validity to a new approach. As an analyst, you get used to ingesting large amounts of industry communications. Admittedly, you also begin to overlook terms that are used time and time again. To let you in on a small secret, within the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) industry, phrases such as “actionable information” or “actionable data” have quickly become such terms. At the inaugural Commercial UAV Expo Europe event in Brussels this week, the effort to define and help people understand what these terms actually mean was apparent, which is a great development for several reasons.
Focus on industrial applications, regardless of context
In her opening address, Lisa Murray was clear to emphasize that the focus of the Commercial UAV Expo is on industrial applications where the UAV can and should be thought of as just another tool. That focus on the operational requirements for commercial users resonated in the keynote presentations.
Over the past three years of attending drone events, I’ve picked up on several prominent themes:
- Technology: size of drones, how far drones can fly, different types of sensors to mount on drones, resolution of images that can be captured from drones.
- Regulation: Where can we fly, who can fly, what can we fly. How does regulation help or hinder what we want to do with a drone?
There is a shift in what’s now being discussed in the evolving UAV industry though, and this was emphasised by each of the keynote speakers. What the professional industry is really concerned with is automated data collection, and the process of making inferences from this data to clarify unanswered industry questions.
As an example around how to define actionable information, I can tell you about my experience in the pulp and paper industry. Monthly reports of wood chip stockpile volumes represent useful data, but what does a stock manager need to do with that information? Getting that raw number isn’t enough. A model that relates the calculated dollar value of a stockpile to the costs of input timber materials produces insights that can be actioned upon.
Regulation – what are you trying to do?
Being based in North America, one of the hottest topics that I have observed for quite some time is around how FAA regulations needed to change to permit commercial operations. In most cases (including in the US), flight regulations are categorized in accordance with the weight of the drone platform.
That’s why it was refreshing to hear the keynote by Koen De Vos of the European Commission’s Transportation Directorate. Mr. De Vos talked about the clear links between drones and automation, and how the acquisition of big data is the key. The other link that has been made by the Commission is that the automation provided has direct impact on jobs, growth and issues such as climate change. Given that there could be potential for what could be 28 different sets of national regulations for European firms to need to negotiate, there is a wish for pan-European regulations to not “kill the beast” regarding enabling business to work the results of the big data analysis. Accordingly, the European regulations currently being worked on are related to what the operator is trying to do, rather than what the characteristics of the platform are.
By focusing on the operator at the acquisition state, questions around how and why the data is being collected in the first place can be focused on in a more intelligent manner.
Technology – investments in technologies to extract the information that the client needs
Hendrik Bödecker of Drone Industry Insights described the approach that his firm takes to ascertain the size of the drone market, in the context of assessing the direction of investment dollars. Over the last three years, there has been a swing in VC funding from hardware to software solutions.
The benefits of UAVs being the preferred data collection are a given in many contexts. What we have to have are solutions to deliver the information that is needed to fulfil a data gap. This does not often mean an image or map type of data product. Service providers have found that their clients would regularly ask, “what do we do with all the pictures?” Firms such as 3DR needed to and have changed their perspective from a drone manufacturer into being information delivery platforms to meet the needs of a specific they of user.
Focus on the client
When the UAV industry, particularly the surveying and mapping industry, discusses user requirements, there is a tendency to frame questions in terms of “what does the client want to see?” or “what accuracy do they need their data collected to?”. Effort is then spent on honing the platform, sensor and post-processing solution to produce a data product that meets those specifications. What we don’t investigate enough are the answers regarding the economic or organizational issue that has led to the data to be acquired in the first place, regardless of if collected by drone or not.
The case around why these conversations need to change were presented clearly at the high-level of the keynotes of this conference. What I will be looking for as this week progresses will go beyond specifics about the speed and accuracy of UAV-based data collection. I want to learn the extent to which information from drone services is being transitioned into decision-making process of the customer. That’s going to be the ultimate driver in terms of ROI and adoption.