On episode #35 of the Commercial Drones FM podcast, A Drone Can Literally Kill You – But Also Save Your Life with PrecisionHawk’s Thomas Haun, host Ian Smith talked with Thomas about the variety of ways professionals in various industries are using drones. As Executive Vice President at PrecisionHawk, Thomas is focused on the kind efficiencies and opportunities that drones can create for professionals in agriculture, aggregates, construction, energy and insurance, and the two talk through how much of that value is dependent on viewing drones as tools.
After listening to their conversation, I wanted to get a better understanding of the nuance that the two of them talked through in terms of where and how these tools can make a difference. How quickly such differences can take effect is highlighted by the fact that since the two of them sat down to record the podcast, PrecisionHawk has named a new CEO, and the speed of the industry is among the items I asked Ian about.
Jeremiah Karpowicz: We always talk about how fast drone technology moves, but your conversation with Thomas really brought that into focus. When he mentioned meeting the founders of PrecisionHawk and how it was a true start-up at the time, I thought he was going to say that happened ten or so years ago, but it was only two! Do you ever have concerns about the technology and the industry moving too fast?
Ian Smith: In my opinion, the biggest detriment for the technology of the drone industry moving so fast is that it outpaces regulation. Yeah, that’s a pretty safe answer but it really is one of the most relevant concerns for commercial drone operators and companies. It’s a double-edged sword, though. If technology were to move slower in order to keep up with the current state of regulations, people (including myself) wouldn’t be very enthused. It’s one of the main draws to this industry—the fast pace of the technological innovation. In some cases, the fact that regulations can’t currently keep up with the technology (BVLOS, flights over people, and night operations, I’m looking at you) can even stifle would-be technological breakthroughs. That’s not good for anyone.
The intersection of different areas of expertise in the drone space is especially interesting, because we’ve got professionals in oil & gas, agriculture, construction and a handful of other core industries that you two mentioned. Has this fact created more opportunities in terms of creating efficiency, or challenges because these various professionals all need and want to use the technology in inherently different ways?
This is one of my favorite parts about being so lucky to be a member of the drone industry. My colleagues at DroneDeploy and listeners of the podcast all have such diverse backgrounds. There are experts in nearly every field because the industry touches so many other industries. Aerospace, agriculture, construction, surveying, space, robotics, consumer electronics, mechanical engineering, software engineering, photography, legal, filmmaking, entertainment, and so, so, so many more that I can’t even list. It’s the reason why the drone industry is “the drone industry” and not just bundled in with another industry, like robotics or aviation, for example. It’s exciting and helps continue to push the individuals who power our industry to the next level. I wouldn’t trade that for anything.
Picking up on that, Thomas mentioned an issue he’s come across surrounds use cases being too limited or simple. Do you think that’s because there just aren’t enough especially relevant use cases to document, or because we need to do a better job showcasing what is working for professionals in these various industries?
Right now, in 2017, the drone industry is a small toddler. She’s just learning how to walk. She can’t really talk coherently yet, but she’s getting there and really wants to have stimulating conversations about her unique point of view; all of the cool things she can do. Oil and gas, on the other hand, is an old man. Set in his ways because he’s literally been there and done that. But he’s paying close attention to what this young tyke is up to. And we might even see a small glimmer of hope in his eye when these little breakthroughs and milestones arrive for this blossoming child.
We’re at a nascent stage in our growth as an industry. The technology has not been fully realized yet—partly due to the stifling lack of regulations (though I am a huge fan of what the FAA has done with Part 107). Eventually, and as time passes, we will surely grow to a point where these relevant use cases flourish and relatively ancient industries like oil and gas will have copious “drone benefit” documentation—coming out of his ears like wiry grey hairs.
I thought it was great to hear Thomas mention how important it is to find the right partners and enable collaboration wherever and whenever it made sense. How should organizations that are looking to utilize drones consider this topic?
Sometimes I speak with people that tell me how drone companies have all been extremely competitive and adverse to partnerships. It’s still going on today. But companies like PrecisionHawk, DJI, and DroneDeploy have embraced partnerships for the betterment and joint prosperity of their businesses and the industry as a whole. If you’re an organization looking to utilize drones, consider the relationships you make with the companies who provide services for you. What is their stance on partnerships? Do they value long-term, collaborative relationships that push the industry forward? The way they approach those topics is a telling way in how they will treat you, the customer. You’re choosing a long-term partnership as well and should never settle for less than the best.
The transition of drones from a novelty to a tool is undoubtedly underway, but with consumer drone technology continuing to drop in price and still become more powerful, is that a transition that will ever truly be complete?
Drones can be cool, taboo, and maybe even scary for some. But for many others, they already exist as a tool. The key to commercial drone integration is to view these flying robots as such. They’re just another tool in the toolbox—but remember that they’re definitely not always the best solution for every job. I do think drones will continue to maintain their “toy” status for many folks. The things they can do for fun and entertainment will be incredible to see in the next 5-10 years. But alternatively, the commercial utility of these machines will grow in tandem. I think we’ll be surprised at how the “drones as a tool” aspect outpaces the hobby/toy functionality. We’re already seeing companies like Parrot and 3D Robotics claim to be pivoting to a commercial focus. It is possible that the full transition of toy to tool may never truly be complete, but personally, I’m just glad to be a part of this wild ride.