It’s no stretch to say that we’ve come a long way in a short while when it comes to how professionals are using drones and even how UAV technology is perceived. Over the past few years there’s been an incredible evolution in terms of what users expect out of these tools, and while technological advances have driven much of that, some of these changes are really about a much deeper level of acceptance and understanding.
One of those evolutions surrounds the use of the word “drone” itself. Not too long ago, various individuals and organizations were making an active attempt to stop people from even using that word, mainly due to what some considered a negative connotation the term had because of associations with military applications. By and large, such attempts have now gone by the wayside, and even those who don’t like the word have for the most part accepted that “drone” is as synonymous with the technology as “UAV”, “UAS”, and plenty others.
This evolution is just one of the changes we’ve seen when it comes to influencing the hearts and minds of the professional community and even the general public around this technology. Members of the Commercial UAV Advisory Board have seen and experienced plenty others, and I wanted to find out what some of those were, and about how such things have impacted their industries. Over the past few years, what have been some of the most significant changes that have occurred for professionals in terms of how they view and use drones? Were those changes driven by advances in the technology or by a transformation in perception?
Drones are an accepted tool in Barrick, used at most of our mine sites, and under serious consideration where they are not already in use. We were early adopters at our mine in the Dominican Republic, and at one of our Nevada mines we were fortunate enough to have individuals who appreciated, very early, the value of drones to a mining company. Over time the technology has improved, the workflows have simplified, and the number of ways to use drones has multiplied.
But I think perception has been the biggest, and most important, change. As they have entered the mainstream, drones have become accepted technology, the most common question now is “how can we use a drone for that?”. Not, “What are you going to do with THAT thing?” The value has become obvious, and the skeptics have realized that they are not “expensive toys”, nor are they a passing fad.
Initially, Barrick used drones to supplement, and then replace, many of our traditional survey functions, especially for stockpile volumes. We get better data, faster and cheaper with drones. Now people are actively looking for other ways to leverage the technology. Tethered drones to provide situational awareness for the truck-shovel interaction when loading; perhaps to capture the before and after states when we blast, to assess how much the rock has moved, which determines what goes into each truck load; and for underground inspection, a drone can go to places we cannot send a person. And we are just getting started…
AirGon, a subsidiary of GeoCue Group, entered the drone mapping market about three years ago with a focus on the aggregates industry (quarries and associated stockpile yards).
We have supplied technology to the manned aerial mapping industry for many years and thus we were very familiar with the overall market for high accuracy site mapping.
As the hype dies down (and this seems to be happening fairly rapidly), we find that businesses are making standard return on investment (ROI) analysis when considering drones for surveying. Is it more cost effective than current methods? Does it provide strategic advantages over current methods? For the aggregates industry, the answer is “it depends on the circumstances.”
Most aggregate operators have a need to conduct annual inventories in a small time window. They want to have a snapshot in time of asset inventories that can be unified over all plants. This is relatively simple for a manned aircraft operation where transit times from site to site can be rapid. It is a challenge for drone operations. How does one scale drone flights such that 75 plant sites across 15 states can be flown in a two week period? Of course, we all know the answer is to have a drone hangered at each site and under automatic control. At the moment, we are perhaps 3 years from this being the reality (the delay for the USA is regulatory). Where do drones fit in the interim?
One observation that we have is that site mapping is no different than any other sort of accumulation of corporate data. Once you have a means to more easily obtain site maps, you tend to suddenly need more frequent mapping. Several of our clients who have acquired our Metric Mapping Kit to internalize data acquisition operations initially stated that a 6 month collection cycle would be the goal. Most of these “owner/operators” have adopted much more frequent data acquisition cycles (some down to monthly). A clear, up to date site map for a very dynamic environment such as an active quarry has a myriad of uses. Mine operators are rapidly discovering uses for data that we did not imagine. Thus, collecting data between annual inventories is on the rapid increase. Since these collections are often driven by ad hoc requirements, a regional drone operation works quite well to fill this demand.
For the near term, drones are not a total replacement for other mapping/surveying methods simply due to the logistics of data collection. Thus we see the smaller operators (those with a dozen sites or so) switching totally to drone-based mapping. Those with larger operations are taking a more conservative approach, adopting the technology in a region and doing in-depth evaluations.
One thing is certain, however. Even in its nascent stage, drone mapping has a very rapid ROI. It will eventually become the standard method of site mapping with other techniques such as terrestrial surveying become niche techniques.
Innovation comes from the need to address an existing problem or process that has proven to be inefficient over time. The same applies to the integration of drones and data in commercial industries. At this point, traditional methods have not only resulted in a decrease in productivity, but have also contributed to major environmental issues such as drought, resulting from inefficient water use and allocation. I believe while the ‘hype’ has somewhat died down around the ‘cool’ or ‘futuristic’ idea of the hardware, the perception of needing to adopt a solution that is independent, on-demand and hyper productive has only grown as companies work to prove the value and the potential of the technology ecosystem, which includes the hardware and software tools (both sophisticated analysis and safety/privacy).
Agriculture is a leading industry in the commercial UAS race, and the area that has been one of PrecisionHawk’s primary focus spots for the past five years, particularly with the larger enterprise. However, for the individual growers to fully adopt this technology, there needs to be a reliable combination of a hardware and software platform that can actually deliver actionable insights that go far beyond a traditional methods. I have seen the advances around the software tools begin to slowly transform professional use in a big way as universities, government agencies and commercial business have spent significant resource building data analysis tools that serve their specific needs. In turn, we make drone technology meaningful. Then it’s opening those tools up to the market at large, which we have been working to do with our DataMapper software.
I believe we have been so successful because we are a customer focused company. We want to make products that fit in with the lives of our customers. We aren’t just trying to push a plane out there or even sensors or a piece of software. Our focus is entirely on, how do we make this work well for the application the professional needs to address whether it is counting row crops at emergence or identifying the exact amount of damage to a roof after a storm. As an industry, by solving specific problems we are increasing the demand that these industries have for a drone ecosystem.
Technology is advancing at a tremendous pace and that is opening up new opportunities for effective solutions in many aspects of our world. At the same time, regulations and airspaces are opening up to really enable people to bring value using these technologies. PrecisionHawk is working very hard towards that goal to enables safe operations of these unmanned aircraft that are sharing the skies with manned aircraft so we can pave the way for safer, more widespread use and continue to provide value for our customers in ever new and innovative ways.
I think public perception has changed pretty significantly over the past three years. I’ve been at this for a very long time, and I’ve seen it go from the peak of enthusiasm to the trough of despair, but the issue of privacy was something that was always hanging over our heads. Now though, people are starting to understand how much they’re under surveillance in just about anything and everything they do, with or without drones. I think that’s caused a lot of people to be more aware of the technologies that are around them, and that awareness has been the most profound thing that I’ve seen change.
The Q polls around drone use for search and rescue have always been very high, but now they’re showing up in similar numbers for uses such as fugitive capture and law enforcement. Not too long ago you didn’t even go there, so that’s been a big shift.
I used to go out on searches years ago and I would say that I was going to be using unmanned aircraft, and people would be so enthused about just seeing the drone in the air. They’d stay and watch me fly, but now it’s taken as a given. Drones are really becoming, as everyone predicted, as ubiquitous as a cell phone.
Skylogic Research, LLC
Quite honestly we haven’t seen a huge change in the way professionals view and use drones in the past few years – some minor changes perhaps in their understanding of regulations, but not drone use. Our research goes back to early 2014, and it showed then that film, photo, and video use would lead the market and that agriculture and public safety and first responders would lag. Fast forward to today, and that is exactly what our current surveys tell us, and it’s also what the FAA’s Section 333 operation/mission data tells us. There are lots of reasons for this, but it’s mostly due to the limitations of not being able to do beyond visual line of site operations. We are currently writing a series on this called “The Truth about Drones in X” – x being the industry or market use case. We expect to have some useful insights.
There certainly have been advances in technology – like better fidelity, sensors, mobility. You can add geo-fencing and sense & avoid to that list as well because they get a lot a press. That in turn seems to be helping change negative or doubtful perceptions about drones into positive ones. It certainly is helping professionals because as drones become safer and easier to fly, the faster professionals will create more proof of concept operations for industries like agriculture, construction, energy, and telecommunications.
By far we believe it’s increased fidelity that brings the most significant benefit to drones. You can see this for yourself as the major manufacturers put more resolute cameras and sensors onto drones, but the price point stays basically the same. It’s much like PCs where every six months you see a faster, slimmer one with a better screen on it, but it’s offered at the same price as last year’s model. In the commercial drone industry, desire for more fidelity – that is, better imaging and video resolution – seems to be ubiquitous. This is not just true for commercial drones but also consumer drones. So, companies that offer integrated 4K video recording cameras and HD video monitoring for as little as $1,200. And the price keeps going down, and the cameras keep getting better. A lot of this trend is being driven by the consumer. In our homes, we now have 4K TVs, HD tablets, and smartphones with higher and higher resolution, so the expectation is that a commercial drone will deliver that or better. I could go on, but fidelity is one of the major drivers of technology development for drones and we believe this will continue well into the future.
What have been some of the biggest changes you’ve seen and/or experienced with drones? Continue the conversation on Twitter (#uavroundtable) or in the comments section below.