How business drones can be deployed way beyond delivery
Wireless Technologies

How business drones can be deployed way beyond delivery

The most obvious use of drones for business purposes is delivery — and companies from UPS to Amazon and even Walmart have been exploring ways to leverage the unique talents of these flying automatons to do just that, but delivery is not the only way that drones can be used for commercial purposes. Companies like Skyward, Verizon’s drone management company, are seeing implementation of drones in industries as diverse as agriculture, construction, energy, mining, retail, utilities, insurance, and sports.

Online real estate marketplace Ten-X has used drone technology extensively in showcasing commercial real estate assets to a national and global audience. The aerial drone footage gives buyers a unique perspective of the property and surrounding topography. Sellers appreciate the expansive ability drone footage provided in showcasing their asset to potential buyers around the globe to enhance execution and pricing and the buyer’s experience is improved because of the range and quality of images that drones make possible. 

Ten-X Executive VP Rick Sharga cites the example of Ten-X’s use of drone footage as part of its marketing efforts on the sale of a $96 million office complex in Manhattan Beach CA, one of the largest online transactions to date. “The winning client was from outside the United States, and the impact of the drone footage was clear,” he says.

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Jonathan Evans, co-president of Skyward, says that most recently, they have seen the media and film industries turn to drones in really interesting ways. “We can see the aerial perspective revolutionising film production right before our eyes,” he adds.

Alex Bakker, a principal analyst for ISG, explains that early use cases for drones have typically centred around inspection and mapping, such as for the inspection of powerlines, towers and structures. In mapping, they have been used extensively in agriculture, with companies like DroneDeploy and Slantrange being leaders in this area. Bakker has also seen use cases in construction and mining, leveraging the capabilities of photogrammetry to build highly accurate surface models, which have improved worker safety and increased the accuracy of measuring changes in job sites, all while making it significantly faster.  

 

Drones can help provide visibility into the supply chain

For major corporations, on the other hand, drones can be used for many different purposes, but inventory cycle management is one that stands out across the board for already delivering strong results in efficiency and savings. “Now, instead of sending a worker to search crates in a warehouse for a specific piece of inventory, which is timely and a potential safety risk, drones can quickly scan the warehouse to show a worker where it is and potentially even retrieve it,” Evans says.

Drones have the potential to provide great benefits to the warehouse and to supply chain efficiency, explains Matt McLelland, innovation research manager at Kenco. This third-party US logistics company has explored the use of drones to manage warehouse systems and yard operations to enhance inventory visibility in real-time and track inventory throughout the warehouse.

“Drones are able to reach places where humans can’t – in tight places, up high for building inspections and more. It’s also much safer to use a drone instead of having humans climb up a tall ladder or work on a scissor-lift,” he says. 

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McLelland believes drones can tremendously benefit large distribution centres especially when it comes to security and surveillance. For distribution centres with a large acreage, leveraging drones rather than employees to monitor the grounds greatly increases time and cost savings.

“Drones will also create more visibility in the supply chain. When supply chain visibility increases, there is the potential for inventory to decrease and customer service to increase,” he says. “Drones can be safer than using traditional labour-intensive methods to see supply chain assets, which can involve reach trucks, forklifts, man-cages, and scissor-lifts.”

Even the insurance industry is getting on board. “It makes sense that such a risk-averse industry would be using drones to lower their own risks—now assessors can use drones to more quickly and safely survey property in the wake of a fire or flood,” Evans says.

 

Many issues hinder business drone adoption

Despite these interesting examples, widespread use of drones in commercial applications have not yet taken off. Rupert Chapman, head of UK consulting at Cognizant, says companies are still not integrating drones into their business processes because it is not clear how they can fit into their workflow. “Undertaking research on possible solutions is often time consuming and expensive, with little idea on the return on the investment.”

Part of the problem, for Chapman, is that communication about what a successful integration looks like is still also very limited. Companies already using the new technology seem reluctant to share too much information in order to reap the benefits of their early investments in market leading and innovative tools. “As a result of this, further integration elsewhere lags behind as companies wait for successful user stories that may never appear,” he says.

Chapman urges businesses to encourage the development and implementation of commercial drones by other organisations if they want to change the legislation and encourage the relevant infrastructure upgrades – which, ultimately benefits everyone.

“Companies that successfully integrate drones into their business processes should be encouraged to communicate proactively about how they achieved this success. For example, what techniques should they use to prevent drones being hacked. By collaborating, changes to legislation and overcoming other hurdles could become easier.”

For the C-suite considering potential use cases for their own company, Evans advises that this is a good first place to start. “Think about your initial use cases first, the software you’ll need to process the data or deliverables you want to gather, and the sensors you’ll need to gather it. Then buy a drone that can support those needs,” he says.

Evans also advises planning to scale. “We advocate starting small with a pilot program that’s easy to manage. But set up policies and processes from the start that will support decentralised drone ops throughout the entire company—this is part of the value that Skyward provides to our customers.”

He adds that although drones can actually improve a company’s safety record, many companies only consider the risks associated with drones.

And finally, Evans says, drones can’t do everything. “If you need aerial footage in controlled airspace, you might still need to use a helicopter. If you need to map thousands of acres of crops, a plane might still be more efficient. Here in the US, drones generally aren’t yet allowed to transport packages.”

Costs to get started with a drone management programme are relatively low. In order to complete a proof of concept, a company can acquire a drone, data processing software, and operations management software like Skyward for under $15,000. Evans says that after a little over a week of training any team member can pass the required written knowledge exam to earn a remote pilot certificate from the FAA to legally fly drones in the US. “Compared to the cost of running a helicopter or putting employees in high-risk or dangerous environments, the ROI for a drone programme is clear,” he adds.

Bakker sums up the obstacles to drone deployment as certification, safety, risk, reward, and specialisation. Firstly, he says, businesses need to either have employees that attain FAA Part 107 Certificates or Section 333 Exemptions in order to operate drones for commercial purposes.” They need to ensure that they can safely operate drones for anyone that may need to be near or beneath drone operations, as well as to ensure the safety of those not directly involved in the operations,” he says. This includes both spectators, uninvolved people on the ground, or aviators.

In addition, special attention needs to be paid to the necessary filings of flight plans, and the care, inspection, and documentation of the drones themselves and the missions they are used on.

Nick Gibbons, cybersecurity expert and partner at BLM, a UK and Ireland-based insurance and risk law firm, points out another risk for those wanting to deploy drones: security. “Attacks targeted to drones could leave businesses and their customers equally exposed with regards to personal and commercial data. With recent global cyber-attacks waking CIOs up to the threat of wide-scale data loss, any organisation developing a drone strategy will need to incorporate this into a comprehensive cyber security plan that details data protection procedures,” he says.

Gibbons notes that although the use of drones in the UK is already, to an extent, covered by a range of laws and regulations including the Data Protection Act and the law of confidence, currently specific legislation relating to commercial drone use is non-existent, and targeted legal protection and effective insurance products are needed for organisation that opt to use drones. “This is especially important with the European Commission predicting full integration of drones in European airspace by 2028,” he says.

Bakker adds: “Balancing risk and reward is also necessary. Fortunately, the cost of operations for drones tends to be quite low, and the demonstrated benefits in appropriate contexts quite high. For antenna inspection, for example, if the drone flight removes the need for a human to climb the antenna, then the risk profile for the mission is almost certainly positive.”

Finally, Bakker says, there remain many businesses where no concrete use cases exist for drones. However, when the use cases do exist, they can be transformative. The use of drones to inspect roofs after storm damage is drastically changing the time and risk of the insurance inspector. “Drones tend to be applied to narrow problems as a data gathering tool, and when they are adapted and specialised to those tasks they can be extremely effective,” he says.

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Bianca Wright

Bianca Wright is a UK-based freelance business and technology writer, who has written for publications in the UK, the US, Australia and South Africa. She holds an MPhil in science and technology journalism and a DPhil in Media Studies.

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