Wireless Technologies

Post early-adopters, drones need to prove their worth to industries

A lot has happened in the drone industry over the last couple of years. Both the UK and the US have updated regulations around commercial use (sorry Amazon, still no drone delivery yet). Established players such as DJI and Parrot have made greater efforts to look outside consumer devices and move into more specialised and industry-specific use cases.

Given the watch industry’s decline, it’s probably a good thing Switzerland is becoming something of a hotbed for the high-end Unmanned Ariel Vehicle (UAV) sector. Flyability and Gamaya are two companies making inroads, while Pix4D and Skybotix are two that have been acquired by international giants (Parrot and GoPro respectively) in recent years.

SenseFly is one such organization. Acquired by Parrot earlier this year to join its collection of agriculture-focused subsidiaries such as MicaSense and Airinov, the company provides a selection of fixed-wing and quadcopter drones for mapping and inspection.

According to Gartner’s infamous Hype Cycle, we’re yet to reach peak hype for commercial UAVs. SenseFly was founded in 2009, so have seen the industry grow and emerge, so are probably well placed to argue whether or not the analyst house is right, right?

“You see them becoming certainly more established in certain verticals like the geospatial market,” says SensefFly Marketing Director Matt Wade. “Surveying, mining, those kinds of applications, we're getting to the tail end of that early adopter stage, and now we're pushing to mass adoption.”

While mass adoption is a relative term – the millions of $100 DJIs are a million (aeronautical) miles away from the $10,000+ speciality platforms for commercial use – the bottom line is a big factor. And most companies with tight budgets won’t just splash out for a UAV just for the sake of it.

“We've gone past “wow it's cool, I can do this with it” and more like proving the actual business benefits and the ROI now,” Wade says. “At the marketing level, we need to do a lot of work on telling that story of the customers, those early adopters.”

However, in many of these markets; agriculture, infrastructure inspection etc., it’s not simply a case of flying by once, taking a few pictures, and then writing up a case study the next day. These are long-term projects that can take months to really show their value, which means showing the benefits can take time.

One example Wade uses involves a farming co-operative in France: although it took a full season of crop growing across 300 farms, the results showed drone-based data helped increase crop yield an average of 10% compared to regular crop management.

“It's that education process, and we're gradually getting more and more case studies.”

In the future, Wade expects more growth in areas the company never originally envisioned.

“Things like environmental management & conservation, humanitarian uses like development planning, these we never really had in our minds in the beginning but we've learned from customers.”

On the issue of regulation, traditionally slow-moving regulators have gone from requiring special exemption for almost any commercial drone flights and needing fully qualified pilots to introducing flexible, business-friendly rules in a relatively short period of time. Today in the US for example, night time and Beyond Line of Sight (BLoS) flying – once total no-nos – are now possible with certain permissions.

SenseFly’s own eBee drones (fixed-wing models weighing just 1kg) have been categorised as “harmless” in Italy, meaning they can work in cities such as Rome or Venice, and Wade sees a future where the rules could be relaxed further.

“It's really down to the regulators, and the manufacturers proving that they're very safe, reliable, redundant systems.”


Also read:
Commercial drones in the US open for business
Drone delivery and airspace integration may still be a while off in the UK
Commercial drone flights: Poor rules, NASA, and the future
Facebook drones: ‘There are no rules for this’
The drone age is here


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Dan Swinhoe

Dan is a journalist at CSO Online. Previously he was Senior Staff Writer at IDG Connect.

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