From farming to mining to building, the increasing availability of drones and the information they can map is changing how companies do business.
Businesses are learning that sometimes the best way to boost the bottom line is by reaching for the sky.
Commercial drone usage across a wide variety of industries is explodingÂ as businesses take advantage of rapidly advancing technology and falling hardware prices to incorporate the technology into their work flow.
â€œIncorporation of commercial drones is going to continue to grow exponentially,â€ says Darr Gerscovich, senior vice president of marketing at DroneDeploy.
To date, theÂ aerial data consulting companyâ€™s clientsÂ haveÂ used DroneDeployÂ drone software to mapÂ more than 2 million acres acrossÂ 100 countries. It helpsÂ dozens of industries collect and interpret drone data.Â â€œWeâ€™re seeing a tipping point now, but itâ€™s the first of many tipping points,â€ he said.
â€œBusinesses are finding a tremendous amount of value in having aerial intelligence,â€ Gerscovich continued. â€œGetting data, and making sense of the data.â€
In a little more than a year, DroneDeploy clients mapped an area larger than the state of Delaware, and theyâ€™re adding aerial data four times faster this year.Â Drone-captured data, it seems, is in high demand.
More than Google Earth
Itâ€™s tempting to think of commercial drone usage as a more detailed version of Google Earth, but the information is far more dynamic.
â€œWho are the primary users of Google Earth?â€ Gerscovich asked. â€œYou and meâ€”people with a goal of getting from point A to point B. Roads may change over time, but they typically donâ€™t change that often.â€
For Gerscovichâ€™s clients, however, the surveyed areas change constantly.
â€œWeâ€™ve had plenty of examples where Google Earth or another satellite image provider just shows a bunch of trees or a wooded area, and after the drone flight, we see that thereâ€™s a full solar power plant there,â€ he said. â€œStatic imagery is not sufficient.â€
(Looking) Down on the Farm
One of the first, and heaviest, users of commercial drones is the agriculture industry.
â€œFarms have hundreds or thousands of acres,â€ Gerscovich explained. â€œThey largely use drones for crop scouting. It saves the time of someone going out and driving around the fields, which isÂ one of the ways itâ€™s been done until now.â€
Instead, a drone can fly over the entire area and spot which fields farmers need to pay attention to, rather than relying on what can be seen from the nearest driving path. Growers can then upload the images to the cloud and knit them together to make a map showing the condition of an entire crop.
â€œYou can see the entire field and identify the areas where thereâ€™s an issue,â€ Gerscovich said. â€œDuring growing season, theyâ€™re trying to catch issues while thereâ€™s still time to address them.â€
The condition of a crop can change with a few days of rain or dry weather, so multiple drone passes are necessary to provide a constant stream of data.
Data Mining and Construction Site Insights
The mining and construction industries have also been early and avid adopters of drone technology. While farms need quick maps of large areas, building and digging sites typically are smaller, but the need for detail is much higher.
â€œGenerally, they want to understand site progress,â€ Gerscovich said. â€œIn order to get daily or monthly status updates on the stage a project is in, for a large site, it used to take a half a day toÂ walk the entire site. Now, they can do it in 15 minutes with a drone.â€
Job sites also tend to make heavy use of 3D modeling, something that can be built from detailed drone data.
â€œIf youâ€™re building a tower, and youâ€™re six months into the project, you can verify theÂ structure is beingÂ developed according to plan,â€ Gerscovich said, explaining that the 3D image can then be loaded into the construction companyâ€™s autoCAD system to compare the progress to the building plans.
â€œIt helps people on site, and it also helps people back in the corporate offices to understand whatâ€™s happening,â€ he said.
Aerial data can also measure volume. At construction and mining sites where there are often stockpiles of moved dirt mounds or cement materials, Gerscovich said, drones can give accurate measures of just how large the mound is. Compared to other methods, such as having people climb to the top of the mound with lasers to attempt to measure it, drone technology has its advantages.
â€œDrones are safer, faster and about half the cost as compared to traditional ground-based volumetrics,â€ said Dallas VanZanten, owner of aerial mapping company Skymedia Northwest.
An emerging market for drone technology is the inspection industry.
A DroneDeploy client in Mexico was contracted by the government to inspect 600 milesÂ of road. Instead ofÂ employing aircraft or spending weeks driving and manually capturing data across the countryside, the company used a handful of drones and quickly produced more than eight terabytes of data.
How much is that? If the Mexican company used 16 GB smartphones, the highway data would have filled 512 of them.
Building inspectors are using drones to get a better look at the roof. Insurance companies, Gerscovich added, can use the resulting 3D images to assess damages.
â€œSay a tornado comes through an area,â€ he continued. â€œInstead of waiting for the claims inspector to arrive, they could fly over the area with a drone and quickly do a 3D model.â€
Emergency response teams also incorporate aerial data. Drones can quickly create high-resolution maps of large areas, in, say,Â a wooded area, for search and rescue operations. Drones can even assist forensic specialists who need to inspect large plane or train crash sites.
â€œBefore the inspectors arrive with cameras to start taking still images, they can create a 3D model, and then everything about the area is preserved,â€ Gerscovich said. â€œThey can use it to measure distances and angles between things.â€
Growth Continues to Skyrocket
In the early days of commercial drone usage, only the largest companies could afford to collect aerial data. Technology has helped lower the price of entry.
Engineering consultant Iain Butler, better known as The UAV Guy, raves that drones are, â€œa disruptive technology. Literally anyone can crop scout with a drone and get actionable data within minutes.â€
Just aÂ couple years ago, most of the drones used commercially were custom-made, with a price tag of $10,000 to $20,000. DroneDeploy said todayÂ companies can payÂ far less.
â€œThe hardware has gotten so good, so quickly, that today a majority of drones used commercially are bought off the shelfâ€”high-end consumer drones,â€ Gerscovich said.
Today, an $800 to $1,500 investment is enough to get a business airborne and collecting data.
The biggest hurdle to using consumer drones is that the batteries typically last about 30 minutes. Thatâ€™s long enough to map betweenÂ 60 and 80 acres before running out of power.
â€œHaving said that, weâ€™re seeing agricultural companies doing very large maps with off-the-shelf quad copters,â€ Gerscovich says. â€œWe had one client map 4,300 acres with a quad copter. Thatâ€™s 3,500 football fieldsâ€”a massive effort.â€
It would also take more than 35 hours and 70 battery changes. â€œObviously, theyâ€™re doing this because theyâ€™re seeing substantial value. Otherwise, no one would be out there doing it for that long,â€ he said.
Still, companies in various industries are beginning to understand the value in the sky, and theyâ€™re finding innovative ways to use drones and help their businesses soar.
Editor’s note: Article reposted from ‘Drone Blog’
Shawn Krest. “Drone Data Sparks a New Industrial Revolution”
Drone Blog. N.p., Web. 30 June. 2016.