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  • Charles Wimbley

Drones are More Than Just Flying Cameras!

Today the public at large views drones - or unmanned aerial systems (UAS) - as a useful tool for photography; especially in the commercial real estate (CRE) space where there's a reliance on drones to take aerial photos and videos to help sell property. But drones are so much more than just flying cameras; they are literally flying computers, low level satellite systems, and even flying assistants that will soon benefit our economy in so many different ways. The construction industry and infrastructure sectors are slowly discovering the benefits of industrial drones' small, yet powerful sensors that provide critical information and analytics to managers, architects and engineers. This new level of data provides management with better insights, which ultimately lead to better decision making in the area of construction, inspection, safety and cost.

Industries that Will Soon Use Industrial Drones

To date, the industrial/commercial drone industry is worth billions. According to PriceWaterhouseCoopers research (PWC), commercial real estate, construction and infrastructure sectors account for $45 billion of the $127 billion in drone market value. That's a pretty substantial number for an industry that's still in its infancy. Way beyond the uses of just traditional aerial photography, industrial drones are very proficient in collecting data for intelligence, analytics and surveillance. In the not-so-distant future, these aerial AI machines will carry a host of new sensors that will significantly aid to the growth of the Big Data revolution. Industrial drones serve as an aerial platform of incredible versatility - capable of over 320 uses across a myriad of industries such as:

  1. Precision Agriculture (farming)

  2. Mapping & Surveying

  3. Medical Delivery

  4. Security

  5. Journalism

  6. Construction & Infrastructure

  7. Utilities and Energy

  8. Search-and-Rescue

  9. Mining & Aggregates

  10. Movies - Motion Pictures

  11. Television Production

  12. Advertising - Commercials

  13. Inventory Logistics Management

  14. Wireless Communications

  15. Research & Development

It's All About The Sensors

The popularity of commercial drones can be directly attributed to their heightened level of capabilities and usefulness. Drones' increase in utility is a result of new technologies. These powerful new technologies convergences drones' powerful sensors, processors, artificial intelligence (AI) systems, GPS units, sonar aids, barometers, 3-Axis gyros, IMUs, and wi-fi communications into a singular flying platform of immense potential. What's more, these new sensors are being miniaturized for flight. All of this results in a formidable aerial platform that collects more data than today's orbiting satellites. Today's drones can capture a massive amount of data in a relatively short amount of time; what would often take weeks to collect and gather can now take just a couple of hours. With all of these technologies coming together - a whole new level of capabilities are possible. For example, drones with Flir sensors - which are essentially thermal imaging infrared sensors - can now see in the night and detect missing people lost in the woods, forest, or mountains. Want to determine the overall health of your food crops? There's a drone for that. Agriculture drones equipped with NDVI Cameras - which stands for Normalized Difference Vegetation Index - can scan maps and reveal any number of measurements that can help a farmer select crops, choose seed types and solve drainage and moisture retention problems. In other words, these drones can determine the overall health of food crops. These sophisticated drones sense and deliver far more information than the naked eye can see from a street or farm lane, and they collect data fast and efficiently. There are many more examples to site - suffice it to say that in the future, there will soon be specialized drones to solve specialized problems - much like an app. Got a problem? We have a drone for that!

Drones and The Three D's

There's another reason why so many industries are embracing commercial drones - because they handle the task of the three D's: the dull, the dirty and the dangerous. I would personally add another D to the equation: that D is "difficult." Industrial drones can get to places and spaces that are very difficult for helicopters to reach. For example, industrial drones can take the risk out of powerline maintenance at a much lower cost than helicopters. Why risk a large helicopter, and the lives of the pilot and crew just to survey 40,000-volt power lines in tight spaces - when a smaller, industrial drone can do the same job at a fraction of the cost without the risk of human life. Drones can also do simple jobs like roof inspections. Why jeopardize the safety of someone going on top of a roof, chimney, or cell tower when an industrial drone can initially survey the area for damage with little to no risk at all? The value and utility of these drones are clear - and the use cases for them are only growing over time.

Hurdles to Overcome

Industrial drone adaptation is on the rise, especially in the commercial real estate industry. That being said, drone cost are not cheap. Cost can range anywhere from $2,000 for prosumer drones - to more than $100,000+ per unit for high-end industrial platforms. The good news? As the technology and adaptation increase - cost and physical size will decrease; thereby, making the barriers to entry a little easier. However, adhering to the myriad of regulations handed down by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has proven to be a difficult and cumbersome process. As a result, many CRE firms are less likely to buy or rent drones - and more likely to hire professionally licensed drone operators to fly in controlled airspace. Attaining certifications and approvals to fly in Class B, C, D and E airspace can often be a daunting and frustrating task. To make matters worse, the laws in this new industry are constantly changing. That's why so many companies in the CRE industry hire professional drone companies who are FAA approved because these vendors have proficient pilots who are able to keep up with the ever-changing drone laws.

The Future

The future of the drone economy looks bright. It's a brand-new platform that will enable park rangers to find someone who is lost in the woods; help oil and gas workers determine methane leakage; help engineers detect stresses and cracks in critical infrastructure; protect nuclear plants; help electricians survey power lines without risk to human life; and provide remote communities with internet access. And by the way, drones do take pretty good pictures. But I remind you, industrial drones are so much more than just cameras in the sky; they are a formidable flying platform of infinite use to our society.

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