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Drones can play a strategic role for nearly every industry, from utilities to retail to construction. But without proper planning, businesses aren't likely to reap the full benefits of the technology.
US regulatory guidance for drones has lagged, with officials insisting that they have to "find the right balance to ensure safety while encouraging innovation." But this doesn't mean companies shouldn't be developing drone strategies.
The benefits that drones offer cut across a broad swath of industries. Insurance companies and law enforcement use drones to document crime and accident scenes. Healthcare and disaster response crews can use them to deliver emergency prescriptions to patients in hard-to-reach areas. Logistics and retail companies want to offer premium delivery options for goods to consumers. Agriculture and mining outfits use drones to traverse areas of high risk and to map fields and terrain for purposes of precision agriculture or mineral extrusion. Construction and real estate companies use drones to assess building sites and manage property, and utilities can use them to take inventory of transmission towers and other field-based assets.
In short, almost everyone can find a strategic role for drones in their company. The catch is that few take the time to build strong business cases like they should.
"What I often see is someone just going out to buy a drone so the company can try it out," lamented one of my acquaintances who is a drone technology consultant. "There is a tendency in many businesses to see drones as something that is cool, but companies don't really spend much time thinking about how a drone or a fleet of drones can help the business."
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Small survey offices are a good example.
Someone—perhaps an office manager or an onsite assistant—launches a drone because the firm wants to obtain some aerial photos of an area. The assistant checks the battery on the drone and charts a course that will allow the drone to perform all the photography they have planned. Unfortunately, no one takes into account the head wind that comes up that day. The drone fights the wind during flight and there isn't enough battery power left for it to get back.
"There is a major big data problem with drones that many beginning operators aren't aware of," said Kevin Gallagher, CEO of Simulyze, which provides "single pane of glass" management software for drones. "They think that all they have to do is to launch the drone and operate it, when there are other factors that they need to be aware of—like what facilities are on the ground, what the air traffic around the drone looks like—and of course, the weather."
The takeaway is that companies benefit more if they do advance planning and business case definition for their drones before they start investing in them and using them. But what are some of the issues companies need to address when building their drone strategy? Here are four critical areas to consider.
Determining how to prepare for drone usage from a legal, operational, and safety standpoint is a complex process. This policy provides guidelines for drone usage and will help you establish prerequisites and standards for security and safety to protect your business, your employees, and the public. Free for Tech Pro Research subscribers.
1: How are you going to use drones and how many will you likely need?
Are you going to be a one-drone shop or do you imagine your business using a fleet of hundreds or even thousands of drones in the future? If you anticipate having a drone fleet, you will need a central control room to manage all the daily flights and to set up flight plans. You will also need to hire and/or train drone operators.
2: Do you need drone management software and personnel?
Firms like Gallagher's offer visibility into the totality of a drone flight. The software can collect big data from a variety of sources, so you can see the flight path of the drone, whether drone onboard systems (as reported by drone sensors) are performing normally, whether the drone has adequate battery power, whether there are other airborne objects in the path of the drone, whether wind velocity and other weather conditions are changing, and what is on the ground. This software can also manage many drones in flight at once.
3: How will you manage bandwidth issues?
Drones communicate wirelessly and use public communications channels, so there are bandwidth issues that can interrupt real-time drone communications and data transfers. This is an area of drone performance that is beyond most companies' control. You will need to manage it as well as you are able to—especially when large payloads of data are coming in. One option is to have the data temporarily stored on the drone. Another is to fail over to an alternate communications link that stores the data in third-party cloud storage.
4: Are you on top of legal and compliance issues?
Drone regulatory measures are still under discussion in the US. What we do know is that drones are presently set to operate at a cap of 400 feet above the ground One reason for this is that the FAA doesn't want drones interfering with flight paths of other aircraft. However, the first 400 feet above ground also have legal consequences. The law says that a property owner is entitled to quiet enjoyment of their property and that the first 400 feet of airspace above it is an extension of that property. We don't yet know how this will play out when an individual consumer orders a special delivery book that a drone brings to their doorstep and the next-door neighbor objects to a violation of their airspace.