Christina Cardoza

Mar 24, 2016 10:39:03 AM

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The future of drones is still uncertain, but companies have no doubt the industry is going to reach new heights and change the way we live our lives. One area drones have proven themselves useful is in data. Drones have the ability to collect aerial data that can provide insight into how crops are harvesting, how animals are behaving, how to better protect animals, and how to make industrial inspection and land surveying much safer and simpler.

DroneDeploy, a cloud-based drone software provider, wants to help drone operators harness, process and analyze that data. InterDrone News caught up with Jono Millin, cofounder and chief product officer of DroneDeploy, to talk about the future of drones and how the company is helping shape that future.

InterDrone News: How would you describe the drone industry in the U.S. as of today?
Millin: The commercial drone space in the U.S. is a nascent industry that’s starting to take off. In 2015, we saw drone enthusiasts bringing drones into their businesses and starting to prove that drones can drive real business value. The leading industries using drones for mapping or 3D modeling include agriculture, construction, surveying, mining, and real estate, with more use cases emerging every day.

So far in 2016, we’re starting to see growing awareness and consideration of commercial drones by early adopters, not just bleeding-edge enthusiasts. [There will also be] the release of new rules from the FAA expected later this year that will help make it easier to legally use drones for commercial purposes and reduce some of the regulatory uncertainty. With this, we expect adoption to grow even more rapidly, particularly among larger companies.

What the biggest trends you are seeing in the drone industry?
We recently put out a blog post and infographic summarizing commercial drone industry trends based on DroneDeploy usage data from 2 million acres across 100 countries. You can find the full post here.

Some of the key takeaways? Commercial drone adoption is growing rapidly, despite regulatory uncertainty. However, one response that we see [in] the regulatory environment, particularly in the U.S. and Europe, is that a large share of drone mapping is being done by drone service companies rather than end users of that data. Another trend that may be surprising to some is that “prosumer” quadcopter drones, rather than expensive commercial hardware, are doing the lion’s share of commercial aerial mapping. Among our users, DJI’s Phantom 3 drone is the most popular drone. These prosumer drones are well suited for mapping smaller areas (under 100 acres), but are even being used to map thousands of acres, thanks to the ability to easily swap batteries and continue flying a mission. It’s also not just about mapping: We’re seeing more and more users making 3D models with their drones, which are proving very useful in construction, mining and inspection.

What are some hurdles the drone industry has to get over, and how will DroneDeploy be a part of overcoming those hurdles?
There are three main hurdles for the drone industry in its current stage of growth. Drones are such a new technology that the potential market is still largely unaware of how drones can be used and the value they can provide. At DroneDeploy, we’re helping to overcome that hurdle by sharing with a broader audience—on our blog and elsewhere—the stories, instructions and advice from our users as they learn, explore and build their expertise.

Once an organization has understood the value drones can provide in business, the next biggest hurdle is getting started. Commercial drones have been sold as a complicated technology: requiring expensive equipment, multi-day training courses and specialized skill sets. Our approach is to make this technology as widely accessible as possible. We’re not going to get roboticists to learn agriculture, we’re going to get agronomists and growers to learn how to use another tool in their tool belt—only this one flies. DroneDeploy is by far the simplest way to get from flight to insight, while still providing the powerful tools required to make actionable decisions.

The final hurdle is that there’s confusion and uncertainty in the market. Potential business users are nervous about the regulatory environment and overwhelmed by the drone and drone software choices out there. They want to invest in technology from a company that they can trust and will be around tomorrow. We’re addressing this hurdle by delivering a product that is reliable and compatible with any drone. In so doing, we’re demonstrating that the power of aerial imagery is already more accessible than most people think.

Our simple, easy-to-use drone aerial imagery software is free to try and has been used to map over 2 million acres in 100 countries.

How does DroneDeploy help make things easier for drone operators?
DroneDeploy does three things which radically simplify the process of getting insights from aerial data: We help users capture, process and analyze aerial data.

Capture: Our mobile app for iOS and Android allows you with just two taps to autonomously fly the leading drones from DJI to capture imagery.

Process: DroneDeploy provides powerful cloud-based processing, which stitches users’ imagery (captured from our app or otherwise) into maps and 3D models leveraging the scalability and efficiencies that cloud processing provides.

Analyze: Our analysis tools let users easily analyze, annotate, export and share their processed data, right from their browser on any device, accessible anywhere in the world (including on-site and in the field).

The end result is it’s faster, simpler, more scalable and more collaborative than the expensive desktop software that has historically been used for image processing and analysis.

What do you envision for the future of drones?
We’re in the business of helping companies understand their world better. All of the efficiencies that digital technologies have provided to Internet businesses, we’re taking to physical spaces. Think of the number of companies which have “stuff”—materials, equipment and physical landscapes—that moves and changes. Now imagine having the superpower to simply collect a high-resolution and spatially accurate digital snapshot of your “stuff,” on-demand for US$99 a month using an $800 drone, that can be instantly shared with operators on-site as well as management hundreds of miles away at HQ so that they can all compare, understand and collaborate on this data. There really is an immense opportunity for the future of commercial drones, and we as an industry are just scratching the surface.

Given this, we see commercial drones being a ubiquitous part of the commercial landscape, serving myriad sensing and delivery functions. We expect to see adoption of more sensor types, increasing the types of information drones can capture as they fly, as well as improvements in the range, flight time, and reliability of the drones themselves.

The stuff we’ve been talking about so far is just looking at the ability of drones to carry sensors and digitize the world. Now imagine we’re able to take the information the drones are collecting, and get other robots (flying or otherwise) to start taking action on that data. In this future, a farm drone will take off at dawn, image the fields and send the data to the cloud for processing/analyzing. A few minutes later, the cloud will send the required actions to an autonomous field applicator, which will drive out into the field and solve the problems the drone detected minutes earlier. That’s a pretty exciting future, and we’re surprisingly close to it.

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