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What’s Next For The Commercial Drone Industry?

Talking Part 107, ROI, and drone implementation on-site with Jeremiah Karpowicz, Executive Editor of Commercial UAV News

 

Under the editorial leadership of Jeremiah Karpowicz, Commercial UAV News has become an authoritative voice in the commercial drone space, with a distinct focus on the ways that drones are being used in verticals like civil infrastructure, mining & aggregates, surveying & mapping, and more. We recently sat down with Jeremiah, who serves as the Executive Editor of the publication and also hosts the annual Commercial UAV Expo, to discuss the state of the commercial drone industry, challenges with implementing drone operations, and how drones are driving ROI for construction and engineering firms across the country.

1. Why did you start Commercial UAV News? What’s your goal?

I used to be in the film & TV industry, where drones continue to play a big role in to capture aerial photos and video. The concept of seeing how drone technology will develop across different industries was really interesting to me, but the commercial drone space is still very much in a place of figuring out what works and running with it. As much as I like reading about concepts like the completely autonomous farm of the future—where the drone charges and flies itself with no human involvement—there’s a practical element of that that we need to work out right now. That work is being done—and the space is becoming more defined with regulatory developments like Part 107—so telling these stories is really interesting and is what makes this a great space to be a part of.

Commercial UAV is obviously focused on drones, but ultimately it’s not about these specific tools or technologies, it’s about the practical applications of the technology, what it’s actually used for, and how it can actually make a difference for the construction professional, for example, or the mining professional. And exploring that is really exciting.

2. In your excellent 7 Commercial Drone Predictions for 2017 report, you predicted that we’ll see a transition from “exploring” to “implementing” drone solutions in the enterprise space. How that has played out in the first few months of 2017?

We definitely saw this transition—from exploring to implementing—happen at the end of last year, and through this year so far. A lot of that is due to Part 107. Before Part 107, there were a lot of people who didn’t want to take the time to dig into the tech and see what it could do for them, because the regulations were too high of a barrier. Now, with that out of the way, these companies are looking at what that implementation actually looks like.

One thing I didn’t mention in that report is just how big the data aspect is when it comes to implementation. These professionals don’t just want more data—they want answers. Figuring out the data piece— what comes in, how it’s processed, where it goes, and what answers can be associated with it—can be a challenge, and many professionals are spending time figuring out how this works and what process is best for them. I think that’s something that a lot of organizations are realizing in a major way this year.

“Professionals don’t just want more data—they want answers.”

3. Part 107 was a huge regulatory development. How has it impacted commercial drone usage so far? How can it be improved going forward?

When Part 107 first came out, the feedback was mostly positive, but at the same time people positioned it as just a step in the right direction that could have gone much further. This is because it didn’t include things like flying beyond visual line of sight, or not being able to fly over people who aren’t participating. These are probably two of the biggest hurdles that Part 107 didn’t address.

That being said, there’s plenty of opportunity with Part 107 right now. That’s something I try to showcase as much as I can, because even though future regulation will allow operators to do even more, what they can do today under Part 107 is significant.

4. Drones are starting to find their place on an increasing number of jobsites across the world, but we’re still a long way from widespread adoption. What do you think needs to be done to speed up adoption?

I think there are two main barriers to adoption: first, the expectations around what drones can and can’t do, and second, demonstrating ROI.

There’s an expectation that drones can make everything faster, better, and cheaper, but that’s a false narrative: there’s certain instances when using a drone makes a ton of sense, and some when it doesn’t. There are times where it’s more appropriate to use a surveyor, and there are times when you’re better off with a drone. Using a drone can make a given task faster or cheaper, but it’s not necessarily going to make everything faster or cheaper. There’s different circumstances where it makes sense to fly drones, and one of the challenges around adoption is determining where and how the technology fits best.

In terms of ROI, that’s a question I get from professionals over and over. Quantifying ROI can be a challenge. How do you quantify the return of a mistake that wasn’t made? Someone like your customer, Mark Bogh of Bogh Engineering, is at the helm of a small company, so he can oversee that entire operation and recognize first hand what kind of difference drones can make. But, in a larger organization, that sometimes doesn’t get as high up the chain as it needs to.

Ultimately, drones are a tool to use in certain cases, when it makes sense to. Once professionals have that tool in their hand, they start asking themselves new questions, and wonder, “wouldn’t it be great if _________?” Then they try things out, and then they end up creating a whole new efficiency for their site. That process is going to accelerate adoption in a major way.

5. With ROI in mind, what are some of the most interesting use cases—with a demonstrable return on investment—that you’ve seen for drones in construction and engineering?

The examples that 3DR laid out in your recent article—transferring a workflow from 2 weeks down to a day or two—are really poignant, and it’s tough to argue with those kind of bottom line numbers. Those are some of the better hard numbers that I’ve seen out there.

“The examples that 3DR laid out in your recent article—transferring a workflow from 2 weeks down to a day or two—are really poignant, and it’s tough to argue with those kind of bottom line numbers.”

In terms of use cases, there’s a lot to be said about using drones to gather info that’s going to help either settle arguments or not cause an argument in the first place. That came up in the interview that I did with Mark Bogh. Mark talked about how, for example, a contractor on a job site accidentally messing up the grade will be something he’s on the hook for financially unless he has proof that wasn’t his fault. Drones have given him that exact evidence and prevent him for major headaches and unnecessary expenses.

Monitoring earthwork at the Bogh Engineering site

This use case also ties into the frequency of data collection. Before drones, there was an expectation about how often you could go out and survey your site to get the info you need. This was sometimes only done once a year, or every six months, depending on the project size. When you’re taking that kind of infrequent measurement, countless different things can change or go wrong which impact the schedule and budget for a project.. By being able to fly a drone either on a quarterly, monthly, or weekly basis, really changes what you’re actually seeing on-site and what you’re getting out of the data, and you might learn that the numbers you had associated with a given project actually weren’t correct. You might find, for example, that the return you’re getting should be a lot better. Drones are a tool that can enable people to see that.

“By being able to fly a drone either on a quarterly, monthly, or weekly basis really changes what you’re actually seeing on-site and what you’re getting out of the data.”

Thinking back to Mark Bogh: he can get data and information that he didn’t have access to otherwise, and it gives him and his subcontractors context around what’s happening—or what isn’t happening—on a project. Ultimately, they’re all working together towards the same end goal. Drones are helping Mark get subcontractors on the same page, and most of the time this is just about working out honest mistakes: jobsites are busy and chaotic, so being able to give people resources to help them sort through where things are—or where they should be—is something that benefits everybody.

6. What’s your vision for the commercial drone industry? How would you like to see it evolve?

My vision comes back to something we’ve talked about right here: for drones to be seen as a tool. Drones have been positioned as this very different thing. Some people talk about and think about them as this amazing technology, something separate from the tools we use every day. They really aren’t though. Drones are tools, just like any other that a professional might want to use on a daily basis for a certain task. 

Thankfully, thinking of them in this way is becoming more pervasive throughout the industry. People are finally starting to think of this technology as a tool, just like they would a bulldozer or software like AutoCAD. Once that mentality is even more pervasive, we’ll see a lot more widespread adoption, because there will be a lot more people who will be ready to dig into the logistics of bringing drones on-site. Then they’ll be able to start asking my favorite question: “wouldn’t it be great if…”

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