Let’s Buy a UAV… and do SOMETHING with it.
Drones are fun. New Technology is cool. Buying a piece of equipment that doesn’t meet your needs is neither fun, nor cool. It is a waste of money and a waste of time. Using the wrong product for the right job does nothing but cause frustration and organizational push back on the use of new assets. It is important to get it right the first time and as risk-averse companies seek out the use of drones for the first time for commercial operations, stakeholders with purchasing power must make the right decision from the start or fear losing access to resources in the future.
We’ve recently been seeing stories of drone companies selling their goods for anti-poaching, where they quickly become useless; not because the capabilities were wrong, but because either the systems themselves were not ruggedized, accompanied with proper training, the CONOPS was not well understood or developed or the vehicle unable to be re-charged in remote environments – very basic requirements for the operation. Just as common are utility companies that purchased DJI Phantom 2 Vision+ to provideinfrastructure inspections or farmers who thought they would see more than a years worth of flights out of a garage-built drone rather than pay $12,000 for SenseFly eBee – You get what you pay for. Some drones are being touted as “work-horses” that aren’t and some are clearly sold as consumer models but being applied as commercial grad tools.
One drone does not fit all
The drone market is exploding as the technology matures, new companies solve old problems, and regulations enable commercial activity. All over the world innovative companies like Sky Futures and Cyberhawk are making headlines as they provide third-party solutions to the oil and gas industry, industry players like Drone Deploy, Drone Base, or Skycatch provide data and analytics – in some cases with specific hardware and in others in a system agnostic approach – here-to-fore difficult or impossible to get for mining and construction, and a veritable cavalcade of agricultural solutions aim to create the next “Agricultural Revolution.” While innovative, these companies provide new solutions to existing problems in a similar way to manned aviation – the real promise of autonomous flight has yet to be realized fully.
These companies all provide new approaches to problems that have faced their respective industries for sometime, and mostly they have replaced the manned aviator in their approach. It is no wonder that cinematography was the first industry given the greenlight by the Federal Aviation Administration for commercial drone operations as the UAS provided a relatively safe and easy-to-use platform in a sterile flight environment, rather than the cumbersome and dangerous alternative in manned helicopters. They were the right tool for the right job, and they found great success.
While these “turn-key solutions” provide easy use access for very specific issues, many organizations are faced with wanting a drone, but not knowing why or how to use it. Creative corporate entrepreneurs see drones as way to accomplish their tasks with greater alacrity, increased efficiency, and with less risk to personnel. Those same individuals may be able to buy a drone and “try-it out,” spending $3,000+ on a DJI Inspire 1 or $1800 on a 3DR Solo. However, it is important to remember that THE DRONE IS NOT ALONE. Data security, privacy control policies, cloud data integration, safety and security SOPS, GCS networking and RF coverage are all elements that must be considered for a commercial focused operation from square-one.
Pre-Integration Needs Assessment
|Operational||Communication and Controls Robustness, Time in Flight Requirements, Risk Analysis & Acceptable Loss, Altitude Needs (max/mins), Crew Definitions, Failure Mode Tolerances|
|Environmental||Radio Frequency Interference, Capabilities in Wind or Wx, Radiation On-Site, Cellular or GPS Availability, GCS Access to Location,|
|Systematic||GCS & Airframe Needs, Crew Member Requirements, Payload requirements, LiDar vs. NDVI vs. RGB Needs, Battery Life, Training Allowances, Autonomous Capabilities, Long-Term Survivability|
The above table show elements that are not “packaged” for consumers, but are necessary for enabling the long-term use of drones for organizations involved with the oil & gas industry, utility sector, mining operations, construction industry, or law enforcement. This is not a comprehensive list by any means as each organization has different needs to be considered, but represents the basic requirements for any Needs Assessment.
I am lucky enough to live in Silicon Valley and attend meet-ups hosted by industry-leading companies and true innovators in this space. They all have a specific reason for being along which their product was designed, tested, and marketed. Yet, without fail, during the Q&A portion, a fellow attendee will ask how they can apply the highlighted company’s solution for their need. This last week, the question came from someone wanting to use drones for an audio/visual display, using swarm technology, similarly to the recently released Intel display (Video provided below). It makes sense – this person has a specific need, but they don’t understand how drones can help them solve their problem or even the hurdles that would be MOST difficult to overcome. They need help Identifying their unique mission focused problems, finding assets that will solve those problems, and to understand the process for integrating the solutions in a hazard rich environment. The technology is cool, but the public is still unclear how having a drone brings value to their company.
What many organizations don’t understand is that drones are not solutions in and of themselves. Drones, UAVs, UAS, RPA, or whatever you’d like to call them, provide a platform for sensors that must be understood to exist within a system. That system has many inputs that all come together to effect their goals in different ways – Positive, Neutral, or Negative. The drone must, ultimately,be able to help their operation and only by fully understanding all of those inputs can a good decision about the acquisition and operation of drones take place. Without a proper understanding of the entirety of the system, without completing a true Needs Assessment and Analysis, a company acquiring a drone will likely find it burdensome, of little use, and without true value added. This is the root of the the nascent industries scariest problem: The market doesn’t yet understand how drones provide a meaningful value-add or ROI beyond very niche’ use cases, and until it does, mistakes will be made, problems arise, and institutional resources squandered from failed use or inadequate use.