Reflections on 5 years in the Commercial Drone Industry: Challenges & Opportunities (Post 1 of 6)
As I prepare to begin a new phase of my career working in technology innovation for power, water, and transportation infrastructure engineering, I have been in a reflective mood. I spent roughly the last 5 years at Measure UAS, most recently as the VP of Product Strategy, helping the company grow from just the spark of an idea to one of the largest drone services companies in the United States. From 3 people in a WeWork office the size of my kitchen to over 90 employees (and then back down to 50), from a single flight operation over Governors Island to over 46,000 operations globally, Measure grew immensely during my time there while facing quite a few challenges and setbacks along the way. Suffice it to say, I drew many lessons from the experience and observing the actions of Measure’s peers.
Looking back on my time at Measure now from my new home in Denver, Colorado, I wanted to share some of these lessons. In this multi-part blog series I will summarize my thoughts on the unique challenges and opportunities that the commercial drone industry presented since 2015.
The series will revolve around four key challenge/opportunity levers unique to the deployment of drone technology. I believe the responses of commercial drone solutions companies to these levers largely dictated success or failure in what was and remains a complex, dynamic, and highly competitive market:
1. Regulatory compliance
2. Maturity of key technologies
3. Product-market fit
4. Operational efficiency
In successive posts I will unpack my thoughts on these four drivers, offering some explanatory background on each, the unique challenge(s) it presented, as well as the opportunities afforded to those companies savvy enough to take advantage. The series will conclude looking towards the future of commercial drone services with a nod to the past.
In this first post, however, we will look at all four factors within the context of what has been a disappointment within the drone industry:
It’s been a wild ride, and while I am sad to leave behind all the great people that I’ve worked with over the last 5 years, I am excited to be starting a new position that will provide me with an ongoing connection to the unmanned systems industry.
Factors Affecting Growth in the Commercial Drone Market Since 2015
The commercial drone services industry has expanded rapidly over the 5+ years since I joined Measure in January 2015, eclipsing predictions that the FAA made back in 2015. Interestingly, much of this growth has come from unexpected places, with the drone deliveries that Jeff Bezos promised would be occurring by 2018 still relegated to a handful of pilot projects. Much of the growth has instead come from workers across a range of industries (some of which are not the flashiest) recognizing the power of drones to alleviate aspects of their job that are dull, dirty, and dangerous.
A multitude of industries recognized that data collected by drones can be more useful than that collected by traditional means on the ground or with manned aircraft or satellites, and, further, that drones provide cost reduction and safety enhancements benefits.
It’s easy to see why this industry has experienced rapid growth. The use cases are expansive: inspecting high-voltage transmission towers, analyzing the health of soybean fields, providing roof damage assessments for insurance adjusters, monitoring construction site activity, the list goes on. However, while there are many use cases where deploying a drone quickly results in spectacular returns, there are just as many for which growth has not occurred in the way industry pundits expected.
Many of the early projections (circa 2015 or so) of market growth seized on the “obvious” use cases for drones such as package delivery and agricultural mapping. With the power of extrapolation across the US economy, many forecasts calculated some eye-wateringly high figures for the value of the commercial drone industry in these sectors.
Perhaps the most infamous example of inflated commercial drone expectations is the 2013 market forecast commissioned by AUVSI. In this report, agriculture was deemed to be the industry that will be the principal driver of drone adoption over the subsequent years, with sales of UAS for agricultural purposes expected to be more than 10 times that of the next largest sector, public safety, by 2020!
On paper, it made sense. The diagnostic power of high-resolution normalized differential vegetation index (NDVI) maps provided by 5-band multispectral sensors on drones was impressive. The “hidden” stress signals of plants that this detected could provide better awareness in the field of where problems lurked. This would allow farmers to nip those in the bud with the right prescriptive treatment, whether additional fertilizer, pesticides, or water inputs, leading to boosts in yield and more cash in the farmer’s pocket.
In reality, however the energy sector has been the quickest adopter of drone technology in the intervening years, with agriculture lagging behind.
So why didn’t the market live up to expectations for certain use cases while others flourished? And could underperforming sectors catch up in the future? We can use the framework of the 4 key factors outlined in the introduction (regulatory compliance, maturity of key technologies, product-market fit, and operational efficiency) as a helpful tool for analyzing the surprisingly different outcomes for various use cases in the commercial drone market since 2015.
Let’s take a moment to examine how these four factors held back agricultural mapping:
- Regulatory compliance: FAA regulation, which remain in place today, limiting beyond visual line of sight flight (as well as, to a lesser degree, flights over people and moving vehicles) significantly curtail the ability of farmers to collect aerial data over the entirety of their land in a small number of flights. To cover the massive commodity crop fields in the American Corn Belt requires many individual drone flights within visual line of sight, taking significant time in the field and associated opportunity costs.
- Maturity of key technologies: The NDVI index, while capable of indicating the possible presence of an issue in the field, is not a diagnostic tool. Therefore, to determine the nature of a problem still requires the assignment of a crop scout to assess the nature of the problem and devise a prescriptive remedy. While hyperspectral imagery holds some promise in this regard, it will likely require years of additional research to determine the spectral signatures of various ailments by crop.
- Product-market fit: Ultimately, while modern farms are powered by impressive technology such as self-driving combines and automated irrigation systems, they are not set up to universally incorporate any new tool. The value proposition of drone mapping in ag is muddied by questions surrounding the usefulness of the data product and the challenges associated with deployment. For example, NDVI maps showing the areas of a field in need of additional nitrogen inputs in high detail, once validated by a crop scout, could be used to direct variable rate applicators of the input. Yet, many farmers do not have the hardware to perform that precise level of application.
- Operational effectiveness: Drones, as comparatively easy as they may be to fly to traditional R/C aircraft, can still be intimidating for the uninitiated. This is especially true for fixed-wing drones, the aircraft body type of choice for wide-area flying. Furthermore, just being able to fly the drone without crashing it is not enough. To properly collect good data for a usable NDVI index, numerous variables need to be accounted for, including the flight path of the drone, ambient wind and weather conditions, data storage formatting, radiofrequency interference, etc. In the messy environment of the real world, collecting usable data is a demanding task.
While the agricultural use cases for drones are particularly complex, adoption of the technology across industries as varied as energy, transportation, telecommunications, and insurance face many of the same challenges.
The next post in this series will take an in-depth look at how regulatory compliance issues in particular have affected the types of commercial drone use cases over the last 5 years.