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The professional drone services market has yet to truly take off, but early practitioners are encouraging channel firms to develop a play.
At CompTIA's ChannelCon 2019 conference, held on Aug. 5 to 7 in Las Vegas, drones popped up in the many discussions about future technologies. Some channel companies revealed they have begun mulling a launch in the drone world, while others were still trying to wrap their heads around the potential use cases. In a session dedicated to commercial drone deployments, John Vernon, CTO of DroneUp, an aerial data collection provider based in Virginia Beach, Va., and Adam Gittins, general manager of HTS Ag, an agriculture technology provider based in Harlan, Iowa, aimed to educate attendees about where the market stands today.
Here are seven takeaways from that session.
Professional drone services providers run the gamut
The drone services market is still in in infancy, but that hasn't stopped a slew of companies, both large and small, from entering the field as providers, Vernon said. The market also features a number of individual pilots who offer services on a freelance basis.
"There is this big chasm of everything from, 'I got paid $60 to go shoot real estate' … to $100,000 jobs where you are going out and performing real inspections," he said.
He added that drone service providers currently struggle to scale to market demands. Even larger organizations with 1,500 drone pilots on staff need help filling gaps in their coverage. These organizations often tap DroneUp for support, Vernon noted.
Top verticals: Construction, agriculture, energy and transportation
Drone support and services have seen the greatest uptake in construction and agriculture, with energy and transportation trailing not far behind, Vernon said.
In the energy vertical market, DroneUp has found business in short-haul pipeline inspections. In this case, he said, drones can be deployed to photograph areas of pipeline either inaccessible or unsafe for human inspectors. In one job, DroneUp used a drone to quickly capture high-resolution video of a pipeline in an elevated and constricted space that would have otherwise taken many hours to do by a person.
Drone services will likely evolve around long-haul pipeline inspections, he said. Today regulatory issues involving visual line of sight in addition to high costs make long-haul pipeline inspections impractical.
Public safety is another area seeing increasing customer demand for drone services, he added.
Package delivery services aren't an imminent reality
The hype around the drone industry can often revolve around uses cases such as package delivery and services requiring long-distance travel. Many of these types of services are a ways off, Vernon said.
"Those are things that eventually, absolutely, will happen, but they are not very relevant today [as] use cases. And one could argue that over the next four or five years, they are still relatively far out," he said.
Customers need to understand the benefits of drones
In Vernon's opinion, the professional drone services market could see a boost if customers received more education and consulting. "There are not enough people that are able to provide expertise and … use cases," he said.
John VernonCTO, DroneUp
DroneUp takes a consultative approach with customers, devising creative solutions for their business problems. That could mean showing a potential client how drones could help reduce costs on certain processes or even improve employee safety.
For example, DroneUp has uncovered a niche in parking lot inspection. Conventionally, customers deploy people to survey and gather information on parking lot conditions, whether that be usage of parking spaces or damage such as cracks and potholes. The process can be expensive, Vernon said. DroneUp created a drone photography solution for a customer that reduced parking inspection costs by about 60%.
"When customers come to you with a problem, they often are not … saying, 'Hey, I want a drone solution.' They are more likely to … say, 'I have this problem. We need to save money. How do we make it happen?'
Resellers can play a role in the drones market
Gittins of HTS Ag has found a niche in reselling drones to farmers, who use them to photograph and analyze crop fields. In addition to reselling, HTS Ag provides farmers with training and offers drone-related software such as DroneDeploy, a platform that processes drone data and creates drone maps and 3D models.
"We sell the drone, the software, and train the customer on how to use it, because they can go fly on their timeline [and] get the imagery captured for significantly lower cost" than purchasing drone services, Gittins said.
Standards and best practices have taken shape
Vernon and Gittins, both members of CompTIA's Drone Council, contributed to a set of drone standards that promote safety, regulatory requirements and professionalism. They said channel firms interested in entering the drone market should review these standards carefully, especially those related to risk mitigation and safety.
"Risk mitigation and safety is probably the No. 1 most important thing that you have to be addressing," Vernon said.
He added that the laws, regulations and rules for commercial drone services are still evolving, so providers must keep up with the changes and assess how they apply to their individual drone practices.
Make drone data security a priority
Some of the information gathered by drones can be highly sensitive. Vernon said some industries using drone services represent critical infrastructure. Other drone deployments can collect data that could attract corporate espionage threats.
"The reality is that that data can be super sensitive, so we do need to be thinking more proactively in the industry to better safeguard and manage it," he said.
He added that drone service providers should address privacy issues upfront in their customer contracts.