About drone-in-a-box and other commercial drone applications

Two hundred and thirty-seven.

That is the number of applications drone technology can do for humans now, as found out by research company Drone Industry Insights recently.

“Remember when the iPhone and its app store opened a world of possibilities but not everyone saw their potential until the right applications came along,” asked the company in its May report about drone applications. “A drone today is a bit like what a smartphone was just over a decade ago: a well-known device but widely underestimated in terms of innovation and business potential.

“In the same way that a smartphone combined a small portable telephone with a larger computer, to most people outside of the industry a drone seems like a mere combination of a camera with a small airplane or helicopter. But drones do a whole lot more than that. Both the hardware and the software that are used to build drones have reached very advanced levels, so the key question now lies in drone applications. Drones already play a key role in all industry verticals, and they might be indirectly helping citizens with everyday services.”

Which is all well and good, but according to Sebastian Babiarz, vice president of Business Development at Drone Hub, the world has not event scratched the surface of all the good things drone technology can do for people yet. Part of it can be due to restrictive legislation, and part of it can be because the world got turned upside down by a pandemic last year, when it least suspected.

Around 2015 when unmanned aerial systems were coming into their own as an industrial implement of note, ambitious projections were made, which estimated that by the year 2020, the drone industry would be a billion-dollar market as Unmanned Traffic Management (UTM) would allow for automation and drone operations at scale.

“Unfortunately, we are not yet to those 2016 projections,” Babiarz told Commercial UAV News recently. “There are many reasons for that, but the main is that drones, despite their innovative nature and enormous potential to provide new kinds of services, are still in the development phase. The technology still needs to mature and to become trusted by society at large.

“We should also say that business models around drone services are still evolving. Thankfully, it seems that we’re coming closer to a sustainable formula. I think that the market visionaries from 2016 underestimated the regulatory process and social acceptance of what was then a very new and unknown technology.

“All of that is partially why I’m confident that the next five years will bring acceleration in technology as well as in social acceptance. Both of those developments will provide us with multiple business cases that define the true value of drones to line up closer with those billion-dollar projections.”

Babiarz is with Drone Hub, where they build an ecosystem of autonomous drones, ground infrastructure, and AI-powered software to transform visual data into actionable business insights.

And one of the solutions they offer is the drone-in-a-box solution for security companies; just one of the latest applications for drones that is fast taking root in the security industry. You could add it as the 238th application on Drone Industry Insights’ list.

Automated drone in a box. It is a solution for the security industry that has sparked a real arms race in Europe.

It is exactly what international drone-as-a-service company Delta Drone offers through ISS Spotter and it is what made them proud to announce that they finally got an operating licence for this type of security drone system.

“Under the new European regulations, which came into force on the first of January 2021, Delta Drone received its first operating licence from the DSAC (Civil Aviation Safety Directorate) on May 21st for its automatic ISS Spotter drone system,” the company announced in a statement yesterday. “After a long risk analysis process for specific operations, in relation to the DGAC (French Aeronautic Authority) services, this authorisation marks a turning point in the use of drone solutions dedicated to security and surveillance.

“This operating license thus allows the commissioning of the ISS Spotter system and the operational flight of the associated automatic drone on all sites, throughout the European Union. Several scenarios are available to the user, including the scheduled intervention patrol, the initiative patrol (the “click and go” function, which is an exclusivity Delta Drone) or the flight triggered by the alarm.

“The ISS Spotter solution is the result of the combined expertise of Delta Drone and several of its subsidiaries, including Pixiel and DPS, two entities dedicated to the design and development of security drone solutions, respectively through their Neosafe and 3S projects.”

The things drones do for us…

And we know how much companies value this new automated drone-based solution for security companies, which Drone Hub refers to as a drone-in-a-box; which Delta Drone calls the ISS Spotter; and which another French security company, Azur Drones, calls Skeyetech. We know because a patent case was recently opened over who owns the rights to this cool new application for drone technology that is promising to change security as we know it.

But it is all basically the same thing: A surveillance drone stands by while in a box-like docking station, which also serves a charging port. If other security systems (like CCTV cameras) detect a security breach on the premises, the drone is triggered to fly out and investigate, and to also assess danger before physical manpower can be deployed.

Once the mission is complete, the drone will fly itself back to its base station, where it will safely land before the landing pad slides back into the box to charge the drone as it waits for the next assignment.

A good number of companies have set up their own similar operations too, without the fuss like the one pitting Delta drone and Azur Drones somewhere in a French court right now. Drone Hub did it quietly, for one.

The differences might then lie in the software side of things, with Babiarz claiming that his company’s partnership with software conglomerate IBM gives them an edge because it allows them to implement new concepts and algorithms that will be used for the further development of the company’s drone systems.

A drone fundi in his own right, Babiarz also figures that it only a matter of time before the automated surveillance drone service is also applied to other different industrial purposes, given how drone applications are always interlinking.

“Commercial drones are designed to support industries in a way that is fit for purpose. However, many of the tasks they perform are applicable to various industries. The correlation between them is inevitable.”

Indeed a number of drone services companies have already tried the drone-in-a-box solution to sea port terminals, agriculture and utilities infrastructure inspection.

“Activities such as monitoring, measurement, or inspection are the same for many sectors. Drones can perform equal tasks in various industries, but the real game-changer is the data analysis tailored to a particular client environment. This part of the drone services will be customised and will bring different advantages depending on the type of industry.”

And won’t it come at too high a cost for the end user?

“Industrial drones are going to be complex, which makes them expensive, so return on investment will be a very important factor when companies purchase solutions like the Dronehub system. However, that complexity will also facilitate further business opportunities. The Dronehub system is highly automated, which makes it an ideal tool to automatically replace a complicated sensor payload, on demand.” 

He could be onto something, especially when security is concerned.

But Callum Holland does not think so. For Mr Holland, the Flight Operations Manager at Thales UK, and a former owner of a drone business himself, most often the value of drone technology lies not in how much the technology itself cost, but in what it can do for people and industries.

“Drones are not the most important part of your business,” Holland contends. “Customers are not paying for you to come and fly a particular drone; they are paying for data. You are led to believe your business value is somehow connected to the cost of the drones you fly. In reality, most clients would be unable to differentiate the data acquired by a £1,000 drone against that gathered by a £30,000 drone.

“When I started my old company, I spent around £15,000 in savings on a drone I flew only once. I purchased it because I wanted to look the part when turning up to the job. In reality, I spent the next two years flying the £500 DJI Phantom for the majority of my flights, while the expensive drone sat in a Peli Case.”

Bottom line?

“If you like having a shiny new piece of kit every two years and have money to spare, go for it. But if you are struggling to create a profitable business, you can get really far on a £2,000 budget. You should only consider upgrading as you begin to scale and build a customer base with evolving requirements.”

Besides, the question has to be asked on what the industry intends to do with all the pilots undergoing training now, if it is already investing in automated services so early into its industrial life.

Babiarz reckons the law will take care of this in the long run, as drone operators are always required to be in charge when drones are on duty.

“However, they don’t have to really fly a drone but are instead monitoring and supervising. We know that this fact will not change for a long time, as regulations and social perception require that involvement. Nonetheless, we must be aware that in the future drones will move towards autonomy to enable the full value of this technology.

“The adoption of automated drones is happening slowly but it’s worth waiting for. Automation is truly the tipping point, and developing it into drone technology is the next level of digital transformation. We could compare drone automation with self-driving cars that have already been tested. The same is happening now in the drone industry.”

And it is a thrilling journey to be part of, because of the added excitement and wonder of what drones can do next. Yesterday, they were being flown to the skies to electrically zap clouds and induce them into rain. Today, it is the automated drone-in-a-box; sorry, the ISS Spotter. Or rather the Skeyetech. Or whatever it is called by the varied companies that use it.

What about tomorrow?

“Whether it’s Germany, Sweden, Brazil or Malaysia, drones are innovating business development in a similar way to what smartphones started to do in the early 2000s, and the key is neither the hardware alone nor the software alone, but a combination of these into a valuable application,” concludes Drone Industry Insights.

“Twenty years ago, many people thought there was no need for a minicomputer in their pockets, and now most people own a smartphone because its applications revolutionised communication, entertainment, and banking (among other things).

“Today, hundreds of companies are finding that a good drone operator with the right drone can do things faster, at a lower cost, and with greater safety for everyone involved. Good hardware and software are still very important, but integrating these into a drone application focusing on a specific mission is key to be successful and scale drone operation.”

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