The Evolution of Drones as Enterprise Solutions

Any nascent technology must go through a number of phases before being widely accepted as an effective solution. In the case of drones, we’ve seen this play out very openly with rapid progress and excitable media coverage shifting the public’s view of them from a niche hobbyist pastime to a viable commercial tool.

Heliguy Insider is taking a look back at the evolution of drones from their earliest days as small RC units to today’s advanced models used for industrial inspection using the ‘Gartner Hype Cycle’ as a model.

Gartner’s Hype Cycle (in their own words) provides a visual representation of the maturity and adoption of technologies and applications, and how they are potentially relevant to solving real business problems and exploiting new opportunities.

There are five stages to this theory:

  • Innovation Trigger: A technology breakthrough gets things started. Early proof-of-concept stories and media interest trigger significant publicity. Often no usable products exist and commercial viability is unproven.
  • Peak of Inflated Expectations: Early publicity produces a number of success stories — often accompanied by scores of failures. Some companies take action; many do not.
  • Trough of Disillusionment: Interest wanes as experiments and implementations fail to deliver. Producers of the technology shake out or fail. Investments continue only if the surviving providers improve their products to the satisfaction of early adopters.
  • Slope of Enlightenment: More instances of how the technology can benefit the enterprise start to crystallise and become more widely understood. Second- and third-generation products appear from technology providers. More enterprises fund pilots; conservative companies remain cautious.
  • Plateau of Productivity: Mainstream adoption starts to take off. Criteria for assessing provider viability are more clearly defined. The technology’s broad market applicability and relevance are clearly paying off.

Now you’re familiar with the concept let’s run through each stage of the cycle and discover which point drones have reached as of mid-2017.


Innovation Trigger – The Birth of Modern Drones

A few years ago, if you were looking to remotely pilot an aircraft you would be looking at RC helicopters. This all changed when companies such as DJI (previously a developer of flight controllers) began to look at the potential of camera-mounted ‘quadcopters’ which rose to prominence in the form of their Phantom series.

The DJI Phantom 2 Vision+ – an early DJI model that inspired many knock-offs and preceded the hugely popular Phantom 3 & 4 series.

Although drones mainly started out as a consumer-facing product, the potential commercial applications were evident from the get-go. Initial drone shots (while by no means as impressive as those possible today) captured peoples’ imagination and the potential of aerial photography without the need for costly manned aircraft (i.e. helicopters) appealed to professional filmmakers.

Initial media coverage was dismissive, still viewing this new generation of unmanned aircraft as more of a fad than a game-changing technological advance. This would soon change as better quality models were released and more commercial applications for drones were dreamed up.


Peak of Inflated Expectations – Partnerships, Investment & Progress

While the mainstream opinion of drones sat somewhere near indifference, investors began to circle drone companies with hopes of getting involved in the next big thing. This led to team-ups such as the ill-fated GoPro-DJI partnership as well as a great deal of money being pumped into companies such as Parrot and 3DR.

This interest and funding allowed rapid progress from the frontrunners, especially DJI whose now famously speedy product turnaround acting as a catalyst for companies to create quality drones of various sizes, power and functionality (quadcopters, hexacopters & even octocopters) with many beginning to aspire towards entering the commercial market.

DJI’s original prosumer drone the Inspire 1 is still popular with numerous industries including emergency services and structural inspections.

There were also companies who took advantage of this time to launch crowdfunded campaigns with lofty promises that they would never have been able to meet. It’s worth mentioning that this has happened again recently with the spectacular failure of the Lily drone. Hopefully, due to the wide coverage of this case, people will learn to be shrewder when supporting suspect projects.

It’s easy to see how people would be drawn in though as this ‘Peak of Inflated Expectations’ was driven to fever pitch by tech journalists fawning over drone technology and making outlandish predictions about the sky being full of UAVs within the next couple of years. The hype machine was well and truly in motion.

While the majority of coverage in this period was fed by rumour and exaggeration it did have the positive effect of leading to more and more industries (Agriculture, Emergency Services, Building Inspection) beginning to show an interest in the cost saving and safety benefits of unmanned aircraft.


Trough of Disillusionment – Near Misses, Layoffs & Lack of Knowledge

Then, inevitably, we reached the ‘Trough of Disillusionment’ With the growing popularity of drones came the inevitable negative press. Near misses with commercial aircraft and inexperienced users made headlines as drones began to be viewed with more scrutiny.

There were also stories about drones being used to smuggle contraband into prisons which did little to salvage their image. Heliguy helped the police solve one of the first cases of its kind in the UK which you can read more about HERE.

Although it was a rocky few months for drones from a PR perspective, this did provide an opportunity for the UK’s CAA and other global aviation authorities to raise awareness of the existing regulations.

Karma1

The GoPro Karma had a widely publicised battery issue which caused models to fall out of the sky. This wasn’t ideal for the manufacturer and raised doubts about the safety of drones.

The problems didn’t stop with irresponsible consumers, operators began to start offering commercial drone services without much of an idea of full workflows meaning subpar results. Just having the kit doesn’t make people an expert.

Then there was the behind-the-scenes struggle of the manufacturers themselves. A massively competitive market took its toll on a few of the initial success stories such as 3DR, Parrot & Yuneec who have suffered heavy layoffs and GoPro whose first attempt at a quadcopter (the Karma) had to be taken off the market due to critical mid-air failures.

While it sounds like a lot of doom and gloom, there was plenty of progress being made by big hitters such as DJI and Freefly Systems who were confident in their ability to crack the commercial market. Thanks in part to their tenacity, this lull didn’t last long and soon things began to look up for drones as a viable technology for business.


Slope of Enlightenment – New Industries, Smart Solutions & Rapid Uptake

To ensure success for their bold move into the enterprise ecosystem, the big players in the drone market (those who hadn’t been forced to shut up shop) began focussing on making their products increasingly durable, feature rich and above all else, useful to a range of industries. It’s becoming increasingly clear that the future of drones lies in the commercial marketplace and with take-up from huge companies such as Intel (Falcon 8), Amazon (drone delivery) and Google (extensive research) displaying the level of untapped potential – it’s little wonder that market leaders like DJI are trying to gain a foothold in this lucrative sector.

Other companies have sprung up to fill the demand for processing drone data with software such as Pix4D & DroneDeploy offering mapping and 3D modelling services, FLIR & Micro-Epsilon offering both hardware and analysis solutions to name but a couple of examples.

DJI’s partnership with FLIR resulted in the Zenmuse XT – a thermal imaging solution aimed at industrial inspection and emergency service usage.

With easy access to these additional services and more comprehensively mapped out workflows, drone imagery is transitioning from just being nice to look at to business critical.

A quick online search for ‘enterprise drones‘ shows how the scale of the industry has grown exponentially over the past couple of years with everyone from estate agents and wedding photographers to offshore companies and construction firms jostling to gain an edge through drone services. Due to an increased awareness of the required permissions, you’re far less likely to encounter a ‘cowboy’ operator.

A DJI Inspire 1 being used on-site for surveying, benefitting the team through a rapid project turnaround and increased safety.

Speaking from experience, Heliguy trains large groups every month to gain their PfCO as well as fielding calls from representatives of vastly differing industries who want to learn all that they can about products and services to provide exemplary drone services to their clients.

This interest is being backed up by professional-grade gear ranging from larger aircraft like DJI’s Matrice 600 hexacopter and Freefly’s ALTA series to more diminutive but manoeuvrable models such as the Inspire 2 and the Phantom 4 Pro. We’ve dealt with customers using all of these models for commercial work range from wind turbine inspections to search and rescue, getting an insider look as the concept of enterprise drones moved from pipe dream to everyday occurrence.


Plateau of Productivity – The Future of Enterprise Drones

With the successful marriage of drones and data software coupled with a growing pool of well-informed drone professionals, the use of unmanned aircraft for business purposes is beginning to enter the final stage of Gartner’s Hype Cycle.

The DJI Matrice 200 series is the most recent example of DJI’s pivot towards enterprise solutions.

Over the next year or so there will be more developments and increasingly innovative use cases (i.e. drone delivery & medical aid provision) but, more importantly, there will be a greater deal of respect for drones as a legitimate solution for enterprise.


Learn More

Heliguy has been involved in the drone industry since the days of RC helicopters as a retailer, trainer, repair centre and thought leader.

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Full post available at – https://www.heliguy.com/blog/2017/05/22/the-evolution-of-drones-as-enterprise-solutions/