• Drones: A Business Revolution in the Air

    17 July 2018

    Since the launch of the first DJI Phantom in 2013, drones have opened up a whole new perspective on how we see the world.

    Drones are certainly fun, and have created a slew of recreational pastimes. But drones have also opened up a host of new commercial opportunities, giving enterprises the ability to collect data and enhance business processes in ways that were never possible before.

    Growth in drone sales has been nothing short of spectacular. Almost 3 million drones were shipped worldwide in 2017, a 39 percent increase on 2016, with an estimated value of well over US$6 billion. By 2020, the value of global drone shipments is expected to surpass US$11.5 billion, and easily exceed 7 million shipments.

    Consumer growth has actually shown signs of flattening of late, but the pace of innovation and technological advance is continuing unabated, with the focus now moving to the commercial and industrial sector.

    Much of the technological innovation that has made consumer drones so successful – GPS navigation, image stabilisation, object avoidance, auto-return – is now spilling over into more specialised industrial drone systems. Businesses are turning to drones and unmanned aerial system (UAS) technology as a way to improve production workflows, drive efficiencies, and not insignificantly, enhance safety.

    But why are drones proving so useful? To answer that question, we need to look at what drones are good at right now, in the current business context.

    Media focus often seems to be on the more sexy applications, like package delivery and aerial taxis. Amazon, DHL and UPS are all experimenting with drones for package delivery. However unresolved questions remain around how such deliveries would scale in reality, and whether they’d actually save costs in the long run.

    Drones as aerial taxis is another area that seemingly has potential. Chinese startup Ehang recently flew its first prototype electric drone taxi in Guangzhou, and Uber is committed to investing in an long term electric-powered vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) taxi service.

    In both these cases, the drone technology would have to be not just safe, but also fully autonomous and automatic. What’s missing though is a robust and proven air traffic control system able to safely manage all these devices – not to mention a slew of unresolved regulatory issues.

    Right now, given current technologies and what is on the immediate horizon, we see drones as an effective and viable aerial platform for a sensor. A sensor is of course a way of collecting data, so in short, drones are most useful as an aerial data collection tool: a device able to gather information in ways that are more time-saving, more cost-efficient and effective, or simply new because such data collection wasn’t previously possible.

    The most obvious type of sensor is of course some kind of camera: whether that be a high definition video or stills camera, or something more specialised, like an infrared or thermal camera. In fact, almost any kind of sensor can be fitted to a drone. Drones have been used to detect leaks of gas and vapour, monitor radiation levels in nuclear facilities, even detect the corona discharge around high voltage electrical installations.

    Given that data collection is key, one of the sectors most benefitting from the use of drones at the moment is construction and engineering. Drones have a role to play right across the construction process: from initial evaluation and modelling of a site, through design iteration, surveying, on-site monitoring and project management, to final delivery – including of course, sales and marketing.

    Drones are already being used extensively for general site monitoring. Grabbing a quick photo and video overview of a site from the air, gives engineers, project managers and stakeholders an immediate and detailed picture of what’s going on.

    Getting more sophisticated, drones enable forms of over-the-site photogrammetry that were previously impractical or impossible before. GPS-enabled drones can now follow precise flight patterns, capture consistent geotagged photo-sets, and process that data into orthomosaic maps and 3D models with unprecedented levels of detail and precision.

    Screenshot of an orthomosaic map and 3D model generated by Dronesurvey Asia for a major construction project on the South side of Hong Kong Island

    Precision can be enhanced up to survey-grade level with the application of Ground Control Point data (GCP) into the production processes, resulting in maps and models with XYZ precision in the 30-50mm range. GCPs can be time-consuming to set in themselves, but with the latest RTK- or PPK-equipped drones, the number of GCPs required can be reduced to a minimum, further saving time and cost.

    Once a map or model is deemed accurate enough, Digital Surface Models (DSMs) can be generated from the same data set, allowing for quick and precise area and volume measurements of material or excavations on site.

    Beyond the construction cycle, in the area of structural inspection, drones have an increasing role to play in the upkeep and maintenance of buildings, plant, and critical infrastructure. One day, we may see drones actually carrying out repairs at height, but right now, drones are already being used for up-close and detailed inspection in locations where access is difficult or often dangerous.

    The author operating a drone for inspection inside a major tunnel project in the North East New Territories

    Remote aerial inspections started in the oil and gas industry, where drones are now firmly established for inspecting of both offshore and onshore facilities.

    This is now spilling over into all a range of inspection applications, including road and rail infrastructure (bridges, highways, tunnels, flyovers), shipping and ports, power generation infrastructure and networks, and indeed any type of tall building.

    The facades and cladding of any tall building are subject to ageing, adverse weather, general wear and tear, and many other factors. Singapore for instance has recently mandated greater frequency of facade inspections for many of its taller, older buildings, after a spate of falling debris incidents. Drones are actively being encouraged for their efficiency in conducting the kind of detailed, up-close inspection that will be required.

    Dronesurvey Asia is the official reseller and support partner for the Flyability Elios in Hong Kong and Macau, a unique drone designed for up-close inspections inside hard-to-reach and hazardous internal environments.

    There is even a drone designed for up-close inspection for hard-to-reach indoor spaces and locations. The flyability Elios is a collision-tolerant drone with its own spherical cage, allowing it to fly inside difficult internal spaces, such as plant rooms, turbines, boilers, heat exchangers, storage tanks, ship cargo or ballast tanks, as well as water and drainage infrastructure.

    Drones are here to stay, and will be an increasing presence in the skies around us in the coming years. The technological capabilities of drones are expanding and evolving at a rapid pace, and trying to figure out how drones can play an effective role in your organisation – both now and over the long term – can be a daunting exercise. 

    At Dronesurvey Asia, we work with companies to figure out the most appropriate drone applications and strategies for their business. We scour the world, evaluating the latest drone technologies from all corners – not just the drones themselves, but also support technologies like specialised payloads, and data processing technologies. We strongly believe that drones are only as effective as the data they produce, and being able to use and disseminate that data effectively in the business context is critical.

    We provide strategic advice on implementing drone tech into your workflows, as well as more immediate outsourced services for precision mapping, 3D modelling, structural inspection and security monitoring.

    Drones have a clear role to play in the Hong Kong context, not just in the jobs they can perform in the skies around us, but also in terms of the technological opportunities available to those with the vision to develop new applications and new services to meet the business needs of today – and tomorrow.

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