Michael Oliver / September 30, 2020

Innovation in the Drone Industry: What’s next?

Michael Oliver By Michael Oliver

Head of Soarizon by Thales, Mike Oliver, considers what’s in store for the future of the drone sector.

Much of my career has been spent running innovation teams and projects. It’s a subject about which I’m extremely passionate, and I spend a lot of time thinking about what the next leaps will be.

Having spent the last three years within the Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) or Drone industry, a highly innovative and fast-moving sector in itself, I now find that a large part of my role is to interpret market trends and technological advancements, shaping new offers and new routes to market to service the ever-growing needs of the industry.

Who is actually using drones?

The use cases for drones and their transformative potential on society are endless. In addition to having been adopted in everyday life for wedding photography, routine home inspections and aerial photography, they are also well-utilised across various industry sectors. Whether it’s surveying national infrastructure such as rail networks or electricity pylons for damage, the emergency services in a search and rescue operation or farmers surveying hundreds of acres of crop for blight or damage, drones can make work easier, safer and more cost-effective.

At SOARIZON, we are continuously working with organisations to establish new and innovative use cases for drones in these sectors.

 For example, our Open Innovation team recently took part in such a land ownership project alongside IMGeospatial. We flew drones over the region of Shesh in Albania, using intelligent software to automatically define land boundaries.

This project proved the use of drones in cadastral surveying, showing how they can be used to identify property assets and boundaries, helping to establish land ownership with a high level of accuracy. 

With so many different use-cases, why aren’t more people using drones?

This is the question that keeps me motivated to continue innovating, building, and shaping solutions for the future of unmanned flight.

The answer, I think, is that it’s simply not easy enough yet. Running a drone program within an organisation needs commitment, leadership, and a huge amount of logistical organisation. From personnel management to outsourcing and subcontracting, legal details maintaining airworthiness and currency of pilots and ensuring that every flight is fully compliant, every single time. (If this sounds familiar to you, get in touch – we can definitely help!)

The businesses investing in drone technology all have one key thing in common: they want a piece of the potential. The scalable autonomy . Post COVID, this feels all the more relevant, with a need to understand and create operational efficiencies, improve how people operate globally with restricted travel, and the ability to maintain services and capability on a bigger, more automated scale.

One of the things I love most about drone innovation is its constantly evolving landscape. Each day has the potential to be so drastically different from the previous; like everyone else in this sector, I am learning new things every day.

With that said, my key takeaways from the last three years and predictions for the future of drones are:

1. The drone industry is continuously emerging

Having studied new emergent sectors that have come to prominence over the last 40 years, such as the PC Market, mobile phones, gaming & on-demand television, I have found that much money is invested in developing technology and visionary creations.

My view is that nothing much will change in the next two years within the drone sector, but before ten years’ time we will see a step-change in the amount of autonomous and unmanned systems in use across our society; keeping cities safe, transporting goods and even people.

2. There will be a shift from Start-up, to Growth

Based on theories of market life cycle, the drone industry is about to hit a phase of “shake-up”.

Some business models will fail or become unsustainable, giving way to those in the right position who will consolidate and move on to the Growth phase.

We've seen increased levels of partnership and collaboration between complementary drone services providers, but as the market matures I would expect to see more consolidation of key players through acquisitions, accelerating the pace of change.
 

Understanding the emerging market and positioning correctly will be central to this challenge, as well as the right levels of funding and investment.

3. The business cases are very compelling

In all the cases in which I have been involved, scalable drone autonomy can truly save money for government bodies and large industry, whilst enhancing capabilities in areas such as search & rescue, police, and fire services.

There's no doublt in my mind that drones have extraordinary potential to transform the way we do business and live our lives. They can make a huge impact on environmental and humanitarian goals. Our challenge as an industry is to enable this transformation in the simplest, safest and most scalable way. 

4. Technology is not the trigger, nor legislation

The real catalyst for change will be necessity, and the right business case.

It's well-known that there are still some pretty big hurdles to overcome before we can truly take advantage of all the possibilities opened up by drones and autonomous systems.

Innovation by industry is faster-moving than the regulation which governs it, and with good reason. We don't yet have anything that brings us close to an overall view of unmanned traffic in the air, in the same way we do for air traffic control which celebrated it's 100th anniversary this year. This has resulted in promising trials and isolated pockets of activity, but nothing sustainable and scalable as yet.

Necessity is, of course, the mother of invention; and this may be where the big change in the industry comes from. With the current COVID-19 crisis there have been many different use-cases for unmanned technology come to light. An extended period of lockdown may even prove to be the catalyst for normalising such services as medical drone delivery.

Earlier this year, we worked with drone deliveries provider Skyports, on a first of a kind medical drone delivery trial. Taking place in the Isle of Mull, this trial proved that the transportation of critical medical cargo (in this case, COVID-19 tests and PPE) to a remote hospital could be achieved in just 15 minutes via drone, compared with the usual 6 hour journey using road transport and a ferry.

5. Collaboration and co-creation are key

Over the next few years, the growth of the drone industry will require a complex consortium of partners and capabilities to deliver the scale that is needed.

The capabilities required to deliver specific values must be tailored. For example, the requirements for a package delivery in remote locations are very different to that of highly populated areas. Similarly, the surveillance required for coast guard protection differs from the requirements of ports to monitor sea wall stability.

Aviation experience combined with retail scalability (e.g. Dyson), mixed with digital services (e.g. Amazon Web Services) and data analytics (e.g. Google) will need to share their capabilities if serious short-term pace is to be achieved. In the drone taxi space, for example, an aviation and automotive company working collaboratively might just be able to be the first mover.

6. Public Perception is not a barrier to scale

This is for two reasons: the public are some of the most amazing early adopters, making use of mobiles, the internet and digital banking. Once they see the personal benefit of drones, they will be quick to adapt. The second reason is that some of the most compelling use cases are industrial, therefore the impact on the general public will, initially, be negligible.

Mobile phone technology is enabling humankind to make the world a smaller, more connected place. Arguably it is also degrading privacy, but that cost compared with the benefit on peoples' lives is a trade-off most are willing to make.

How then will this fascinating sector play out? Which segment will move first? What will be the critical piece of technology that unlocks policy, publicity, and enables that scale?

I wish I knew. I am looking forward to seeing what the next few years will bring in this sector, what I do know is that we are on the very edge of exponential growth in the drone industry and it has the potential to transform our lives for the better. That's got to be a goal worth working towards.


INNOVATE WITH US

At SOARIZON, we are keen to collaborate with other organisations to innovate and solve some of the biggest challenges within the industry. Whether you're a manufacturer, drone services provider, regulator or government body interested in shaping and co-creating a Scalable Autonomy Solution, please get in touch.

 

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