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business models, strategies and technologies

Data not drones – what to do with the eye in the sky

Drones were once advanced tech – now they’re commoditised. But what can we use them for?

A 2018 Dezeen documentary highlights the “big picture” impacts that drones will have on things like architecture, design and human perceptions, asserting that “drones will transform cities, revolutionising how people travel, how goods are delivered and how buildings look and are constructed”. As one of the pundit speakers declares, “drones are like an expanded consciousness. It’s almost like an extra eye …”

Elevation – how drones will change cities from Dezeen on Vimeo.

It’s not about the drone

Drones are small light unmanned aerial vehicles. In civilian contexts, they’re usually relatively small quadrocopters, in order to provide the platform stability required to carry out their designated function.

But in the same way that robotics isn’t really about the robotic arm, but about what the tool at the end of the arm can do, the drones themselves are pretty irrelevant. Once the novelty has worn off and drones have been commoditised to every toy shop – the world’s largest maker of consumer drones is Chinese DJI Technology Co., Ltd. –  they just become enablers more than agents, delivery vehicles for multiple technologies that can be put to a wide range of uses.

But which, and how well? The “high-impact stories” in the Elevation film are mostly about single-user, direct action focus – what a particular company/profession can do or has done with this emerging technology. But what do you communicate about the idea or potential before it has taken its final post-sale form? What does a professional “drone seller” really deliver? What services can be involved, and how can they be communicated?

A new dimension of data

What distinguishes drones from other “delivery systems” is that they can operate in three dimensions, with few practical limitations. They add the crucial extra dimension of verticality. And their robotics capabilities mean they are particularly suitable for repetitive activities that require considerable precision.

In practice, civilian drones/UAVs can provide 3D mapping and models of just about anything, with a texture map and a data set featuring unprecedented precision. Spatial data, or “Google Maps in three dimensions”, is probably a good description. It’s all about the data and what you can do with it.

Such a shift away from discussions about the actual drones is perhaps especially relevant after the drone-disrupted travel chaos at London’s Gatwick Airport in December 2018, with flights grounded for 3 days and Christmas travel plans for 140,000+ people kiboshed. This kind of thing puts a serious dent in the PR attractiveness of any drone delivery system, and might prove to be a tipping point for innocent acceptance. Better to push them into the “delivery platform” background, perhaps?

One company that seems to have noticed this commercial opening is UK-based H Robotics, which asserts that drones are “tools not toys” and that it provides companies with reliable, cost-effective ways to tackle a vast range of commercial and technical problems by giving them the ability to see, track and act in the third dimension. It seems almost like DCAAS – Drone Coverage as a Service. Does that category exist yet? In the company’s website presentation, H Robotics seems to get a good way there in communicating this, while sometimes reverting to traditional hardware pictures like this.That’s why it’s a good idea to get past their landing-page hardware pics here and scroll down to where they’re hinting/showing how a drone can be used to map the details of what’s going in our world. They move beyond the simplistic “drone-and-camera” model to present powerful, vertical-perspective images that highlight data-driven uses in mining, the oil and gas industry, insurance, public safety and refineries. H Robotics describes the HiSight FlightCloud™ as “a workfow tool designed to enable firms to tackle a wide range of constantly changing practical challenges and problems. The platforms are entirely modular and backwards compatible. This means the clients can simply change components depending on requirements.”

Companies don’t want to fly drones, they want to improve company performance.

Platform not configuration

Recognising that It’s all about the data and what you can do with it, H Robotics describes the development of a platform to manage and process all the three-dimensional orthomosaic data that a drone can provide. The company provides a real-time management collaboration tool that enables professional users to overlay data with virtually any software to detect patterns, seen in real-time and analysed over time. This then makes it possible to see, monitor, measure, track and act in three dimensions, on the basis of accurate real-time aerial data. 

Ultimately, this seems to be a hardware-agnostic platform that can provide and support a vast range of three-dimensional capabilities for registering, tracking and making decisions. It’s not about the drones at all – they’re just a carrier vehicle. It’s spatial awareness and Google Maps in 3D(+). It’s about knowing what’s going on and where – with an added third dimension that becomes a digital language for situational awareness. Which seems like a huge commercial own-the-platform opportunity, given the right business model.

Imagine what might happen, for instance, if H Robotics data structuring capabilities were linked up with synthetic aperture radar images from the NovaSAR-1 technology demonstration satellite, launched in September 2018 – and possibly just the precursor of a whole family of similar satellites.