The speed at which Drone technology has evolved over the last three years has been nothing short of astonishing. Like a ‘Moore’s law” running wild, their capabilities are growing exponentially, while industrial-scale production from manufacturers like DJI has relentlessly driven down costs. Putting Drones into reach for a mainstream market was just the first stage of integrating them into businesses though. Data without meaning is not equivalent to knowledge - a painful lesson for some of the corporate big- spenders who surfed the ‘drone wave’ without stopping to think about what actual value their investments could add.
In regions where Drones were quick to become established there was a surge in the numbers of pilots, hoping to cash in on the sudden availability of viable commercial platforms at consumer prices. In the UK alone, the number of individuals and entities issued with a Permission for Commercial Operations (PfCO) from the Civil Aviation Authority stands in the region of 4,000. The age of DaaS (Drones as a Service) was upon us, but for the most part these service providers could only offer images or video to their clients. In an increasingly crowded marketplace the demands and expectations of big businesses were a reality check for many newly-qualified pilots.
More pragmatic pilots were already thinking about how they could incorporate Drones into their existing business or skillset. A GIS specialist would find it easy (if relatively expensive) to incorporate Drone data into a project. A surveyor with technical knowledge could find a practical application within building inspections. Media production companies were able to add new capabilities and creative possibilities to their locker by getting their cameras airborne, often at a fraction of the cost of employing a helicopter.
While these approaches made a strong case for Drones as useful tools they weren’t truly Disruptive Technology. For all the hype and technical advances a drone can still be described as a ‘smart/dumb’ machine. Smart in terms of the wealth of technology it contains, but dumb in the sense that ultimately it is just a platform for a sensor. The same can be said for the sensors themselves - while they get smaller and more powerful they are only a method of capturing data. To be truly disruptive, to fundamentally change the way that enterprises work, DaaS providers had to take the next step - turning petabytes of undeveloped data into concise information. The corporate mantra is much the same as it ever was - “Do it faster, smarter, safer, cheaper. Preferably all of the above. And did we mention cheaper…?”
Relatively few Drone companies have actually had the resources (or the nerve) to stick their heads above the parapet and tackle the demands of multinational heavyweights and conglomerates. Going into a boardroom to try and sell a service based on new technology can be a nerve wracking experience. Walking out and realising that you are only a small piece in a very complex puzzle can be rather more of a chastening one. The Catch 22 was obvious to see, but not so easy to address. How do you persuade someone to invest in a service before you’ve proved that you can actually scale it up and deliver it? With the notable exceptions of General Electrics (GE) and Amazon only a handful of major companies have shown the capability or the appetite to develop their own ‘in-house’ Drone solutions.
There was clearly a market for anyone who could combine DaaS with Software as a Service (SaaS) and offer the holy grail - a fully-managed service which captured, analysed and reported the mountain of Drone data and turned it into a solution that was genuinely disruptive.
Enter Aerodyne. While some other Drone solution providers were going through high- profile (and often messy) rounds of public and private funding Aerodyne were going quietly about their business - developing their own connections, experience and, most importantly, a cloud-based software platform. This was unleashed in early 2016 and since then growth has been phenomenal, the scale of their operations reaching unprecedented levels. From an original team of three they have developed into a fully-fledged international company employing over 200 staff, with projects around the world. Already with offices in Australia, Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia they are launching a London- based European office later in the year. Drone magazine caught up with Aerodyne CEO Kamarul A to talk about how far the Drone industry has come, and which direction it is heading in next…
A special Q&A with Mr. Kamarul supports the need for drone technologies and their emerging role.
Q. How did you first become involved with
A. I used to run an interactive production agency and we regularly chartered helicopters whenever we needed to produce aerial images. Our projects took us all over the world, and in 2009 I was in Russia to document the journey of a vessel travelling through the Volga-Don canal. We needed to charter a helicopter frequently over a period of 3 weeks, and we realized that we could get a top of the range Drone (at that time) for less than a third of the helicopter charter cost. It also eliminated what was a tricky and time- consuming approval process with the Russian authorities. So, the Drone was the logical choice and the rest, as they say, is history.
Q. When did you first realise the potential for Drones in wider industry?
A. We went on to use drones for the next 4 years to capture some amazing and unique images which were pivotal to our production work. And it was exclusively visual. By 2013 Drones were becoming more far more capable in terms of their flight endurance, reliability and sensor technology. It became clear to us that instead of using the technology just for the marketing and advertising departments of a company, we could add value to their surveying, inspection works, construction projects etc. That’s what
prompted us to explore the potential of Drones for industrial uses. It was still strictly visual and eye-in-the-sky capabilities for the next year or so. Then we began our first organizational transformation into an engineering and survey company and began offering data capabilities. At that point we also had analysts, data scientists, civil, mechanical and aerospace engineers in the company and we started delivering actionable data to our clients. Fast forward to mid-2017, and we transformed ourselves again into a fully-fledged solution company - delivering total end-to-end drone-based solution to our clients.
Q. What were the main lessons that you learned in your early days of trying to incorporate Drones into your business?
A. Drone safety is a big issue. Lots of effort was required to convince clients - not just from the inherent dangers of drone operations but also in terms of privacy, regulatory requirements and safety compliance. We also realized early on that it is not just about flying and capturing the data. The real prize was what we could do with the data and how we could deliver it to the client. Technology limitations were also a big issue. Fortunately drone technology moves faster than Moore’s law - it has now reached maturity and passed the tipping point of it being universally accepted in industry.
Q. What Drones are you currently using in your projects?
A. We try not to get too hung up about drone systems - we treat them as purely data capture devices - an airborne IoT (Internet of Things) platform if you like. So, we deploy the best platform for each individual client to strike the right balance between accuracy, performance and cost. Our current fleet of over 200 drones includes both fixed wing and multirotors from manufacturers such as Sensefly, DJI, Topcon, 3DR and many more. Currently DJI accounts for about 75% of our drone assets, primarily on the strength of the M600 and M200 series. They are impressive not only because of their technological features. With the software development kit (SDK) we can access a level of automation and customisation that give us far more flexibility.
Q. What is your proudest achievement to date?
A. I’m immensely proud to have seen and experienced the emergence of Aerodyne as one of the leading Drone service providers. Three years ago, there were only three of us working here - now we have a team of more than 200 across five countries, and we are still growing exponentially. By this time next year, we will have doubled again in size. In 2016 we were recognised by Frost and Sullivan as the entrepreneurial company of the year (UAV). Now that has been overtaken by our achievement in 2017 of completing 30,000 asset inspection in seven months! I’m really proud of the dedication and professionalism of our team. It wasn’t an easy thing to deliver, but with continuous learning, perseverance and hardwork we overcame many obstacles together.
Q. What are the challenges facing Drone technology in the next few years?
A. The next major challenge is the move towards full autonomy and integration into even more aspects of daily commercial life. At that stage companies will have truly reached the age of Enterprise 4.0. For this to really work well, better sensors, flight endurance, system redundancies and advanced features (such as adaptive sense and avoid) are needed. We also need to see a central artificial intelligence (AI) that manages the whole ecosystem. This has the potential to create more flashpoints with regards to regulations and safety concerns.
Q. What is your favourite Drone to fly, (and why)?
A. For my personal use, my two favourite Drones are the DJI Inspire 2 with X5S (for its amazing visual capabilities) and the DJI Mavic (for its range, endurance and portability).
Q. What are the most exciting possibilities for the future of Drone technology?
A. Drones will without a doubt automate a lot more processes in our daily lives, both at work and at home. In the not-so-distant future, drones will become our mode of transportation, our delivery platform, our personal robotic assistants, photographers, communications devices - perhaps even our personal trainers and bodyguards. I can’t wait to be living in that future! At work they will also play an integral role within enterprises - continuously monitoring and improving performance.
Q. After the last three years progress, where do you think you will be in another three years’ time?
A. I see Aerodyne emerging as one of the key innovators, influencers and market leaders in drone-based managed solutions. There are so many leading-edge projects we are working on right now that are under wraps for now - so stay tuned!
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