#042 – Drone Industry Review: Q1 2017

In Podcast by Ian Smith1 Comment

Drone Industry Review is a special podcast series brought to you by Commercial Drones FM. It briefs listeners on the most important and newsworthy happenings from the previous quarter in the drone industry. Covered topics include drone hardware, software, regulations, funding, M&A, delivery drones, and how drones affected various industries in that quarter. The inaugural episode begins with the Drone Industry Review of Q1 2017.

Ready for Q2’s Drone Industry Review? Click here to tune in.

Show Notes

Episode #042 – Drone Industry Review: Q1 2017

15 topics In 20 minutes:

      • Multirotor
        • Still the go-to platform of choice. Here are the major players:
          • DJI
            • Matrice 200 platform announcement targeted at enterprise customers and commercial use cases
            • They’re still going strong with the Inspire 2, Phantom 4 Pro
            • And on the tail end of Q1 2017 we saw the first rumors of the tiny DJI Spark drone
          • Yuneec
            • Typhoon H520 announced at CES
            • Targeted at commercial end users
            • Similar to the Typhoon H Pro with retractable landing gear and foldable arms
            • Capable of up to 31 minute flight times
            • Options for dual thermal and RGB cameras
          • Autel Robotics
            • Having trouble laying off US-based sales and marketing staff but did announce 2 new camera modules for their X-star series of drones AND a Software Development Kit
          • Aeryon Labs
            • The high-end quadcopter OEM announced a partnership with drone software provider, DroneDeploy, and their Sky Ranger multirotor platform did complete the first approved, Canadian BVLOS flight.
      • Fixed-wing
        • Still expensive, still not incredibly user friendly or versatile for most applications it is making headway.
          • Delair-Tech
            • Purchased Trimble’s Gatewing business, now over 100 employees, triples their turnover with $7 million+ annual revenue
          • senseFly
            • Not only make fixed-wing eBees, but also the Albris multirotor, the drone formerly known as eXom
              • are further enhancing the eBee line and are the undisputed heavyweight champ of fixed-wing OEMs, still leading this category
              • They received first Swiss approval for anytime BVLOS operations for their eBee aircraft
              • senseFly also partnered with Micasense for cloud processing and Agribotix for distribution
      • VTOL
        • Drones that takeoff and land vertically, but transition to horizontal flight during cruise for increased efficiency
        • They’re not yet proven but much hyped.
        • Aerovironment entered the commercial market this past quarter with their Quantix drone, a VTOL platform with 45 minutes of endurance, 400 acre field coverage, and dual 18MP RGB and multispectral sensors, no word yet on price but expect it to not be cheap
        • Autel Robotics is also working on a VTOL platform called the Kestrel, with a MTOW of 31 lbs. And an endurance of 2 hours, will this drone signal the second coming of the ailing company?
      • Sensors
        • Sony and FLIR
          • Are both crushing the sensor game, the majority of sensors are from these two OEMs right now.
          • It’s safe to say today that most drones flying with an RGB camera have a sensor made by Sony
        • Speaking of RGB cameras
          • Big zooms are trending.
          • 30x zoom sensors from Sony are in Aeryon Labs Sky Ranger drones as well as the new Z30 sensor from DJI are being used on Matrice 200 and Inspire 2 drones.
        • Thermal
          • FLIR is spreading, courtesy of DJI. Making thermal imaging accessible to the masses. Photogrammetry still not mastered across the board with radiometric TIFF imagery because of non-standard file types and complexities stitching not just visual data but temperature data. Coupling that with typical fish-eye lenses found on thermal sensors and firmware issues, it’s been tough for thermal to get traction. Likely also affected by high pricing.
        • Multispectral is coming in hot for this grow season
          • Parrot partnered with Micasense to produce the Sequoia sensor
          • SLANTRANGE released their new and improved 3P multispectral sensor
          • Micasense also has their own product line of red edge cameras
          • Sentera is another multispectral sensor producer and announced real-time NDVI streaming, turning your video FPV feed into an NDVI image, but who knows how useful that is.
        • Hyperspectral
          • Way too expensive, heavy, and nobody knows how to properly use this data yet but…
          • Carbon Bee from France – lower cost hyperspectral, only a few customers
          • Headwall and other manufacturers
        • LiDAR
          • Velodyne
            • Leading the way with their puck LiDAR and opened a “megafactory” in San Jose, CA for large scale production of 3D LiDAR sensors
            • Velodyne’s Harris Wang joined me on a previous episode of the podcast #30, for a LiDAR 101 lesson
          • Reigl
            • Also relevant but much larger sized LiDAR that have to be mounted on larger drones
        • Laser methane detectors
          • Not popular at all, yet
          • Big opportunity here for oil and gas leak detection
      • Batteries
        • Solar panels
          • Increased efficiency, makes sense only for fixed-wing
          • Devin with Flightline Geographics joined me on a very early episode of CDFM #4! And talked about how his Hawkeye UAV system can nearly fly for unlimited distances in perfect conditions as the solar panels on the fixed-wing drone generate more power than it consumes.
        • LiPo
          • No big advancements, efficiency gains come at the software and other hardware component levels
        • Hydrogen fuel cell
          • Nothing has caught on yet. Gives mythical mega endurance of hours upon hours.
      • Software is a bit more challenging to talk about so naturally, it will be quicker to run through.
      • Data integrations will be key for enterprise adoption
      • Machine Learning, Computer Vision, and Artificial Intelligence are huge
        • Companies like TensorFlight and Cogniac can identify nearly anything you want from drone imagery and many industries will benefit from this
        • DroneDeploy is doing a great job, leading the way with their drone data App Market where the aforementioned companies, and many others, release software augmentations for DroneDeploy users to automatically count trees, cars, plants, generate automated roof reports, and much more.
      • One challenge with software is that there needs to be more historical data of drone use to make it more useful for applications like machine learning.
      • And we used to say “big data” before it was actually, truly BIG DATA. We’re getting closer but still not there.
      • Reports are a big deal—standalone maps don’t say much. Software that generates something you can share with a colleague or client that tells you what steps to take after flying the drone are starting to materialize.
      • Stemming from the historical data tracking and graphs leads to trends and ultimately, prediction
      • Lastly, one fairly new player of note to the drone software arena is an Austin-based company called Hangar, co-founded by ex-DJI ex-3DR, Colin Guinn.
      • Here we’ll focus mainly on the U.S. market and the FAA.
      • A question: Flights over people—when are they going to be allowed without a waiver? The answer: not yet.
      • This quarter, the FAA quietly retracted section 333 closed set exemptions, as I talked about with podcast guest Gretchen West of Hogan Lovells in episode #39
      • Another question; BVLOS—when? Still a ways to go but as you heard earlier, other countries like Canada, Switzerland, and France have been leading the way
      • Night operations are still a challenge.
      • Drones >55 lbs—this will be big (no pun intended), and currently not many people are thinking about it, but likely because they will require special exemptions to operate commercially.
      • The FAA released their “Aerospace Forecast for 2017-2037” report. The FAA estimated that, over the next five years, there will be more than 3.5 million hobbyist drones and 420,000 commercial drones in the United States.
      • There are currently more than 770,000 drones registered to fly in the US, gaining 100,000+ users in just 3 months from January to March. Insane growth.

Shake ups/Funding/M&A
      • Iris Automation raised $1.5 million to help drones sense and avoid obstacles as I talked about with co-founder Alex Harmsen in episode #41
      • Parrot fired ⅓ of their drone team (33%), now pivoting focus to the commercial industry
      • GoPro re-released the Karma after the huge goof up where the drone was launched and then recalled just days later.
        • You can hear the entire backstory on the Karma drones crashing back to earth in episode #40 of the podcast.
      • Lily Robotics fell spectacularly out of the sky in a ball of somewhat well-deserved flames—they were sued by the city of San Francisco and investigations are underway. Apparently they are trying to get people their money back.
      • Autel Robotics fired most of their sales and marketing team in the U.S.
      • Alphabet’s Google X gave up on their HALE internet drone and also had some internal shuffling within the delivery drone arm, Project Wing, losing Dave Vos, the project’s lead
      • Airbus may soon join drone industry leaders with their own, home-grown drone service offering based out in Atlanta, Georgia with ex-Airware employee Jesse Kallman at the helm.
      • Caterpillar invested in Airware to bring drone tech to mining and construction enterprises
      • And John Deere’s construction arm, not their agriculture arm, partnered with Kespry to bring drones and aerial data to construction and forestry
      • This section discusses the, “Drones in a box” concepts that fly autonomously every day, return to their box to charge, and then do it all again the next day.
        • Airobotics, an Israeli company which specializes in “drones in a box”, received certification for commercial operations from the Israeli government—they currently operate strictly in Australia and Israel.
        • Drones in a box are expensive and regulations hamper them in U.S. and make the attraction of the fully autonomous value proposition out of reach since you need a human pilot available to take control at any time and cannot operate drones BVLOS yet.
        • Fully autonomous drone economics are not quite there yet but I suspect will soon be.
AR, VR, and Wearables
      • Construction stands to benefit largely from these technologies.
      • Companies like DAQRI, Epson, and RealWear are making useful hardware wearables that enable AR and VR technology to be used with drone data.
      • Imagine wearing a pair of these AR glasses, being on a job site, and getting your drone data of the day beamed to those smart glasses and having the latest volumetric data overlaid in digital AR on top of the stockpile you happen to glance at, or submit a construction RFI by voice, have it geotagged, synced to site plans, and get that as an annotation that’s synced into your drone data platform of choice. That’s a huge construction drone value chain.
      • Or even beyond drones, having every construction worker equipped with smart glasses that take a picture every 30 seconds which gets beamed directly into a cloud-based photogrammetric software suite for processing, with the result being a fully reconstructed 3D construction site model being generated, from the inside out, every single day.
      • These wearables can even help give you increased situational awareness while operating your drone, overlaying a visual of airspace or nearby air traffic in front of your eyes.
      • I’m incredibly bullish on this technology playing a big role in the coming years as drones permeate job sites.
Delivery drones
      • They’re still hampered by regulations in the U.S..
      • The leaders right now for non-medical deliveries are:
        • Amazon – working on Prime Air in the UK
        • Google – reorganizing their Project Wing project, with no big news lately
        • Flirtey – who are keeping busy with publicity stunts like delivering pizza
        • Matternet – with an odd Mercedes-Benz partnership that seems lightyears ahead of our current reality
        • And Starship technologies who are doing terrestrial, ground-based drone food delivery in San Francisco
        • Hey, it’s still a drone right?
Internet-beaming drones
      • Facebook’s large, Aquila drone will soon be launching a couple of test flights per month
      • Google cancelled their internet drone called Project Titan and reappropriated the employees to other projects within the company
      • And AT&T Puts COWs in the Sky to Beam LTE Coverage Where It’s Needed
      • Ok, that’s a bad headline. COW is telecom conglomerate speak for “Cell-on-wheels” and the purposes is to give internet connectivity during times of disaster or during large events. Cool.
Entertainment drones
      • Intel, who made the famous super bowl drone light show swarm happen, was recently seen posting jobs to hire a drone light show designer and BD folks for their entertainment division
      • And a record setting 1,000 drone light show swarm was accomplished by the company E-Hang in China
      • Eventually, entertainment drones are going to be a large subset of the drone industry and are something anyone can enjoy. It won’t just be light shows but actual, moving props, suspended in air. Coming to a super trendy L.A. mansion party near you in 2018. Watch this space.
      • Not a lot to say here. Drones are increasingly useful at mines and quarries. Aggregate tracking and calculation of volumes, blasting operation planning and analysis, and general overview of the site in general.
      • Airware acquired RedBird and got the strategic investment from Caterpillar
        • Of note are a couple past podcast episodes where I had Emmanuel, ex-CEO of Redbird on the podcast for episode #18 and Buddy Michini, Airware’s CTO on episode #37
        • The redbird acquisition gave Airware a huge strategic advantage in mining
        • This means Kespry, one of Airware’s main competitors is definitely on high-alert.
      • They’re going through a technological renaissance. There are so many construction startups popping up.
      • Construction stands to benefit from drones more than nearly any other industry right now.
      • Embracing drone technology is the younger generation coming into the construction game, many of which work in the VDC and BIM departments of construction companies.
      • Asset tracking and integration of data for superintendents for site progress analytics is a huge benefit and useful at every stage in construction.
      • One of my favorite startups that will be working more and more with drone data is called Project Atlas.
      • This is always a tough one. What this industry really needs is more algorithmic analysis and sensor capability + buckets of historical data so they can start developing trends and predictions for their crops.
      • Computer vision and machine learning played a large part in drawing out more useful data for farmers, like automatically counting plants and trees by companies like AgriSens or calculating and quantifying the monetary impact of damage to crops by companies like Skymatics.
      • This past quarter, businesses like DroneDeploy were increasingly integrating with existing ag software suites like John Deere, agX by SST, and others to make it as easy as possible for farmers and growers to get their data from drone to combine.
      • Surveying is tied closely to hardware
      • RTK (real time kinematics) gives large efficiency gains in some cases but drones from popular OEMs like DJI have RTK modules which don’t yet geotag pictures for some reason, something that’s required to truly made use of the benefits of RTK for surveying.
      • In the meantime, senseFly’s eBee has been chugging along with working RTK for photogrammetric surveying missions for quite some time
Cell tower
      • This industry is big. AT&T alone has 60,000+ cell towers to monitor
      • Using drones for cell tower inspection has huge value but it’s tough job for photogrammetry and is still much better suited for still imagery and high res, big zoom video like the popular 30x optical zoom cameras from Sony.
      • To learn more about this industry, check out past episode with AT&T’s Art Pregler #36 where we dove deep into all the ways that telecom companies can use drones for inspection and work.
    • This past quarter drones were being used for
    • Wind turbine inspections
    • Solar panel inspection, using RGB and thermal cameras
    • And even Oil and gas
    • A note on hardware that will make these jobs easier is the Matrice 200 series which DJI announced. The company even released a hell of a promo video which showcases the M200 as being ideal for the utilities industry.

So nearly all of these 6 previously mentioned industries have comprehensive reports that you can get yourself from Commercial UAV News. I, personally, was able to contribute insight to their construction industry report

And that’s it. In less than 20 minutes, Q1 2017 of the drone industry is in the books.

I hope you enjoyed this Drone Industry Review. We’ll release the next one in July, 2017.


If you want to support the podcast, head to patreon.com/dronespodcast and see how just $1/month can keep this show going and get you access to the exclusive Commercial Drones FM supporters-only slack group. Hope to see you there!

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