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Why commercial drones have not achieved their full potential

Despite what you may have seen in your local park, drones are no longer the exclusive purview of aviation enthusiasts and tech geeks.

The global commercial drone market was valued at $552 million in 2014 and is growing at a rate of 16 to 25 percent annually depending on who you talk to. Drones (aka Unmanned Aerial Vehicles or sUAVs) are used for a myriad of commercial applications in industries such as agriculture, government, critical infrastructure, energy, media and entertainment, and others.

The true value of drones lies in their commercial use. Currently, however, there exist a number of factors that limit firms from reaping the true benefits of sUAVs.

First, existing solutions that claim to be “autonomous” still require significant human oversight – whether it be for landing, charging or harvesting data. The moment a person is needed there are limits placed on efficiency and costs rise.

Moreover, current software and hardware tend to focus on only one set of capabilities. This means drones might be used for “infrastructure inspection” or for “security tracking” but rarely for both applications. This greatly limits drone usage and managers’ ability to show positive ROI from drone programs.

There are three key factors that allows sUAVs to realize their full commercial potential:

  • Drones need to be housed on worksites and be able to function 24/7. With end to end autonomy and the ability to shelter and charge drones on site, the fleet can be deployed anytime. Few existing solutions offer this capability (landing the drones is typically the problematic area requiring human intervention). Drone fleets that operate around the clock get more done, can provide businesses with more data, increase ROA and drive ROI.
  • We need to create truly autonomous fleets. Just because a drone can fly using GPS coordinates does not mean it is autonomous. Too many providers are claiming that this ability confers autonomy.

True autonomy only comes when a drone can fly, conduct a mission, react to the environment and land on a charging station with no need for a human to tactically guide it. Absent these capacities a firm is unlikely to see big costs savings on personnel.

  • sUAVs need to be able to perform a large range of missions. Multi-mission capacity means a small number of drones can be used for a wide range of different mission types at any given time. The ability to deploy a fleet for a plethora of purposes – day and night – gives managers the ability to demonstrate ROI and increase ROA. Software that allows developers to build apps for specific capacities is likely the answer to this important problem.

Managers should be aware of the fact that regulatory frameworks around drone deployment are nascent and ever changing. The FAA still has a lot of work to do around high flight and autonomous fleets. The time to make industry’s voice heard is now.

In sum, drones are getting there. Even though you don’t see them on every worksite today, in the next few years you will. There’s simply too much in the way of savings for any other outcome.

Ariel Avitan is Chief Commercial Officer at Percepto, an Israeli company whose platform enables drones to operate fully autonomously.