A Closer Look at Commercial Drone Industry Trends
BY Alan Perlman4 April 2016
By: Anya Lamb
We recently released the Commercial Drone Industry Trends infographic highlighting trends based on DroneDeploy usage data.
In this post, we’ll take a closer look at the content of the infographic and share our interpretation of the trends we’re seeing and what they signal for the future.
Explosive Growth, Despite Regulatory Uncertainty
Analysts have projected high rates of growth in the commercial drone space, and that’s consistent with what we’re seeing. It took 12 months for our users to map the first million acres, but less than four months to map another million. This rapid rate of growth not only underscores the value that we are providing to businesses, but also reflects a larger trend in the industry.
Enthusiastic commercial adoption of drones continues despite an uncertain regulatory environment. In the U.S., the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) currently requires that commercial drone operators have a pilot’s license and a 333 exemption. In Europe, unmanned aircraft systems are regulated by a confusing and inconsistent patchwork of national regulations. One response to the regulatory uncertainty is the emergence of Drone Service Providers, companies that fly drones for hire and handle the burden of navigating the regulatory environment so that their clients don’t have to. Drone Service Providers are active globally, but represent the largest tranche of maps made in North America and Europe.
Both the FAA in the U.S. and the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) in Europe expect to release new rules in the coming year to provide more coherent and consistent guidance on how to operate commercial drones safely and legally. It will be interesting to see to what extent new rules reduce barriers to entry, increasing drone adoption and potentially shifting the balance from drone service providers to end users.
A Wide Range of Uses, Large and Small
Businesses are using drones across a wide range of industries, and our users continue to surprise us every day with the ways that they are using drones to create value.
In agriculture, farmers use maps generated with DroneDeploy to identify areas of crop variation and damage, and even to help diagnose causes of damage (such as irrigation problems, equipment malfunctioning and pests) and prescribe solutions, such as variable rate nitrogen applications.
Surveyors and GIS professionals are using drone mapping to achieve massive time and cost savings on surveying and mapping projects. Construction is one of the fastest growing industries for drone adoption, and it’s no wonder. There’s a lot to keep track of daily on a job site — project progress, the location of equipment, the volume of materials left — and the ability to quickly get an aerial view or 3D model makes it all a lot easier. For the mining industry, it’s the ability to quickly and cheaply calculate aggregate volumes that’s the game changer.
Some of the most intriguing uses of aerial data come from the industries that are just beginning to use drones. From insurance companies using drones to make quick maps or models of a scene after a claim is made, to utility companies using drones to inspect large, remote or dangerous pipelines and energy facilities, the uses are endless. And even though our primary focus is helping businesses find value from aerial insights, we’re also empowering non-commercial but equally valuable projects, such as scientists monitoring coastal erosion during El Nino.
In a Crowded Field, DJI Maintains Prominence
When it comes to drone manufacturers, DJI appears to be the dominant force in a crowded field with many emerging players vying for market share. Their off-the-shelf, pro-sumer drones combine ease of use with professional-level functionality and challenge the notion that commercial drones need to be large and expensive.
The DJI Phantom 3 Pro is easily the most popular drone among our users, followed by the more powerful DJI Inspire 1. Although the DJI quadcopters have limited range and battery life compared to more expensive fixed wing drones, the DroneDeploy flight app’s “continue mission” feature, which allows one to easily continue interrupted flight plans after a battery swap, empowers users to map surprisingly large areas. Many of our customers have told us that changing batteries on a quadcopter can be faster than making adjustments to a fixed wing. One of the largest projects we’ve seen — mapping 1,000 km of highway — used Phantom 3 Pro drones to capture the imagery.
“The DJI Inspire is a great tool, but when you pair it with DroneDeploy it takes it to another level. My clients are generally in real estate, agriculture or mining and DroneDeploy adds value in all those sectors. Not only are the orthomosaics of high quality but there is the added benefit elevation data, NVDI data and 3D models. If the output wasn’t enough to make this a great software package, the real bonus is the ease of operation. From take-off to landing, one seamless operation.”
– Jeremy Murfitt, Chartered Surveyor and Owner of Everything is Somewhere Ltd — UK.
When it comes to fixed wing drones, the AgEagle Rapid and the senseFly eBee are the most popular drones among DroneDeploy users. We also see a significant amount of imagery from custom-built or modified drones that combine drone chassis and cameras from different manufacturers.
Some drone makers like DJI also make their own cameras, while others package their drones with cameras from different OEMs. After DJI, the most popular cameras among our users are made by Canon or Sony.
Most of the imagery we process comes from visible spectrum (RGB) cameras, but there is growing interest in near infrared cameras and thermal imaging from the likes of Flir and Mapir. The emergence of these new sensor types opens up a wealth of new possibilities, particularly in agriculture. Near infrared (NIR) imagery is already commonly used to generate NDVI (Normalized Difference Vegetation Index) maps which measure photosynthetic activity and help growers detect plant stress that may not be visible to the naked eye. Thermal imagery, although earlier in its adoption curve, shows potential for monitoring evapotranspiration and irrigation efficiency.
Industry Usage Patterns Validate Conventional Wisdom
On the whole, trends in flight patterns and map characteristics across industries confirmed conventional wisdom. Agricultural users tend to map the largest areas (commercial farms can be thousands of acres) but don’t need particularly high resolution. As a result, drones used in agriculture tend to fly higher (on average, 375 feet, although users may fly even higher in regions with fewer regulatory restrictions) and take an average of only 6 images per acre, resulting in lower resolutions averaging 4.2 cm per pixel.
Construction sites, by contrast, tend to be much smaller — 15 to 30 acres — but prefer a higher degree of resolution. Drones flying for construction fly at an average of 255 feet, to capture an average of 16 images per acre. This higher volume of imagery is useful not only for generating more accurate, higher resolution maps averaging 2.7 cm per pixel, but also for generating elevation maps and 3D models, which can be used for measuring volumes of materials or comparing actual project progress against plans in Building Information Modeling (BIM) software.
Surveyors and professional mappers tend to map moderately-sized areas, and see trends in flight altitude and image resolution between those metrics seen in agriculture and construction.
More Than Just Maps
A big surprise in reviewing our trends was how many users are using DroneDeploy for 3D modeling. Although all maps processed on DroneDeploy include a 3D model, thirty percent of users had optimized image stitching for the creation of a 3D model rather than a 2D map. Less surprisingly, we saw the highest adoption of 3D modeling within the construction vertical. 3D modeling is also very popular among drone enthusiasts. Some of the most creative uses we’ve seen? Making a 3D model of a cliff face to plan a climbing route and printing a 3D model of a childhood home.
The More Drones, the Merrier
Another surprise was that over 8% of our users have more than one type of drone. Among service providers and users in agriculture, the share was even higher — with 14% and 12% of users respectively using more than one type of drone. This trend in part reflects users upgrading from one model to another, but also suggests that having one multi-purpose drone might not be sufficient for all applications.
We’ve heard from several users, particularly Drone Service Providers, that they have a DJI Phantom or DJI Inspire that they use for certain types of jobs, but that they also compliment it with a fixed wing for larger areas or a custom-built quadcopter for specialized camera equipment. Construction users, by contrast, are far less likely to have more than one drone, which seems intuitive given that the relatively smaller size of projects, as well as the ease of use and versatility required, make a quadcopter well-suited for the job.
Adoption Patterns Vary by Region
Differences in usage trends between regions largely reflected relative adoption by different industries. In North America, Drone Service Providers are the largest industry, primarily servicing agriculture, which is the second largest industry for drone mapping. Key states in the U.S. for agricultural acres mapped include South Dakota, Illinois, Iowa and California. Texas leads the way in acres mapped for construction projects, followed by Florida and California.
In Europe, Drone Service Providers are also dominant (potentially due in part to the regulatory environment, as discussed above), however the second largest industry isn’t agriculture, but surveying. In South America and Oceania, agriculture generates the most drone maps by a wide margin. As a result, the average map size for these regions tends to be larger.
These are just a few of the trends we’ve seen as our users have mapped over 2 million acres across 100 countries. View the full Commercial Drone Industry Trends infographic here.
What to Look Out for in the Remainder of 2016
Last year was an exciting year for the commercial drone space, and this year so far has seen even more momentum and excitement. Look for the remainder of 2016 to be characterized by rapid drone adoption across a wide range of industries, and the emergence and testing of new drone technologies, such as sense and avoid capabilities and new sensor types.
As we get into the growing season, expect to see more widespread adoption of drones in agriculture, although usage may be hampered by low commodity prices and lack of a clear, reliable leader in agricultural drones. Look for speedy adoption of drones in construction and mining to continue and for more industries to begin adopting drones. With the pending release of new rules from the FAA and EASA, bringing greater regulatory clarity, we anticipate broader usage of drones by larger companies.
Although we expect use of new sensors like thermal and multi-spectral cameras to be largely experimental this year, we’ll be watching closely to identify key use cases and prepare for broader adoption in the future.