I decided to write my second to last blog on the toy everyone wished they got for Christmas: a drone. While they are fun to play with and fly around (I know from first-hand experience), drones have important business and life-saving applications that I decided to explore and share with you. While, to my knowledge, none of the companies we are visiting are using drones extensively, I would argue that may change in the near future.
First, a little history lesson:
Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) or drones were first used in France in 1782 as an unmanned balloon ride. By 1848, the Austrian military implemented them into their battle strategy by using bomb-filled balloons to attack the city of Venice. Thanks in part to work done by Nikola Tesla, drones continued to evolve. By the turn of the 20th century, drones equipped with cameras were rolled out. This was important because it allowed soldiers to see behind enemy lines without risking anyone’s life.
Fast forwarding to the 1990s, drones were used extensively in the military and started to monitor the climate and environment. In 2014, the toy drones we are all familiar with started to enter consumer markets. Today, the global drone market is a $1.2 billion industry and is projected to reach almost $13 billion by 2025.
The most well-known business application of drones is their ability to deliver items. Companies such as Domino’s and Amazon have tested the concept but have not been able to scale. While these companies are praised for their efforts due to the potential of decreased greenhouse gas emissions, they have faced many issues. Packages must be a certain size for drones to safely deliver them and the regulatory issues that come with implementing this system are nothing short of a nightmare.
The best use of drone delivery I have read about was in Dan’s blog post when he profiled a startup called Zipline. In case you missed the post, Zipline delivers medical necessities (think blood, vaccines, and medicine) to remote areas. As Dan mentioned, if Zipline is able to overcome logistical and regulatory issues and grow into all developing countries, countless lives will be saved.
Surveying and Mapping
Drones play a big role in land surveillance because they provide eyes that can cover large areas in a short period of time. Using Geographical Information Systems (GIS) drones can survey construction sites to identify optimal building placement, provide topographic and hydrographic maps, produce the factors necessary to determine flood insurance prices, and much more.
Furthermore, these drones have sensors put in place that measure, transmit, and store a variety of data. The information collected is much more accurate and detailed than a human alone could produce. By using drones, surveyors are able to safely work in a remote location. After conducting this research, I can’t imagine why a company would not dedicate their R&D budget to this technology.
Above, you can see my tweet from a couple of weeks ago about this specific topic. When I heard this from one of the partners at Accenture, I was in awe. Altering process time from 3 months to an afternoon is absolutely game-changing for businesses. The client, in this case, was a major player in the oil and gas industry. That said, I can see this drone function being applicable in other industries like farming and manufacturing, as well.
While similar to the ability to map land in great detail, inspection using drones is much more of a risk for businesses. If an issue is not identified, the consequences could be great. For that reason, I don’t think the use of this technology will completely eliminate jobs. However, in a few years, I may be retracting that statement.
Search and Rescue
Recently, drones have become an important tool in search and rescue efforts by the police, the Coast Guard, and other organizations. Drones are much less expensive than helicopters and can reach previously inaccessible locations. Also, drones can fly at all hours, use infrared or night vision technology, and keep rescuers out of danger in disaster situations.
For example, park rangers at the Grand Canyon are now using drones to search the nearly 2,000 square mile park when someone is reported missing. Currently, they have five drones and four certified operators and are planning to expand the program as technology develops.
“Our historic model was to take the helicopter to look and see,” said Grand Canyon chief ranger Matt Vandzura. But now, drones can offer “that same close look but without putting any people at risk. It has dramatically increased our ability to keep our people safe.”
Trends to Watch + Conclusion:
Some key industry trends to follow in the near future:
- Software will dominate technological advancements. The physical aspects of drones can only be marginally improved. This means that the software used with drones will be a major focus for growth opportunities.
- Like in many industries, Artificial Intelligence will be a disruptor. This is especially important as it impacts image recognition.
- The effect of drone data will soon be made clear on companies’ financial statements. Once this data integration occurs, I imagine companies will invest even more in drone technology.
- Regulations on Regulations. As some of these applications of drone technology develop, I wouldn’t be surprised to see even more battles between companies and regulatory agencies. In my opinion, privacy is a big concern that needs to be flushed out before this technology becomes widespread.
Through reading this post, I hope I have convinced you that drones are more useful than just being able taking cool pictures. (Although, that’s something pretty amazing as well!) In the tech industry, I wonder who will emerge as the leader in drone technology. On the trip, I want to ask companies such as Walmart and Google if they plan to enter the space. As of now, I would say Amazon has the lead but it’s certainly still anyone’s game.
- For True Ventures / Sequoia: Would you make an investment in a drone technology company, given the imminent regulatory hurdles?
- For Walmart: We all have seen Amazon explore drone delivery service. Is that a space you can see Walmart entering in the near future?
- For Airbnb: I have always been amazed at the quality of pictures of some famous listings. Could drones be used to take even better pictures, if they aren’t being used already?