When Amazon first proposed using drones to deliver packages back in 2013, it kicked off a firestorm. Google in 2014 disclosed it had been working on a secret drone delivery project, and NASA in 2015 announced it was working on a cloud-based unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) traffic management system.
Meanwhile, entrepreneurs began offering drones as a service by renting drones to companies to do aerial photography or shoot videos, for surveying and mapping, and other services.
By 2018 the Drone-as-a-Service industry was in trouble, according to a piece by Joshua Ziering in Commercial UAV News, which covers the drone industry.
Hardware quality had improved while would-be drone pilots only were only required to take a two-hour exam to get their license under the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration's Small UAS Rule (Part 107).
At the same time, large companies that had outsourced drone operations to service providers were creating their own little drone startups in-house, Ziering wrote.
Fast-forward to 2020 and drones are now commonly used for aerial photography and videography, to cover live events, deliver small items, and to survey dangerous places and situations.
UAVs for Hazardous Operations
Railroad inspectors who used to risk their lives hanging from metal bridges or radio towers several hundred feet off the ground to inspect rail structures have now switched to using drone technology.
Live streaming from unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) cameras comes in handy in emergencies. "When managers in the field and at headquarters can see the exact same picture, in real time, resource allocation is much more accurate," said Bob Meder, the senior manager of unmanned aerial systems at transportation firm Union Pacific.
For example, images sent back by drones during the 2016 Cedar River floods in northern Iowa changed Union Pacific's plan for the recovery of its rail line there. The repair team added more ballast to the tracks -- rocks to stabilize them -- and sent resources in through another rail route that was less flooded.
"UAVs enable organizations to inspect hard-to-reach or contaminated areas and to deliver supplies without exposing employees to the potential risks," Accenture stated in its report on the use of drones in the engineering and construction industries.
Project managers can get a picture of the entire project from UAV cameras and remain informed about day-to-day progress so they can make informed decisions quickly and avoid planning delays, noted Accenture.
Construction companies have been using drones in their business for some time now; and the utilities sector is relying increasingly on UAVs. The market for drones in the power and utilities industry will see a compound annual growth rate of nearly 24 percent, to total US$515 million by 2030, market research firm Frost & Sullivan predicts.
Reasons to Outsource
Many companies still prefer to outsource their use of drones, possibly because they don't want to deal with the regulatory and legal issues that crop up with the commercial use of UAVs -- or they don't have the manpower to do so.
"There are plenty of drone services out there covering a wide range of requirements across the public and private sector, from surveillance to real estate images and just about everything in between," Nicole France, a principal analyst at Constellation Research, told TechNewsWorld.
These services handle the various regulatory and legal issues affecting the commercial use of UAVs. They offer a pretty standard set of services, including aerial videography and still photography, mapping, critical infrastructure inspection, and data collection and analysis.
One service provider, Dronegenuity, includes among its clients real estate firms ReMax, Cushman & Wakefield, and Coldwell Banker, global food corporation Cargill, and banker JP Morgan Chase.
There are also software and technology-focused drone companies working to integrate and manage the data coming from drones to improve management and use of those data, France said. "Think mapping, 3D visualizations, and agriculture."
Rules and Regs in Flux
Keeping up with the regulations governing the commercial use of drones is time-consuming.
"The rules surrounding where and when you can fly drones are always changing, and the liability, should one crash into a car or plane, could be catastrophic," Rob Enderle, principal at The Enderle Group, told TechNewsWorld.
Privacy is one of the major legal issues facing drone operators. For example, including a member of the public in an aerial photograph or video, even if unintentionally, could lead to accusations of invasion of privacy.
Currently, there is no comprehensive framework of privacy regulations, but the U.S. National Telecommunications Information Administration in 2016 put out a laundry list of recommendations for UAV operators.
Drones on Call
Ridesharing companies Uber and Lyft disrupted the taxicab industry by making it easy for people to book a ride instead of having to wait with the hopes of hailing a cab.
In the same way, drone service provider Aquiline Drones seeks to change the face of the Drone-as-a-Service field by developing a mobile app that will let clients book a drone service on demand.
Customers won't have to contact the drone service provider and go through an exhaustive process to book a drone or have a standing contract with the provider. Instead, they will be able to order aerial photography and videography services in various areas, including utility inspections, outdoor events, real estate, safety patrol, search and rescue missions, and precision farming. All of the requisite forms can be handled through the app.
"Individuals and businesses will be able to order both private and commercial drone services," Aquiline Drones CEO and founder Barry Alexander said.
Aquiline's drones will be managed and supported by a real time cloud the company developed in-house. This uses specialized algorithms for UAV operations that enable AI-enabled flight control and autonomous drone flights.
The cloud will let customers plan and execute missions, live stream data and videos, and get real-time data insights via the mobile app. Aquiline's Command and Control feature will let users select hardware, specify a flight plan, and submit applicable authorizations and flight schedules.
A service like this could "virtually" remove the liability risk of a crash, Enderle said, but, while it's an exciting idea, the problem will be in scale.
"Getting the drone to where I need it to be, for a cost I can afford, will likely be an issue until the firm reaches critical mass in the geographical areas that it covers," Enderle noted. "If they don't have a drone where I need the service, it won't be useful."
Aquiline Drones is also reportedly seeking to purchase a charter airline to get FAA Part 135 standing, which will let its drones carry packages for a third party beyond the visual line of sight.
If it succeeds, it will be one of four Part 135 operators, the other three being UPS Flight Forward, Amazon Prime Air, and Alphabet's Wing Aviation. Success will let the company add delivery services to its menu.
"I'm eager to see what Aquiline Drones does next," France said. We have barely begun to scratch the surface of what drones will be able to do for us, and it seems well positioned to experiment in important ways that will help uncover what those are."