The Real Value behind Drone Operations for Service Providers

Many industries are using drones, and who can blame them. Autonomous operations, for example spraying agricultural fields with pesticides and insecticides, can reduce manpower, costs, flight time and human error, and allow for employees to be assigned to other areas. Drones have the advantage of reaching remote areas that would otherwise be difficult to get to, for example, delivering medicine to remote areas or during natural disasters, or surveillance over open-pit mines.

Behind the drone operation scenes

Most of us just think of the mission outcomes provided by drone operated services. Data collection is the non-obvious value that drones bring. This is an additional value, it may not necessarily be fully or even partially related to the specific operation of the drone and most of us are not aware of it. It is not a by-product of the current mission value; rather it is a new one, standing on its own. Accessing remote areas, covering large distances, and making quick, accurate and simultaneous measurements are just a few advantages that drones have for data collection. The type of data that can be collected includes images, videos, meteorological (wind speed, temperature etc.) and environmental (e.g. gas concentrations) data, thermal and infrared data, LiDAR measurements and tracking information. Once collected, the raw data can be processed, and then sold as a service to clients. Such services may include high-resolution images for crop diagnosis, potential disaster mapping and warnings (snow, floods, ice, fire), pollution monitoring, construction surveillance, traffic monitoring and weather forecasting.

Data processing

The examples above show how service providers are combining drones with Big Data to improve their services. The data collected needs to be translated and processed into something understandable for the client, hence the use of advanced data mining and data analytics. The idea is to provide several layers of benefits relating to drone operations:

  1. The obvious, a benefit for the person/company who ordered the data, such as data on agricultural spraying. Analytics for third party companies that can make use of the same data which was collected by the drone for the specific mission.
  2. Seeing the big picture and combining data from multiple missions to generate a new set of benefits for the entire community, such as fire detection.
  3. A 30-minute flight can produce over 100 GB of data. It can be difficult to store the vast amount of raw data and data products onto local servers. Due to the massive data processing requirements, it is more likely that the raw data will be stored in local servers and after processing it will be stored using cloud services for future uses.

Using the cloud to process drone data can be an attractive option. Online, cloud-based methods allow for the usage of high computer processing power without the need to purchase super computers or servers. Automated methods can be efficiently run online to produce the given data products. Online analysis also facilitates data sharing and collaborations. However, offline analysis has the advantage of manual processing when needed. In addition, uploading large amounts of data and large files onto the cloud can take hours.

Challenges facing data collection

With the influx of data comes concerns relating to an individual’s privacy, particularly images and personal information taken by a drone of an individual. Who owns this data? This is not yet clear. There are worries of personal data being collected without the consent of the individual.

Another concern relates to security. Drones and their data can be hacked, for example, drones used over the US-Mexico border for surveillance were hacked by drug traffickers looking to cross the border. Hence, it is necessary for drones to use a highly secure, encrypted system in order to avoid being compromised.

Service providers must ensure that the data collected and information generated is credible, particularly if drones are to replace conventional methods. Specific, tested protocols should be put in place, depending on the application, to ensure accuracy and reliability. For example, setting the percent of overlap of images and the flight speed in image acquisition.

Key players dominating the field

Amazon is set to use delivery drones to deliver packages to customers, under the project Amazon Prime Air. Postal services, such as DHL and the UK Royal Mail, are testing the use of drones. Airbus is also in the process of setting up its drone delivery system, as is Google. Oil companies, such as Shell and British Petroleum (BP), have been using drones, for example, to access difficult to reach areas. The information that they collect can be used for further purposes. Emergency services are already using drones; police in the UK are using UAVs with HD cameras to aid their services.

More with Big Data

As drone applications become more popular, Big Data will continue to develop. Big Data from the air is a new dimension. Usually, this type of data comes with a high cost. However, when combined with drones, it is relatively cheap as it is part of the service offered by the drone service provider. This will entice new types of clients, such as city management, insurance and construction companies and lawyers, that will be able to get their hands on valuable data that would otherwise be too expensive and difficult to obtain.

It is clear that drones will play a large part in our future. This will go hand in hand with advances in IT systems, data management and data analytics, in order for us to fully receive the benefits that drones have to offer.

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