Thinking of starting your own enterprise drone program for drone asset inspection? You’re not alone. Drones, also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), were a nascent market of early adopters and hobbyists until the Federal Aviation Administration granted hundreds of new exemptions for companies to operate drones in the U.S. through FAA Part 107.
According to the FAA, there are nearly a million UAVs registered in the U.S. and nearly 350,000 have been deployed for commercial use. Further, there are nearly 250,000 Part 107 licensed UAV pilots. An entire industry has developed around passing the 107 licensing exam. Online courses can be found for no charge up to and including several hundred dollars for an in-person training.
The commercial drone market is estimated to be $129.2 billion by 2025, according to Grand View Research. PwC estimates that nearly $20bn of this will be tied to communication service providers. However, the telecommunication space is just the tip of the iceberg on industries building their own drone programs for drone asset inspection as the popularity is growing in the facility management, residential roofing and energy industries for various use cases.
With this growth in mind, there are several questions you’ll want to ask yourself before you start your own enterprise drone program.
- Should you Build or Rent a Drone Program?
Some factors to consider when building your own drone program include the following:
- Resources: Just like any other business decision on “build vs. buy”, or “build vs. rent” in this case, you’ll want to consider any existing lack of resources or how employee turnover may affect your initiative. If investing in your employees or hiring is a good strategy for you, they must study and pass for their Remote Pilot Certificate and learn the Part 107 guidelines which apply to operators flying for business. You’ll then need to ensure your team is up to date on all regulations and guidelines as time passes. If your employees are already traveling to certain sites to do work, adding a drone to their toolset can be a worthwhile investment. However, if they rarely visit a location or if they lack the bandwidth to take on new tasks, the business case may be made to outsource.
- Capital Expense: The cost of purchasing the hardware, software, accessories and training can add up. Also, if you go this route, another consideration is liability insurance. Drone liability insurance is no longer an exotic addendum and most major providers offer drone insurance as an add-on to Corporate Liability Policies at reasonable costs. The larger risk is putting an employee on the road to go to a location if this is not currently part of their workflow.
- Renting Drone Data Capture: If your assets to be flown are spread out, or your resources are fixed, then you may choose to outsource the flying to a drone service provider (DSP). Some things to look out for here, though, are if the DSP you’re looking to hire is the right one for the job. With so many licensed drone pilots and the low barrier to entry, DSPs range from one person shops to global providers.
- Ask for references, proof of insurance, proof of licensing, and a sample flight to get started. If you are looking at a business solution, many SaaS providers who use drone imagery as input can recommend a pilot network or can manage the flights for you. Another consideration is whether the flights must be completed at a certain time of the day or scheduled at an exact time. This can be done more easily with an internal team and may cost more to outsource and guarantee a flight at a certain time and date.
- How Will You Choose the Right Drone Platform for the Job?
Depending on the structure you’re going to fly, whether it is a flat structure such as a roof or a vertical structure such as a monopole telecom tower, you’re going to need to pick the right drone hardware platform for the job.
- Leading Platforms: Just like Apple iOS vs. Android, there are a few different options for enterprise drone platforms. The majority of UAVs sold in the US market are made by the Chinese manufacturer DJI and the US Manufacturer Skydio. Where the drones are manufactured can become an issue with recent tariffs and other regulations directed towards goods imported from China. Further, the U.S. Government, and even some industries as a whole, are actively working to ban Chinese-made drones related to security concerns. But otherwise, choosing the type of manufacturer you need for the job brings other considerations into account such as autonomous flights through camera or GPS capabilities.
- Indoor vs. Outdoor Flights: For example, if you’re flying an internal structure, you won’t be able to use GPS connectivity. Skydio drones have an advantage when flying indoors. But an outdoor structure such as a telecommunications tower with wireless antennas and/or microwave dishes can cause potential RF interference. Therefore, it will require hardened drone hardware and can benefit from drones having obstacle avoidance technology with pathing features that aren’t GPS-reliant. This can make it imperative to pick the most recent hardware with the latest set of features no matter which drone platform you choose. Newer drones have better RF interference shielding.
- Photogrammetry Quality: A further part of this consideration includes choosing between a drone that has a rolling shutter or a global shutter. In our experience, a rolling shutter is acceptable for mapping big areas and video filming but motion blur or blurry imagery can occur when taking photos of vertical structures such as towers or silos.
Pointivo advises clients on the best types of drone equipment to purchase and how to set up an internal platform to avoid mis-purchasing. Drone hardware is non-refundable even at big box retailers so it is easy to eat the cost of a wrong purchase.
- What Drone Flight Software Will You Use?
It’s not only about the hardware platform you purchase, the drone flight software is an integral part of any solution. Your flight software and strategy will vary depending on the type of asset you plan to fly and capture.
- Automated Flight Software: You, of course, must have visual line of sight when flying a drone, but you can also consider using automated flight software to set parameters around your specific asset as well as safely capture the ground space around the tower or roof. You will most likely need a tablet for the software, but some drones come with their own built-in screen. However, the built-in screen can limit the pilot in terms of flight software.
- Quantity of Images: Autonomous flight software will save the pilot a lot of time on site and we at Pointivo have spent many hours with all the leading drone platforms to create the most efficient flight plan in order to capture the best amount of images. Take too many images and it’s a longer flight and requires more data processing, but take too few images and you won’t get the data you need. On average, we capture half as many photos and save half as much time collecting the proper data than our competitors.
- How Many Batteries Will You Need?
The number of batteries needed is an important consideration and will depend on the size of the mission and number of missions per day. Other parameters include the wind, altitude, and number of flight direction changes during flight. A drone battery can take hours to charge and most drones used in this space currently can fly up to a maximum of 30 minutes.
The flight software used will estimate with great accuracy the number of batteries needed per flight. Some batteries require special car chargers even if your vehicle has a 120 volt receptacle available. Like any rechargeable batteries, temperature, age, and number of charges can greatly affect performance. It is always better to have spares on hand.
In our experience, it takes, on average, two batteries to fly a cell tower. However, when you take wind and the amount of photos you plan to capture into account this could increase the amount of batteries you need. We’ve seen some roofing flights require more than six batteries for a 50,000 square foot roof. At Pointivo, our philosophy is to try to keep all jobs down to 1 battery for field efficiency purposes.
- Are You Informed on Restricted Airspace, No Drone Zones and the Rules of the Sky?
Next, you have to do some research on where you can and cannot fly. All drones used in commercial flight must be registered at the FAADroneZone. There is a $5 Registration fee and the registration number must be visible on the drone exterior. It is also good practice to include a phone number. Drone flyaways are now quite rare, but they do happen.
With the new FAA Automated flight waivers, the major drone hardware will not let you fly in a restricted airspace. Examples include the White House, prisons, and other sensitive areas. There are several free and paid applications to help navigate where and when you can fly. For commercial flight, notable applications are Airmap, Aloft, and Skyward. And those allow you to request authorization through the Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability (LAANC), a collaboration between FAA and the commercial drone industry.
- Have you Considered Weather Conditions and Have You Informed Tenants?
Weather conditions can play a huge factor in things like batteries, flight time and motion blur. Keep in mind that the time of day matters as well, particularly if you’re looking to capture geothermal imagery such as when analyzing moisture on a roof. You’ll want to dedicate time to dusk and dawn for this.
In addition to weather, you’ll want to make sure you’re clear to fly when it comes to the property. Within both the residential and commercial roofing space, you may want to inform tenants that you plan to fly a drone — sometimes this is even required if you’re taking off from private property. Also, some properties have a gate that may need to be opened to get line of sight to fly.
- Now That You’ve Collected Images, How Do You Use the Imagery and Data to Create a Digital Twin and Provide a Business Solution?
According to IBM, a digital twin is “a virtual model designed to accurately reflect a physical object.” This incorporates automated inspection and various workflows. While Mobile Network Operations (MNOs), tower companies and commercial roofing companies are transitioning away from the manual and partial inspections, where data was often incomplete and siloed, to drone asset inspection or drone inspection services, there is still a data issue.
- Data Issue: Replacing an individual with a drone will not solve the data silo problem. Whether you’re sending a person or a drone to inspect a tower or a roof, where you house this data is another important thing to consider. Most likely, all of your prior inspections are on separate SD Cards or scattered among various hard drives or folders in the cloud. Further, there’s no central repository to view all your equipment, nor is there a comprehensive way to tell if there is space on your asset to host new equipment, for example.
- Business Solution: How do you look at hundreds or thousands of drone images of an asset and cull the relevant data? Be it equipment inventory or workflow deficiencies? You need to first ask yourself why you wanted to capture all of this data to begin with. If it was to make your employees jobs easier, quicker and safer, you’re going to want a tool that not only gives you a nice set of visual data, but one that can help your team automate processes and offer analytics related to efficiencies you can partake in. Further, accuracy and speed related to this data is extremely important for you to see the true value of your investment.
Leveraging a scalable, predictable, and repeatable method, Pointivo’s patented analytics solution offers the fastest results in the industry and helps solve real business problems for our clients, every day.
Ultimately, if you have the time and resources, you can build your own drone program from scratch. But, when you work with an expert who advises you tailored to your business requirements and use case, it can save you months of hassle and mishaps, regardless of if you decide to build or rent.
Pointivo can help you make a decision on whether you should build or buy your own corporate drone program, knowing the data collection and representation itself can dramatically improve business decisions through accuracy and science. While we help companies collect and manage their physical asset data with dimensionally accurate 3D digital twins and AI-powered analytics, our full suite of patented solutions revolutionize the way companies make key business decisions.
Contact us today for a conversation about launching your own enterprise drone program for asset inspection.