Cost savings, big data and virtual reality all behind lift-off in demand for drones

Commercial Drones gaining interest from Shell and Arup

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[Editor’s Note: Companies such as Shell, Arup and Energy Group, see drones as a cost-effective route to collect intelligence.]

Demand for drone technology in industry in the UK has lifted off during 2016 with major companies, such as Shell, Arup and major utilities looking to deploy drones for surveying and conducting inspections.

In adopting drones, the companies are looking to cut the costs of such activities in the field, while generating more data that can be used for analysis. Furthermore, with the aid of sophisticated visualisation software, organisations can build virtual reality images of installations, which can be used back in the office.

That is the claim of Justin Pringle, chief technology officer of drone services company Drone Operations. He claims that in the past two months alone, he has seen more interest in drones from blue-chip, FTSE-100 companies than in the previous four years.

“I’ve worked with drones for the past four years. In the past two months, every enterprise company of a certain level – and we’re talking FTSE-100 companies – have all of a sudden realised that the technology now exists. And, because it’s recognised as such a disruptive technology, for the first time, it’s been accepted.

“So I had meetings this week with Shell, Arup and Energy Group. We’re talking to them about integrating this within all of their infrastructure,” Pringle told Computing at this week’s Northumbrian Water end-user conference in Newcastle.

“They’re interested in remote management, autonomy, and removing risks from tasks in hand. But mostly, it’s shown itself as a potential cost-effective route to collect intelligence,” he added.

Drones dramatically lower the costs of aerial surveys compared to putting up a light aircraft replete with a Light Detection And Ranging (Lidar) device. “That’s quite costly. If you wanted to do it localised and look at a building or a series of buildings, a drone can do the job in the matter of a few hours, safely and with low impact, and it’s just a really clever technology to remove added expense.

“I went to see a housing association last week that spent £300,000 per year on scaffolding, and we calculated that using drones to do the survey and intelligence gathering, they could drop that down to £100,000. That’s technology that’s going to create jobs, a requirement for internal intelligence – terabytes and terabytes of data – so it’s going to have knock-on effect for the way that the digital world works,” added Pringle.

Indeed, companies are also looking to apply the information generated by drones to big data – if not now, in the future: “The whole big data world has taken a happy shift, in our eyes, towards longitude, latitude and meta-tags, and drones enable you to do that from an aerial platform so you can see things in the context of the data you’ve captured,” said Pringle.

An emerging area for drone technology, though, is in virtual reality, with the data captured by the drone being stitched together and presented back to users in both a 3D, on-screen format that can be manipulated, as well as with virtual reality.

CAD software maker Bentley Systems, for example, acquired a French company to provide the technology behind its ContextCapture tool, which Drone Operations uses.

One of the major drawbacks to deploying drones, even for small-scale surveying, is the grey areas around regulation, with a Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) licence required for most “pilots”. Universities, however, have exploited a loophole provided for educational purposes – but Pringle argues that they still need a licence if they are going to offer commercial drone services in any way.


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