Drone Service Providers are set to explode. Don’t let these Drone Business Ideas pass you by.
The drone services market is set to boom in the coming years as new applications for drone technology are conceived. According to a recent research report by marketsandmarkets.com, drone service revenues are set to grow from $4.4 billion to $63.6 billion by 2025. It’s relatively easy to enter the market too; sure, there are a few hoops to jump through with the FAA, but a little home school and a few thousand dollars, and you too can set up shop as a Drone Service Provider (DSP).
Many people think that when they start up a DSP the only options are offer film services for weddings or real estate. And while there is money to be made there, the competition is immensely high and filled with experienced photographers who are adding drones to their existing list of services.
I would encourage you to look around for other opportunities and sectors in the marketplace instead, where drones have the potential to revolutionize roles which were previously undertaken by expensive manned aircraft, or by people working at excessive heights – with all the risk this entails.
If you consider that commercial drones are primarily low-cost aerial sensors, then you can start to appreciate all the potential applications. The standard sensor mounted on a drone is, of course, a digital camera. But there are other sensors available too, like specialist thermal/infrared cameras, and multispectral cameras which capture specific frequencies on the electromagnetic spectrum.
Often times the magic comes when you combine the data collected by the drone sensor with software that leverages big data algorithms and AI. There are several software companies now offering specialist software which takes data captured by a drone and interprets the information to produce business-critical data. Thus helping companies to make more informed decisions, more effectively allocate capital, and monitor progress on major projects.
This article aims to show you how drones can be used in different sectors, and also how they combine with the cutting-edge software to provide businesses in many industries, with an edge. We’ll also look at some off-the-wall applications for drones to help you understand the potential for DSPs over the next five years.
Drones With HD Cameras.
In the US, every year, falls are a leading cause of death in the workplace. So to mitigate the risks of inspections at higher elevations, companies devote valuable time and expenses to setting up scaffolding and rigging. This means that it can take several days to inspect even the smallest area, which raises the jobs cost.
Now drones, equipped with a high-resolution cameras, can conduct an inspection safely, quickly, and at a much lower cost. An often-used example of this is wind turbine inspection. Wind turbine blades are made from a carbon fiber material, and though robust, do wear out or become damaged. Yearly inspections are required for the asset and are often done by (courageous) people dangling from a rope and manmade rig hundreds of feet in the air.
Now, a drone can inspect the blade with an HD camera as it looks for chips, cracks, and corrosion, many times faster than any human can visually inspect. Technicians still need to scale the blades in the event of repairs, but drones have all but eliminated the chance of falls during inspections
If there are no wind farms near you, that’s OK; there are many diverse properties that require regular visual inspections—roofs, chimneys, water towers, and electrical equipment, to name just a few. Anywhere you can think that a drone can mitigate safety risks of working at higher elevations, could be an idea for a drone business. Business is all about satisfying a need, or filling a void in the marketplace.
Indoor Inspection Drones
It’s not all outdoor work either. Consider the problem of chemical manufacturers, all those twisting pipes, and large storage vats, with joints and valves in inaccessible places that need an inspection. My guess is this is an exceptionally difficult job to fill with a human being.
But, the company Flyability produces a drone called Elios 2 which is surrounded by a carbon fiber web-like shield designed to absorb bumps so the onboard camera can inspect in tight spaces. It can even operate underground and be used to inspect pipes and sewers flying BVLOS (beyond visual line of sight).
There are other business use cases for a standard camera drone, too; you may enjoy using the hyperlapse feature on your drone to make attractive time-lapse footage. Construction companies are now using these kinds of shots for marketing, to highlight a buildings stages over time – Not to mention, because everyone thinks they look cool! In this current outbreak of Coronavirus in Wuhan, China, Chinese viewers have been consumed with the drone footage of a new hospital built in a few short days, for the express purpose of helping treat those who became sick with the virus.
While there are many industrial uses for inspection drones, there are also many benefits in the security sector. Police, Fire, and Rescue already deploy drones for many of their activities, and private investigators are increasingly turning to drones to collect evidence as well. Catching vandals in the act or filming other anti-social behavior, can be done from a distance with a drone – without the need for potentially dangerous confrontations.
So, we can see that many businesses can use drones with an HD camera to minimize risk and complete inspections quicker. The commercial sector will see significant growth in drone usage over the next five years. But, it is not just an aerial set of eyes that drones can offer when paired with specialist software, drones can provide much more.
Drone Orthomosaic Photographs.
If you’ve ever spent time zooming in and out of your favorite beach or historical site on Google Earth, then you have been studying an orthomosaic. An orthomosaic is a cluster of many images stitched together, geometrically corrected to account for camera tilt and lens blur, which produces an accurately scaled image so precise that you can take measurements with it. On Google Earth, the images are taken by satellite, so when you zoom in, the outline might be a little fuzzy as resolution at maximum magnification is poor. So, Google Earth is not a tool companies rely on for any meaningful surveying work.
But, if you use a drone with an HD camera to take pictures of an specific area, then employ specialist software to stitch these together into an orthomosaic, you’ll end up with a high-resolution image which has many high-value applications.
Drones for Agriculture
Agriculture accounts for 51% of land use in the lower 48, and since the 1970s, farmers have used satellite images to get a better understanding of their land. The cost of obtaining these images is high, in the tens of thousands of dollars, but having access to these images is still worthwhile for farmers who produce high-value crops like Almonds or Vineyards, grown in concentrated areas.
But now, using drones, the cost has come down substantially and has become commercially viable for many types of crops; we are now about to enter the age of ‘smart farming.’
Drones can be regularly deployed over crops, to produce orthomosaics which enable farmers to check seed germination, measure crop height, and identify weak areas in fields that require more attention.
For example, a farmer looks at this week’s orthophoto data and sees an area in a field where the plants are shorter than the surrounding crop. It’s not something that can’t be seen from the ground view. Still, thanks to the orthophoto, the farmer now realizes that these specific plants are dehydrated due to the unique properties of a stretch of land. By having this valuable information, the farmer can nurture these particular plants to bring them in line with the rest of the crop. The orthomosaic also provides exact GPS coordinates to the farmer, so locating the section of the field is straightforward.
Drones can be an invaluable tool to help farmers increase yields and reduce waste by employing resources like fertilizer and pesticides only on areas of need.
Orthomosaic Search and Rescue
Orthomosaics are not just for giving farmers a whole new perspective, instead they have a broad range of usefulness. Check out this video about the value Orthomosaic’s are providing to Search and Rescue . The scenario is that a person is missing, and they are thought to be in a specific area. A drone produces an orthomosaic of the search area, and once the data is crunched, thanks to the high definition camera, the software can do a pixel-by-pixel search.
The color of the missing person’s t-shirt is taken from a social media picture posted by her earlier in the day, producing an RGB color-code. The software then searches the image pixel by pixel to see where that color-code is found, helping the rescue services direct their operatives to the missing persons location, using GPS coordinates.
3D Drone Orthomosaics For Construction
The orthomosaic does not have to be a flat 2D image, either. Using an overhead capture method, followed by a lower level sweep with the camera on a tilted angle, enables software to produce an accurate 3D orthomosaic. This has many real-world uses and is currently a growth area for drones in mining and construction.
3D orthomosaics can be used to precisely measure the volume of raw materials on a construction site or mounds of mined minerals. Regular imaging by Drone services providers help companies assess a projects efficiency and monitor supply levels of crucial materials.
The maps are so accurate that businesses can also measure the progress of a construction project, for example, using the images to measure the heights of bricks laid. This helps them organize contractors more effectively. For example, they can have a better understanding of when they need to bring in the electricians, or that the concrete pourers should be finished in 5 days rather than 7, and are therefore available for another project.
Construction projects give Drone Service Providers an abundance of opportunities for regular weekly gigs. Don’t forget you could also use your standard camera to provide a hyperlapse of the build for marketing purposes. Or how about you upsell a picture of the view from the penthouse balcony that is yet to be built?
The equipment you would need to start a business in this field is within reach of many people. You could get started with a drone like the DJI Mavic 2 Pro. But, in order to stand apart from the competition, you might consider something more specialized like the DJI Phantom 4 RTK.
For software to produce orthomosiacs, the market leaders are Drone Deploy and Pix4D. The software they offer is subscription-based, and you should expect to pay about $200 per month, however there are basic mapping subscriptions, which are a bit cheaper.
As you can see, if you look a little further than standard photography with your drone, there are plenty of opportunities. But if you upgrade your camera to a higher quality, and more specialized one, then there are even more opportunities which will allow you to set yourself apart.
Thermal Imaging Drone Cameras
Thermal imaging cameras sense radiation on the part of the infrared range of the electromagnetic spectrum. Familiar to many of us following the Predator movies, there are many applications for a drone equipped with a thermal imaging camera.
Inspecting solar panels with a thermal camera can identify faulty connectors, panel cracks, and efficiency, reducing excessive dirt. Before drones were an option, it was a process undertaken by people working at height using hand-held thermal scanners. So, the benefits are clear for using DSPs in this sector to reduce working at height risks and perform faster inspections.
Electricity generated from solar panel arrays (and other conventional sources) is transmitted down power lines, and these require inspection too. Power line inspection is often done with more expensive, specialist drones. So this is not a sector you could reasonably expect to enter with your DJI Mavic 2 Pro (which doesn’t have a thermal camera anyway). But, drones can quickly spot malfunctions and pinpoint them via GPS, all while reducing working at height risk. Drones also have an advantage over helicopters in this field as they are more maneuverable, and can get closer into a problem, viewing it from several angles.
A drone with a thermal camera could also allow you to set up a diagnostics business to identify heat loss in buildings. Keeping a large building warm in winter and cool in summer is a costly endeavor. So, if you can identify areas of thermal bridging (weak spots in a building’s insulation profile), this can help direct remedial action by property managers to correct the problem.
Thermal cameras also offer the opportunity to spot water leaks from pipes installed underground. In winter, when the ground is colder, water leaking from pipes will show up on a thermal image, because the temperature is a few degrees warmer than surrounding soil. With the growing occurrence of drought in many regions of the US, locating uncontrolled water loss can assist in preserving this precious resource.
Another sector that can benefit from a DSP equipped with a thermal camera drone is the energy sector. Millions of miles of pipes crisscross the US transporting the resources we consume in our daily lives, and much of it was built 50 years ago (some 100 years ago). Corrosion is the main worry for pipeline owners, and a temperature difference can identify weak spots. It’s a task that requires regular inspection, and drones can be used to pinpoint the exact location of problems.
Outside of industrial uses, thermal imaging drones can be used in emergency response too. Locating a heat signature in a search and rescue mission is an obvious application for a thermal camera drone. Firefighters can also use them to pinpoint the hottest point of a fire so that resources can be directed more efficiently. However, these duties are most often undertaken by the emergency services themselves using their own trained drone pilots, so there is not likely to be an opportunity for third-party DSPs in this sector.
Multispectral Drone Cameras for Agriculture.
You may remember from school that when you shine white light through a spectrum is splits into different colors. The experiment illustrates how colors have different wavelengths of light energy.
A multispectral camera is a specialist multi-lens camera that captures images only on specific parts of the light spectrum. Some of the lenses capture the light wavelengths we can see, such as green or red, and the others capture wavelengths we can’t see, like near-infrared. The data obtained by these cameras have a particular use case in agriculture.
Combined with the orthomosaic software tool, we discussed earlier enables a farmer to get even more useful data on crops than the images taken with a standard HD camera. The output from the camera is often provided in two formats NDVI and NDRE, which are the standard formats used in agriculture to monitor plants.
It’s all to do with the difference between the way healthy plants and sick plants reflect light. Plants under stress are easy to spot on a multispectral image, due to differing levels of chlorophyll absorption, allowing a farmer to pinpoint the plants they need to focus their attention on.
As a specialism for DSPs, there is potential for massive growth in the sector. Farmers will need regular assessments of the state of crops, giving plenty of opportunity for repeat custom. To enter this market, however, you will need not only a specialist multispectral camera but also a specialist drone.
The difference in ambient light on the days you shoot on requires calibrating, which means you’ll need a drone with a light sensor on top. DJI has launched the P4 Multispectral drone, costing around $6000, and there are other drones with fixed wings that are popular in this field like the SenseFly eBee.
There are also further environmental applications for the multispectral camera, such as forestry management or shoreline mapping, currently undertaken by satellite, but could offer opportunities for DSPs.
Other Drone Pilot Jobs
So, what if you don’t want to get into a sector that involves using one of the cameras we have discussed? There are a few roles for drones that don’t require a camera and software. Aerial advertising has a history going back over 100 years, where adverts were first displayed on airships. Drones now can also offer this kind of promotion too and provide a fresh twist for those that wish to stand apart from the competition.
Of course, drones have a smaller payload and a lesser flight time than balloons and planes, so the adverts are proportionally small in size. Advertising drones are more likely to be flown near the entrance at a special event, like an exhibition, than high in the sky. Further promotional activities can also be done inside an exhibition using drones. Companies have already used drones to deliver promotional items to attendees, which is a great way to make sure your business prospects remember you.
If you find yourself mainly enjoying the flying aspect of the drone world, then you could investigate the role of a freelance pilot. As we have seen, the potential use cases for drones are enormous, and before long, companies will set up their own drone departments for inspection, mapping, and other activities. These companies will need to retain the services of experienced and qualified drone users to pilot their fleet.
Want something a little more thrilling? Drone racing is a fast-growing sport, and the prize money is increasing too. It’s still behind e-sports in overall potential earnings but expect this to grow as the sport develops. Racing drones are often custom built by participants where, like auto racing, people seek an edge over the competition through proprietary technology. Racing drones can achieve speeds above 100mph as they navigate around challenging racing circuits. If you want to buy one off the shelf to get you started then, popular brands are Walkera and Arris
The future is bright for people with the skills and qualifications for piloting drones. But, gone are the days where all you need is a Part 107 and a website to make a good living in the drone industry. The market has matured since, and specialties are becoming more defined.
This article has defined a drone sensor as a camera in one format or another, but what other drone mountable technology might come to market and have a disruptive impact in any given sector? In this sense, it’s still early days for drones, so you shouldn’t conclude that DSPs are a saturated market. But you do need to identify a sector, become expert in it, and differentiate yourself from the competition.
Many of your competitors will try and enter a market with a drone like the DJI Mavic 2 Pro, a fine drone, no doubt, but if you invest your money in a more specialist drone that has the capabilities to capture better quality data than the Mavic 2, then you should get an edge on the competition.
And like any new business, before you start, you should write a solid business plan, talk to potential customers, and hopefully, if you can, a DSP who is already working in the sector you want