When opportunity knocks, you answer the door. Have a look at this invite:
Yup. I can do that… he said with his ‘lil heart all a-flutter. I’ve been following the evolution of commercial drone use (and generally all things under the drone sun) for a while now. I’ve written about drones as productivity tools, drones as network security threats, and even drones as a defense against the poaching of elephants. I have my own drones, and am an FAA-licensed Part 107 Remote Pilot.
You could kinda say that I’m into it- like all of it- when it comes to drones. I just find the entire paradigm incredibly fascinating, from benefits to concerns, and from politics to the tech side of it. So when a company like PrecisionHawk wants to talk, I definitely make the time.
Pat Lohman is one of the VPs at PrecisionHawk, and was an absolute gentleman in fielding my questions and lending his insider perspective, and we covered a lot of ground. As a company, PrecisionHawk will certainly sell you drones and high-end sensors. But Lohman educated me on the company’s role as an integrator who provides really powerful analysis for a number of verticals, including agriculture, construction, energy, insurance, and government.
We talked about the specific cases that come with tower sites. It’s easy to sum it all up with “aerial inspection”, but that completely does a disservice to what’s really in play with PrecisionHawk’s services. Before tower construction, highly accurate land surveying is done from the air. Through tower construction, periodic inspections help ensure that the tower is being built right (and after-the-fact inspections for already-built towers reveal construction mistakes that can be dangerous or that work against the structure’s purpose). Once the tower is built, a range of services become relevant.
Picture 3D-mapping of a tower, and everything on it displayed with precise 3D point clouds (see this video primer on 3D point clouds from Vectorworks.) Now lets add in some of that analysis that is PrecisionHawk’s bread-and-butter: a given antenna on the tower is supposed to have a specific orientation to deliver the coverage it was installed to provide. That orientation is determined to be off a couple of degrees, and through various integrations with end customers’ support systems, an alert is generated and a truck gets rolled to adjust the antenna. “Value” takes on a lot of dimensions here, and Lohman stresses that PrecisionHawk is in the business of creating value. That doesn’t just happen because drones are in the air gathering data, but rather as a result of the sophisticated science that happens with that data. The real magic comes after the data collection and mapping is done, and the analytics kick in.
The most value comes from sound, streamlined processes that get the drones up and back down, crunch the data, and provide actionable intel. That’s what PrecisionHawk specializes in.
We spoke of different use cases and where the majority of time gets spent on each. For example, photo and video work is mostly all flying time, while sensor-based work is far more intensive in post processing, after the drones are back on the ground.
Lohman was most accommodating as I jumped around topics. We spoke of how the high and low ends of the drone device space are blurring, and how DJI pretty much owns the space at this point. I asked what impact the “no Chinese drones allowed” regulations have on PrecionHawk’s work with government agencies, and Lohman explained how the company will integrate any platform’s data, but the cost to do one-offs is more because of the added work involved when you get away from the mainstream DJI-type inputs. he was also clear in stressing that the drone itself is secondary in importance to the data it brings home.
I asked if fixed-wing drones have advantages over rotary crafts in different situations, and Lohman patiently gave me a quick history of fixed-wings having their start in agriculture because they could stay up longer when covering huge swaths of land, and how cell sites and structure inspection require the agility of the copters. Lohman also expects more hybrids- drones that can fly with fixed wings but vertically take off and land- to gain mass adoption.
We talked about what sensors see the most action. Here it’s still *mostly* visual missions flown, but thermal inspections are growing, and multi-spectral sensors are a key part of agricultural drone ops. LIDAR is the at the high end of expense when it comes to sensors, and you may pay upwards of $200K for LIDAR. That’s a big pricetag, but this is technology that not so long ago cost in the millions and was reserved for military use.
Finally, we bantered a little about the current fragmented nature of airspace regulation relating to drones (the current mismash of rules between the FAA and local governmental agencies is unsustainable), educational opportunities around unmanned aerial systems at schools like Embry-Riddle and Kansas State, and up-and-coming advocacy groups that seek to improve the commercial drone industry’s standing in a number of fronts. These include the Small UAV Coalition and the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), and even Droners.io which is owned by PrecisionHawk and is a framework that gets a growing number of independent licensed drone pilots (like me) work- with common training, ground rules, approach, and respectable pay.