As a former helicopter pilot in the U.S. Army and then for Life Flight, nothing gets me more excited than aviation. And right now, there’s a lot to be excited about. Here, in the U.S., I’m confident that 2016 will go down in aviation and business history as the year drones became tools, not toys.
The aerial robots have arrived — and they’re hard at work in ways that you may find surprising. And no, Amazon’s touted package delivery program isn’t among them (at least not yet).
Nearly half a million recreational drone pilots have registered with the FAA, but what I find more interesting are the 5,000-plus businesses that have been authorized to fly commercially in the U.S. These businesses, which range from startups to major corporations, are using aerial robots to do dull, dirty and dangerous jobs, as well as to access critical information from the aerial perspective.
I consider myself lucky because I have a front row seat to all this innovation. The company I co-founded, Skyward, is an operations management platform for companies that use drones. I’m continually blown away by the work our customers are doing, in Oregon and around the world.
Take farming, an industry as old as civilization. For several decades, farmers and agricultural researchers depended on airplanes to map and model crops, which was prohibitively expensive for most people. Here in Oregon, OmniFox Aerial is taking agricultural mapping and modeling to new heights and powering smarter, more efficient ways of growing food.
In another application, inspecting vertical structures — think cell towers and wind turbines — drones can do the job quickly. More importantly, they’ve made these essential jobs much safer for the humans involved.
Talon Aerolytics, a Georgia-based company, uses drones to inspect thousands of cellular towers throughout the United States. They’ve achieved a pace that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago, reducing the total inspection time of a single tower from months to days.
Even forests are seeing innovation. If you’ve ever worked on a planting crew, you know it involves backbreaking work and dozens of crew members, often in remote locations — an expensive process that hasn’t changed since the 1940s. But DroneSeed, based in the Northwest, is using aerial robots to make reforesting ten times cheaper and exponentially more efficient.
Some of the most experienced drone companies have avoided specializing. Instead, they’re serving customers with wide-ranging needs. This is not an understatement. We’re talking luxury real estate videography one day, an industrial inspection the next and on call assistance to firefighters and other first responders. Measure is pioneering the concept of “drones-as-a-service” for companies that want to use drones, but don’t want to spin up their own in-house drone operation.
We’re also seeing existing businesses integrate drones into their business models to serve customers more efficiently. LIFT Technologies, a division of the construction giant Clayco, uses drones to inspect construction sites, wind turbines and other applications. Keystone Aerial has been providing enterprise-grade professional imaging services for years using traditional airplanes, and they’re now employing drones in the fleet as well.
In 2012, when my co-founders and I created Skyward, Oregon was the obvious choice for our headquarters. We were not alone. Along with OmniFox Aerial, DroneSeed and R&H Construction, one of Portland’s largest commercial construction companies, we were all using drones in many creative ways.
This isn’t a coincidence. Oregon is uniquely positioned at the confluence of aviation and computer hardware — which is what an aerial robot is. Helicopter companies Erickson, Columbia Helicopters and Helicopter Transport Services are all based in the Portland metro area. On the hardware side, we have Intel, whose CEO Brian Krzanich sits on the FAA’s Commercial Drone Alliance.
To me, aerial robotics offer the greatest promise of both industries, so it makes sense that this climate would attract this new generation of drone pioneers.
By Jonathan Evans, CEO Skyward