Many individuals and organizations are waiting with baited breath to find out how Part 107 from the FAA will impact commercial drone operations. Regardless of what the final ruling does or doesn’t contain, the approaches and concerns around regulation will greatly impact the return on investment those individuals and organizations are able to see from their use of a drone. However, the legal landscape is just one of the considerations around ROI with UAVs that needs to be taken into account.

Dave Henderson

Dave Henderson

To help sort through such details, I talked with Dave Henderson from Topcon Positioning Systems. Throughout his career, Henderson’s focus has been to specialize in assisting businesses, organizations and individuals to implement technology into existing workflows, which made him the ideal to person to explain how users can leverage drones to increase productivity and become more competitive in the current marketplace.

We discussed the sort of breakthroughs and opportunities that drones have enabled, where misunderstandings can happen, what questions users need to be asking around their use of a drone and plenty more.

Jeremiah Karpowicz: Your career in the positioning business spans three decades, so can you tell us about how drone technology has or hasn’t inherently redefined your service offerings?

Dave Henderson: Topcon has been in what we refer to as the mass data collection business for a while with vehicle mobile mapping and terrestrial laser scanners. Now we’re just taking that approach to another level with aerial mapping.

We’re opening the game to more players in a more complete way by offering an economic entry point to grab mass amounts of accurate data for a lot of different applications, whether it’s survey, mapping, construction or agriculture. It’s changing the game like GPS did in the early 90’s.

How have you seen professionals in each of those market segments embrace the technology? Are some people more willing to explore the capabilities presented by UAVs than others?

With most technological advancements you have segments that are early adopters. With UAVs, more professionals are embracing the technology at an earlier stage. They just cannot ignore how disruptive the technology is and the impact it is having in their profession.

One of Topcon’s missions is to find new ways to enable breakthroughs in productivity. Have you been able to directly utilize drones to enable these sorts of breakthroughs?

Everyday there are new and exciting opportunities with UAVs that are pushing the envelope and creating productivity gains that were not possible using conventional manual methods.

For instance, in the energy business segment there are a variety of inspection applications (offshore oil rig, wind turbine and flare stack) that are driving demand for the technology at a high rate — due to the time of manually conducting inspections and operating costs to take the equipment off-line while inspections take place. With UAVs, this time and expense is radically reduced.

Falcon 8 Aerial Solution for Inspection and Monitoring

Falcon 8 Aerial Solution for Inspection and Monitoring

That leads us to your experience in this area, as you have an incredible amount of knowledge around implementation and ROI of adoption of mobile mapping and unmanned aerial systems. How have drones changed the conversations you're having with people around these topics?

It’s a basic paradigm shift with respect to the tools and processes that customers are using to conduct their work. While their current methods still function, are they efficient as compared to working with UAVs?

With UAVs, people are implementing a new tool into their workflow that can simply give them more information, faster and safer. The impact and ROI is undeniable for a variety of applications.

ROI is a topic we’ve heard a lot of people are struggling with as it relates to UAVs. Do you think that has more to do with the actual hardware/software costs, or with a misunderstanding around how drones can positively impact the bottom line?

It’s definitely both. Some people get caught up in the system cost without understanding the benefits and how it relates to project ROI.

In reality, if you look at how companies are currently capturing information for particular tasks then compare that to a UAV-based workflow, you will quickly find nuggets of information that show positive impact on the project’s bottom line. It changes your perspective on how to approach project tasks and how to gain an edge-up by utilizing new technology.

Within large organizations, does the conversation around UAV implementation need to be framed by a certain department? Generally speaking, is it easier for potential operators to explain why drones can make their work safer and easier, or does that push need to come from C-level executives who have worked out some of the numbers around expenses and ROI?

Because they are always seeking to identify how to improve operations and reduce costs, C-level executives have a macro understanding of the technology, benefits and ROI in general.

I do believe a project team is the key to adoption, because they are involved in the daily operations and can easily pinpoint where the technology will create value and have a positive impact on their business operations. They know where their challenges exist and have the responsibility to solve the problem first-hand. They have the ability to test their theory in the field and validate the impact.

Do you think a lot of people get caught up in the potential and excitement around drones at the expense of asking relevant ROI questions? 

It’s hard not to get excited about the technology. Especially when we look at the big picture and how it is impacting our everyday lives and jobs.

In today’s economy I don’t see a lot of clients pursuing the technology without asking good ROI questions. It’s about working smarter and utilizing the technology to achieve greater results. They are looking for tools that will have a positive impact on their projects from an informational, financial, and safety perspective.

Aerial Imaging Technology Utilized for Wildlife Preservation

Aerial Imaging Technology Utilized for Wildlife Preservation

That excitement can be infectious, but in many cases it’s wholly appropriate, especially when it comes to the new capabilities that drones are enabling. Do see opportunities being created with new sensors and systems that have and will be coming out?

Sensors are huge catalysts driving the expansion of UAVs. When you look at payload sensors and the user’s desire to collect detailed application-specific information, it is an enormous opportunity. Combined with navigation and control sensors for precise real-time positioning and collision avoidance, this makes the data capture process very powerful.

Just as important is application-specific field and office software, as well as the associated workflows designed for a niche vertical market. Those things enable the creation of an ecosystem that will streamline the entire process from data capture to deliverable.

What are some of the basic questions people should be asking if they want to ensure they can see a positive ROI around their UAV investment?

I think it’s important to understand what ultimately the user wants to achieve with the technology. Once they have that info, they can ask and answer some very specific questions:

What tasks will I use the UAV for? Can it help me complete my project faster, while improving my accuracy and safety? Is the information and deliverable better than my current methods? Will it help me manage my project more efficiently by providing more detailed information during the project lifecycle? Will it help me manage my risk? Are the results measurable?

A lot of people are waiting until FAA regulations around the commercial use of UAVs are further defined, but do you think it makes sense to wait for particular regulatory milestones?  

Obviously for some people it makes very good sense to wait based on their particular circumstances. Companies should weigh the regulatory compliance requirements and determine if the timing is right for implementation.

Ultimately, they should ask themselves, “If I implement the technology today will it have a positive impact on my project and revenue objectives?

What advice would you give to survey, mapping, construction or agriculture professionals who are struggling to grasp how UAVs can impact their business and operations? 

The best way to answer that question is to attend a UAV conference that is focused on the technology. Such conferences offer program sessions on a variety of subjects including compliance and applications. The venue can aid in meeting other peers and professionals who are at various stages of implementation and can offer feedback and advice. It will help in understanding how the technology is being used today and the impact it can potentially have on their business.