2020 has been disruptive to our industry in countless ways. We've all had to navigate unchartered waters as we try to not only figure out what will keep us afloat today but also what will enable us to sustainably sail into the future.
In an effort to keep everyone updated on the rapid changes happening as a result of the events of 2020, Commercial UAV News has been produced numerous panel webinars, video interviews, and articles that talk through important developments happening throughout the drone ecosystem. We've covered everything from regulations and drone delivery to the economic impact of the pandemic all the way to how such things have changed the trajectory of the industry and much more.
These conversations have yielded a lot of helpful insights about the enterprise, what is and isn’t working within the drone industry as well as ideas about what we can do. However, diving into what all of this means for your business and what you can take away from these conversations can be an overwhelming task. So here are five digestible lessons that anyone can use to inform their drone business decisions and prepare for the future.
Lesson 1: Understand the Challenge and Solve It
Does your solution solve a known problem in your industry? Although a technology may be new or unique, that doesn’t mean it will provide benefits someone needs. Success is about making a solution that is better than current methods. Businesses are looking for solutions that will make something easier, safer, quicker, and cheaper; if you can’t check off some of those boxes for them, it will be difficult to justify investing in your solution.
But proving something is easier, safer, quicker, or cheaper requires an understanding of not just what your solution can do for the industry but also how it fits within current workflows. How much effort will be involved to adopt the technology? There are several things to consider when making the claim that a product or service is faster, safer, cheaper, or easier.
In terms of cost, it is important to understand what the operational budgets are for your target market. A solution can be perfect, but if it's too expensive, you’ve effectively priced yourself out of the industry. In fact, focusing on creating an affordable, high-quality solution that meets the needs of an industry can set you above the rest. For example, companies like DJI and Evolve Dynamics have cornered a major sector of their target markets because their products were affordable and reliable.
Being able to complete a job faster or easier than traditional methods can also be a compelling reason to adopt new technology or services. Yet, if adding a product or service doesn’t fit well with current practices or creates bottlenecks in processes further down the road, there may be resistance to adopting the technology until these issues are addressed. One of the biggest examples of this has been processing and analyzing big data once drones have collected it; whole industries, like agriculture, have been slow to adopt the technology as a result. Luckily, machine learning and AI are starting to help with data processing, as Caroline Bailey, Sales Account Executive at Picterra SA, discussed in a recent webinar.
“There is so much data being collected around the world, it is really too much for anyone to handle without the help of machines,” explained Bailey. “It costs a person time to go through each and every image to find what they are looking for, time that could be better spent making decisions based on those findings rather than looking for it. That is the power of machine learning, it can do these repetitive tasks and pull that data so people can make better use of their time.”
Anticipating these challenges and solving them or being the solution provider that solves an existing challenge can make the difference between adoption and rejection.
Just making a process or job safer can also be a persuasive reason to adopt a technology or service, but it also has to be as effective as traditional methods and affordable. In a recent webinar with Skydio, Ben Spain, UAS Program Manager of the North Carolina Department of Transportation, explained the dangers of manually inspecting bridges, which led them to look at drones as a possible solution. However, regulations restricting BVLOS and limitations of the technology working in GPS denied environments were initially an issue. They knew drones could make the process safer, but they needed to solve these issues first. Skydio ultimately was able to solve that problem for them and open the door for drones in bridge inspections in that region.
“We received a waiver from the FAA to fly beyond line of sight without a visual observer underneath any bridge in North Carolina that are outlined within the waiver,” said Spain. “This is a huge relief to our pilots. This is due to the Skydio platform, the FAA recognized the capabilities of their drone to fly safely underneath bridges while maintaining solid navigational performance, even in GPS denied environments. Our waiver is tied to the Skydio 2.”
Once you know your solution makes a job faster, safer, easier, or cheaper and doesn’t cause additional issues like added costs or challenges, the next big step is to quantify what that means in terms of return on investment, which leads into the next lesson, making the case for adoption.
Lesson 2: To Make a Convincing Case for Adoption, Think Like an Executive
Properly articulating how a solution will benefit a company in terms of return on investment, how risk will be managed, and performance will be measured is important for technology adoption. Executives need to understand how introducing a new technology will impact their business not only in terms of the bottom line (return on investment) but also what risks they will be taking on and how they can measure success for the long term. They are looking for that information to be quantified and defined with data.
“Oftentimes, what stops organizations from taking that next leap is the threat of lawsuits due to crashes,” stated Alden Jones, Senior Director of Customer Success at Skydio in their recent webinar. “It’s really important to understand when you go to an executive or program leader you need to show them how you are going to mitigate risk. We did a survey with over 100 different organizations and drone crashes were the biggest concern, because no matter how much ROI you have in the program, all of that can get wiped away by a large lawsuit. Even if there is 1% or 2% chance, your executives are going to think about that and wonder if it is really worth it for them.”
By anticipating what executives are going to require in order to adopt your solution early on in the development process and capturing that data, you’ll be able to define the ROI, risk mitigation procedures, and metrics that businesses require to make important decisions for their companies.
Making this initial pitch with this in mind may get you in the door, but being agile and adaptable will keep you there, which leads to lesson 3, preparing for the future.
Lesson 3: Prepare for the Future: Be Agile and Adaptable
Long-term success is ultimately defined by how well a business can keep up with industry needs, trends, and technology. No one wants to be stuck with legacy hardware that can’t keep up with the growing needs of a company. As important as it is to define how your solution can solve problems today, it is equally important to plan how your solution will adapt as well as to develop an agile roadmap for the future.
“You need to make sure the hardware is not limiting what a drone can do,” stated Laurent Zimmerli, Head of Product Marketing at Auterion in a recent webinar. “You don’t want to invest in a technology that can be used today but can’t be used after a year because new innovation and capabilities are available, but your drone is just not capable of using them. Hardware should be software defined and capable of integrating new payloads as they come along.”
Being future proof may seem difficult when the industry is changing rapidly, but there are ways you can position your business to be ready. The first is to stay on top of emerging technologies, trends, and best practices, and understand what they mean for your business. For example, if you run a drone as a service industry and are watching the trends toward autonomy, start thinking about ways you can change your business model to adapt to those trends. The second is to make it easy to upgrade your solution to the latest tech, software, or trend.
If COVID taught us anything it is that agile businesses are able to adapt to extreme changes and find success. Understand how circumstances change the playing field and be ready to pivot if need be. For example, DroneUp hadn’t been focused on drone delivery but once that clearly became a need during the pandemic, they shifted focus and are now helping to deliver COVID-19 tests across the country.
“Our mission is to be the number one drone service provider in the world, and the path that defines that is the drone services that are in demand,” explained Tom Walker, Founder and CEO of DroneUp, in a recent panel discussion. “You have to be willing to decide whether to stick with the path you are on or make critical decisions to shift in the moment. Ten months ago, we weren’t having a conversation about delivery. It was not on our agenda. Now, ten months later we are doing deliveries for NATO, Walmart, and other logistics companies.”
Third, future proofing is easier when there are set industry standards. Working with industry to define the roadmap for innovation can help everyone to be ready to adapt when the time comes. It is easier to adapt when you are involved with standard building and know the trajectory of your industry. For example, Auterion is working to help set open source as the software standard for the drone industry.
Being aware of or even a part of these efforts can set your business up to be successful in the years to come.
Lesson 4: Work with Regulators and Law Makers
Building a viable business today and into the future also means working with regulators and law makers. Many of the businesses that are growing today have a strong relationship with regulators and leaders. They work with leaders to understand local, regional, and state laws as well as public processes and concerns.
“When we talk to elected officials, they aren’t educated enough to answer important questions about how drones will impact their community” explained Michael Healander , President and CEO of Airspace Link Inc., in a one-on-one video interview. “Infrastructure planning goes through a complex process, what does that infrastructure look like, what is the cost, how do you handle safety and privacy—there are just so many questions. Right now, we need to get them educated about drones and the benefits to the community so that they can address these questions.”
Even if you don’t work directly with these groups, regulations and laws should always be integrated into what you do and how you develop your solution. If you think like a regulator or law maker, your solution will check the boxes and get up and running faster than if this is an afterthought.
Similar to executives, regulators need data on risk mitigation and performance metrics. Tracking flight data can help you make that safety case to secure needed support from government agencies and companies who want to make sure they are adopting a proven technology.
“Three years ago, we had a finished product, we went to the FAA and they said, ‘this is a great start to the conversation’. It took us three more years to gather the data and get the tech approved,” Alexander Harmsen, Chairman and Co-Founder of Iris Automation, told Commercial UAV News in a one-on-one video interview. “That process has been extremely valuable for a number of different reasons. I think that what we do for regulators is also valuable for our customers who don’t only want the tech, but they want to know if they can trust the tech. This takes a tremendous amount of data and flight testing in the real world. The data we collect also helps us improve our system.”
That data can also help you inform leaders and the community about your solution and encourage support of drone technology in local communities, which leads to our next lesson, don’t make public perception an afterthought.
Lesson 5: Don’t Make Public Perception an Afterthought
Probably one of the most overlooked aspect of having a successful enterprise drone business is obtaining public support. Even the biggest businesses in the industry have seen that a lack of community support can end a project before it even begins. Local leaders and the public should be your allies throughout the process because without them there is no demand for services nor is there approval of what you do and that can have unforeseen consequences, especially when dealing with law makers and regulatory bodies like the FAA. Brendan Groves, head of Regulatory and Policy Affairs at Skydio, talked about just how much influence public opinion had on decision making within the FAA in a recent panel discussion.
“If you read the regulatory rules you won’t find a clause that states there must be public acceptance, but that is always something the FAA considers before issuing a waiver,” stated Groves who served on the interagency board that oversees the integration of drones into the national airspace, the FAA UAS Executive Committee, for the last four years. “They may not tell you about it, but they are always thinking about and talking about it—Will the community support your operation? Unless they are confident of this, you are very unlikely to have anyone at the FAA sign their name to grant that waiver. When you sign a waiver at the FAA you don’t get a gold star for enabling advanced operations. What happens is that you get approbation or discredited if something goes wrong—if local residents are up in arms because something happens. The more we, as an industry, can build public support the more likely the FAA will actually support these efforts.”
The moral of the story is do not ignore public concerns or fears. Anticipating and addressing them proactively can make the road to success a lot easier, and there are a lot of ways to engage with the public; a few are discussed here.
Building a drone enterprise program requires a lot of considerations, and much of this should happen in the planning stages of the company. However, there are now a number of successful drone enterprise businesses that are blazing the trail in many industries where drones are starting to be adopted. To learn more about what these industries have to say check out our on-demand and upcoming webinars here or follow our coverage on Commercial UAV News.