The world moves fast. Five years ago, if you flew your drone in public, people would stop and stare, wondering if you were some kind of international spy. But that was five years ago. Things have changed quite a bit since then.
The DJI Phantom was, for the most part, the first consumer multirotor drone marketed as ‘ready to fly’ out of the box. It came out in 2013. At that time, about 5,000 units were sold per month. Today, that number is closer to 150,000, meaning sales grew by an incredible 3,000% over a few years. There are no signs of a slowdown, either. For the 2015 holiday season alone, over a million drones flew off the shelves (hooray, our first drone pun!).
If that isn’t enough to get you excited, consider this: Consumer interest is just half the story. Businesses are experimenting, too. DHL has successfully delivered packages with drones in Germany. Walmart is using drones to move goods around their warehouses. Airlines are using drones for visual inspections in Europe. The next evolution of the industrial revolution is underway!
If you’re reading this article, we assume you’re interested in drones and curious about how you might use them to improve your business, or start a new one. Good move. You’re just in time to ride the wave of the next technological revolution.
WHY SO MUCH GROWTH?
When we first got into this business, we thought there were about three hundred different uses for drones. We now realize our estimate was low, by an order of magnitude.
So, why exactly are we seeing so much growth in the industry? Let’s look at a few of the major factors. Lighter, Smaller, Smarter.
For a long time, drones and their related equipment were extremely large, heavy, and expensive. The first drones, used by the military in 1955, included mounted cameras the size of a beach ball. Today, that same camera is far more powerful, and it’s smaller than a golf ball.
Drones are also smarter. In earlier versions of model aircraft, your vehicle would crash as soon as you let off the sticks. But with a modern-day drone, it’ll stop in place and hover perfectly still, even in the wind.
With that single development alone, drones are far less intimidating than traditional model aircraft. Thus far more appealing to the average consumer. Hobbyists Are Fueling the Fire Social sharing has become an obsession for some, and drones augment the experience. (Taking a selfie with a drone is way more impressive than taking a photo from the ground! We call it a “dronie.”)
Drones also create compelling content from the viewer’s perspective. Watching a drone video is like experiencing life without gravity. It can be addicting, which is why so many drone-produced aerial videos go viral on social media services such as Facebook and Twitter.
Drones Are a Platform A grocery store is a platform for food. Have you ever thought about it that way? It’s a system that allows food to be organized and distributed to consumers. Cell phones have become platforms, too. A mobile phone isn’t just a device for talking to another person. It’s actually a container for all types of software. And that software can be carried along with you in your pocket. That’s what makes it so powerful.
Drones are also now a platform. A drone can be outfitted with various hardware and connected to various software. Those tools can then be launched into the sky, which creates a whole new set of applications. The technology of the drone itself isn’t all that special. It’s the combination of hardware, software, and flight that makes drones so exciting.
THERE’S A DRONE FOR THAT
Combining hardware, software, and flight allows us to solve old problems in new ways. We’ll give more examples later, but here are a few to get started.
A local heating and cooling company recently reached out to us because they needed to get the serial number from an AC unit installed on a roof. Instead of asking an employee or contractor to climb up a ladder to get the information, they asked us to fly our drone up to the unit and take a high-definition photo. It saved time and money, while also preventing any possibility of injury.
Cell Phone Tower Inspection
Instead of using a truck with a cherry picker to inspect a cell tower, one can use a drone that takes photos and videos to achieve the same result. In the past, this standard inspection traditionally required multiple workers and considerable man hours. Now it can be done with a single person in minutes.
There are a number of applications related to farming. For example, farmers can use drones to figure out exactly where their cattle are located at any given moment in time. Drones can also improve the efficiency of crop dusting. When planes drop fertilizer or other materials on a field of crops, about 75% of the material gets blown away in the propeller wash, or “prop wash.” With drones, the prop wash is pushed directly downward, since the propellers are parallel to the ground, like a helicopter. The result? No material is wasted, which translates into huge savings.
Also, farmers can use drones to determine if certain plants are showing early signs of disease. With unbelievable precision, a drone can scan for levels of nitrogen, carbon, phosphorus, and so on.
Finding a Needle in a Haystack
Let’s say a young couple was honeymooning in the Caribbean, and the wife lost her turquoise ring in
the sand. We could use a drone with a hyperspectral sensor to find it. The sensor is able to detect minerals and compounds that give off a specific reflectivity. Knowing there’s likely no other turquoise lying around on the beach, we’d take photos with the hyperspectral camera and then convert those images to black and white. The physical properties of the turquoise would appear bright white, while everything else would appear black. In other words, we’d be able to find a needle in a haystack!
DRONES ARE FOR FUN
The business and practical applications for drones are endless, but the majority of drone
pilots these days are using them for recreation. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Here are three examples. FPV Racing One of the most popular drone-related activities we’ve observed is FPV (first-person view) racing. With FPV racing, you’re looking at a screen that’s live-streaming drone footage from a camera attached to a drone. You then control the drone and race it through custom-designed race courses.
Essentially, you’re seeing through the drone’s eyes as you race. FPV racing has grown in popularity because of
the speed, difficulty, and accessibility of the sport. Watching a pilot throttle his drone through a narrow tunnel at 80 miles per hour turns out to be highly entertaining. From the pilot’s perspective, it’s a feasible hobby.
You can get an FPV drone for a few hundred bucks, and if you’re talented (or your competition sucks), you might even make your money back pretty quickly! Photography Drones can take photographs from vantage points you otherwise wouldn’t be able to reach.
Naturally, photographers are beginning to experiment with the technology. With cheaper models coming out practically every month, using a drone as an accessory is doable for both hobbyists and professionals. Videography The natural extension to aerial photography is videography. We’ll see more examples of this later, but videography has a host of applications, both recreational drones and commercial drones. For recreational use, drones are replacing camcorders. Instead of filming a barbeque or a birthday party from the ground, why not capture footage of the entire event from above?
Amateur filmmakers are also experimenting with drones. In many cases, footage from a drone can match the high quality of a Hollywood-produced film.
WE’VE COME A LONG WAY, BUT WE’RE STILL AT THE BEGINNING
While the drone industry has progressed incredibly quickly over the past five years, we’re still in the very early stages of its development as a whole. Drone usage is growing at a much faster rate than the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) ever could have predicted, and now they’re playing catch-up. The FAA defines a drone as an aircraft. That means a remote pilot is supposed to get the same certifications as a pilot flying a 747 aircraft. We think that’s a little silly, and the majority of drone pilots tend to agree. This aircraft label wasn’t further defined until August 2016, when the new drone regulations became law. Model aircraft have actually been around longer than the FAA itself. In 1981, the FAA released the Advisory Circular (AC) 9157, which is a document that basically says, “Anyone flying a model aircraft can do so if they meet the community guidelines set forth by the AMA (Academy of Modern Aeronautics).”
So, is a drone a model aircraft or an actual aircraft? We believe it’s neither. We think drones are a new category completely. Unfortunately, we don’t get to make the rules. At the time of this writing, there are no concrete privacy laws specific to drones either. The only privacy-related law appears in the federal case Causby vs. the United States. The case involved a chicken farmer who believed he deserved compensation because the Army violated the usable airspace of his property. The military flew aircraft too close to his property, causing his chickens to spontaneously die. The ruling stated that if you fly too low (below 500–1000 feet) over private property, the property owner might be entitled to compensation. In this case, he was entitled to compensation because the Army violated the usable airspace of his property. Yes, it’s a hazy rule. And it doesn’t really have to do with privacy. It’s more about property. We’re giving you this background so you understand the current state of the industry. We have to be careful with terms like rules and laws. When we say law, we mean it went through Congress, the Senate, and the president’s desk.
The FAA has released a handful of rules, but there’s no legal backing to those rules. In the United States, there were actually zero laws concerning drones until 2016. Don’t worry, we’ll explain this further in later chapters. The rest of the world has been using drones commercially for decades. Companies in New Zealand, Australia, Canada, South America, and Japan are using them to solve serious issues, such as responding to heart attacks. The average time for an ambulance to deploy and arrive on-site is about nine minutes in most neighborhoods. When someone has a heart attack, they have approximately two minutes to survive. You can see how that’s a problem. But within a five-mile radius, a drone can fly to a specified location within ninety seconds. So, a health and humanitarian group out of Europe put a defibrillator on a Y-6, which is a coaxial hex copter drone, and started sending it out as a first responder, ahead of the ambulance. This is just one example of how drones are already being used overseas. While the lack of regulation in the United States has hampered businesses from becoming drone-friendly, history was forever changed in August 2016. The NPRM 107 (National Proposed Rulemaking 107) became a law, also known as 14 CFR 107 or “Part 107.”
The law negates the requirement of a private pilot’s license, and it permits anyone to fly drones commercially as long as they’ve passed a written test. In other words, the barrier to entry just got a lot lower. What does this mean for you? It means drones will be woven more deeply into the fabric of our society. We expect a massive influx of drone-related businesses (and drone pilots in general) over the next few years. Inevitably, a good portion of those businesses will eventually go away because of either acquisition or bankruptcy. One of our goals with this book is to ensure you’re in the acquired/profitable group.
Drones present so many opportunities that it’s nearly impossible to list them all. We’ve already covered a few, but here are some other areas where we see drones having a big impact. Real Estate Using drones, real-estate agents can offer a more comprehensive and engaging viewing experience to excite potential home buyers. The drone can fly through the home to give a beautiful, uninterrupted tour in a single shot. Real estate videos of the surrounding neighborhood can also add to the charm. Any Company That Deals with Towers, Roofing, or Things in the Air We’ve already talked about roofing companies. Power-line companies are another example. Typically, they pay thousands of dollars for helicopters to fly along their lines to check for issues. With drones, the bulk of that cost can be eliminated. Wedding Videographers, or Film in General Anything involving film is a huge opportunity. We like the example of a wedding videographer. Imagine a wedding on the coast. The drone flies in from the ocean, panning across the shoreline, and eventually zooms in on a small gathering of people at the edge of the water. How much more special and magical will those memories be through the lens of movie-grade cinematography? If you’re a wedding videographer and you show a prospective client some footage like the scene we just described, we have a feeling you’ll land the gig!1 Construction A construction crew can use a drone to map out their site and measure exactly how much material they need to remove in order to lay the foundation
of a house. Then the drone can systematically take pictures to show progress over time. Companies who offer this service typically take pictures of the site every week so investors and architects can see how the project is developing. Yes, they could take pictures from the ground, but that’s not as comprehensive as a shot from above. Drones can also volumetrically map the construction site to measure the quantities of the existing materials. This means the construction team can monitor how much sand, gravel, concrete, and so on that they’ve used at any given time, and then benchmark these against their initial estimates. Ultimately, it improves efficiency and results in cost savings over the life of the project.
THE STATE OF THE DRONE INDUSTRY
In the world of capitalism, everyone is looking for a competitive advantage: better pricing, operational efficiencies, marketing hacks, and so on. We’re seeing a mass ascension (pun intended) of drones facilitating that edge. People are seeing dollar signs—a way to turn their toy into a tool. But the increased interest, combined with a lack of information, education, and regulation, is creating a big problem. People don’t know the basic protocols, such as the fact that they need to do a pre-start-up calibration before flying. We see a lot of self-proclaimed “drone experts” out in the field, but they don’t actually know what they’re doing. They’ll go to a site and fly in an area with rebar-reinforced concrete, completely unaware that it’s likely to be scrambling their GPS signal. Then they crash. Or worse, they injure someone. The uninformed operator says, “My drone can fly anywhere. Flying around reinforced concrete like a parking structure, and/or between two tall buildings, shouldn’t be a problem.” But to someone who understands radio waves and GPS signals, that’s like saying, “I’m going to drive my car into the ocean.” Almost everyone knows that deep standing water will cause a car to malfunction. Cars aren’t designed to be driven underwater. Even in rain or snow, operating the vehicle becomes dangerous. The same is true for flying a drone between two buildings or near steel objects.