Why Apple’s Drone Mapping Plan is More than a Moonshot

Last week, we learned that Apple plans to use drones to improve the company’s Maps offering. But can this ambitious plan really work?

If you ask me: absolutely.

Drones could be the perfect tool to surface data about current conditions on our roadways. They are already being used to map and understand our world, from wildlife research to crop monitoring. I can easily imagine fleets of autonomous mapping drones — perhaps housed in docking stations on cell towers and street lights, as Amazon has proposed — that are tasked from afar to undertake missions that deliver real-time data to Maps. The drone would plan and fly an efficient route designed to gather the needed data, and upload it to the cloud.

The technology to achieve this, even at scale, is no more than a few years down the road. There will be challenges to overcome along the way, but I predict that drone mapping could deliver significant value for Apple, and any other company using data to describe and map our highways and skyways.

In short: this is no moonshot. Let’s talk about why.

Innovation, at home…or abroad

As many in the media have pointed out, drones in the U.S. are currently prohibited from flying over people, preventing drone mapping missions in urban areas. But they won’t be prohibited from operating these kinds of flights for long. In fact, the FAA is expected to publish new rules to govern flight over people before the end of the year.

Even if regulators in the U.S. are slow to clear the way for a fleet of Apple mapping drones, Apple may look abroad for opportunities to test and refine drone mapping technology, just as Amazon has for their delivery drone test sites. Whether here in the U.S. or further afield, Apple will have plenty of opportunities to test this technology and develop new strategies for improving Maps.

The drone advantage

I suspect that capturing a bird’s-eye-view from a drone is already more cost- and time-efficient than sourcing images from a Street View car or an Apple Maps van. Each time a mapping vehicle takes to the streets, it needs a human driver, incurs fuel costs, and is constrained by roadways — which all adds up to a significant expense for any company taking maps seriously.

We already know that drones are cheaper than cars when it comes to deliveries over short distances: sending a 2-kg package within a 10 km radius by ground transport costs Amazon $2 to $8, but just 10 cents using a drone. We should see similar cost savings between drones and cars that are used for mapping and imaging.

If Google can mobilize a fleet of mapping cars, Apple can launch a fleet of mapping drones, and probably save money doing it.

Hindsight is 20/20

Apple stumbled during their Maps launch. But I think Apple’s experience with Maps is one of the reasons why it is an interesting contender in the drone mapping market.

A fleet of Apple mapping vans and a string of acquisitions — nearly a dozen mapping, data, and transit companies since 2009 — tell us that Apple is committed to the Maps service as a long-term proposition. If they’re evaluating a drone effort, they’re going into it with open eyes.

Apple has experienced firsthand how difficult it is to source accurate data — and more importantly, how hard it is to keep all of this information up-to-date on a global scale. My hope is that the lessons learned from Apple’s difficulties with Maps will translate into high standards for evaluating drone mapping, and result in innovation that significantly moves the needle on accuracy and reliability for their mapping service.

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Of course, there will be obstacles to overcome if Apple plans to launch a fleet of autonomous mapping drones.

We have yet to build a truly unpiloted drone, though the industry has come a long way towards that milestone. We’re still learning how to ensure airborne connectivity via cell networks and GPS and deliver sense-and-avoid technology that detects obstacles with the accuracy we need for drone flight at scale. We’re still building the regulatory and industry infrastructure that will allow airspace management platforms like AirMap to facilitate communication and data exchange between drones and other stakeholders, like air traffic controllers and regulators.

But as someone with a front-row seat to developments in the drone industry, I believe that these solutions are all on the horizon. At the current pace of innovation, drone mapping is a reasonable next step for Apple — and an opportunity I’ll be keeping a close eye on.

It’s always exciting when a new player decides to enter the drone market. With Google, Amazon, and others already experimenting with drones, Apple’s drone initiative is a signal that the world’s biggest enterprises are ready to start betting on unmanned solutions to their thorniest challenges.

I predict Apple won’t be the last household name to bet big on the drone ecosystem.

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