An Insider’s Look at the Rise of Drones
Industry veteran Lon Breedlove gives his perspective on the evolution and future of the drone industry.
Years from now, we’ll be able to look back and see that there was a very clear line dividing the time before drones, and the time after their adoption — much the way we do about computers, the internet, and smartphones — and there will be jobs we won’t even be able to imagine doing without drones (think window washing or rooftop inspections). That’s because this tool is just as impactful and societally transformative as the others.
On a sunny day about six years ago, I made my fateful entrance into the drone industry working for DJI, and have since worked with every major drone manufacturer (3DR, Parrot, Yuneec, GoPro) and a large variety of related startups and entrepreneurs. I’ve seen, heard, or been involved in a multitude of applications from flying Halloween ghouls to the delivery of blood in rural Rwanda.
Here’s my brief take on the incredible transformation that our industry has undergone from an insider’s (read drone nerd’s) perspective -
From Hobbyists to Analysts
When I began at DJI, we were about a year away from launching the 1st-generation Phantom. The customer base almost entirely came from a model aircraft background — a group of tinkerers, skilled at soldering wires to circuit boards — and the general public’s connotation of the word drone was synonymous with military airstrike.
Back in those days, to build a drone was to indulge in a hobby. They were flown for fun — maybe a physical manifestation of the accomplishment of sourcing and connecting all the right components for liftoff. Drones were operated by deliberate and careful hands, as a crash would be as costly to your emotions as it was to your bank statement. Consumer camera gimbals were fresh off the presses for the first time ever, and pilots were just barely broaching the subject of flying professionally.
On our side of the conversation, we first referred to them as UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) because any mention of drone would make a room go quiet. Soon after, we called them flying cameras to deemphasize the flight mechanics and highlight the function they provided. That quickly became flying robots as drones became more capable. Now we only talk about aerial data, just as a carpenter talks about the house he built, and not his hammer. The industry is still in a transition period on that last thought, as many are still talking about the drone, but what we should all be talking about now are the insights they deliver.
From a Bird’s-Eye-View to a Whole New World
Jumping back again to the early days — putting a camera in the air was (and still is) a novel feat. The ability to see the world around you from a new perspective unlocked something in the brain, at least it did for me. However at the time, outside of producing Hollywood caliber videos of your family vacations, drones didn’t provide substantial benefit on their own.
That is, until different imaging sensors and post-processing technologies were introduced to the drone workflow. The explosion in popularity of drones matched the rise in their economic value. At a fraction of the time it took without drones, a farmer could scan the plant health of all his crops; environmentalists could survey and monitor remote sites; power line inspectors could view detailed imagery of their assets; the list is endless.
Around this time, autonomy was also introduced to the workflow. Flight paths could be planned ahead of time and performed with a touch of a button in the field without the need for a human to fly manually. At 3DR, we used autonomy to enable users to program complex camera moves that would be far too difficult to repeat with precision. Yet this was only partial autonomy, as someone still had to plan the missions, bring the equipment to a location, and process the files after landing.
Not long from now, drones will be delivering our Amazon orders, and perhaps flying us to work over our old commuter routes. Drones, again like computers, internet, and smartphones, have been making waves in nearly every industry known to mankind, and the biggest step is yet to come — full autonomy.
Drones in the Data Age
AI expert, Andrew Ng, talks about a virtuous circle (“The State of Artificial Intelligence”) in which a small amount of data can help to create a product, which in turn helps to acquire users. The users help generate more data, which helps improve the product, which helps onboard more users, and ultimately creates a positive feedback loop where better data equals a better everything else.
Drones have been capturing data from day one, but it’s not until now — where sophisticated sensors and image processing tech join forces with autonomy — that we can use aerial data to populate massive data sets. Simply put, we’re now at a point in time that the data acquired from drones is being used to fuel machine learning and artificial intelligence in a major way, as described in “Hold on AI, Aren’t You Forgetting Something?”.
Full autonomy makes this possible by removing the human from the equation in the name of accuracy, repeatability, efficiency, and cost savings. If nothing else, robots are known for their reliable and precise execution of the tasks they’re assigned. This is an essential element in propelling our society to new heights. Puns aside, without autonomy the industry would plateau. Luckily that’s not the case.
I can imagine a world in which drones of all kinds fly through our skies for a multitude of purposes — scanning, collecting, and analyzing everything around us, for our benefit. They’ll do the work we can’t do as humans, and they’ll do it all the time. That’s at the core of what drives our team at Hangar. We’re the connective tissue found between the numerous moving parts of the industry — a summation of all the technology that has come before, with our vision focused on a fully automated future.
The Wild Ride is Just Starting
As is the case with most things, the drone industry has matured over time, albeit more rapidly than most in that regard. If you think of the drone industry as a person, then it’s just graduated college — a head full of fresh knowledge and skill, wearing a proud smile as it sets out to take on the world. But unlike humans, our robotic counterpart doesn’t tire or become distracted from its pursuit to improve society.
I feel both privileged and grateful to have played a part in this transformation, and am even more excited for what comes next as we move into a world of autonomy and transformation.
About the Author(s)
Lon Breedlove is the Product Marketing Producer at Hangar Technology, Inc. Since 2012, Lon has worked with nearly every major drone manufacturer — including DJI, 3DR, Parrot, Yuneec, and GoPro.