Already popular with hobbyists, unmanned aerial vehicles are becoming a valuable enterprise technology—and an emerging trend is set to increase that value and expand their use. New software is able to automate both drone navigation and the analysis of the data drones capture. This is making more practical a host of drone applications: monitoring construction, agricultural crops, goods and materials inventories, traffic, and crowds; infrastructure inspection; catastrophe response; search and rescue; and perimeter security. Other applications are sure to emerge.

A Booming Market for Commercial Drone Technology and Services

Enterprise drones have taken off, so to speak. However, thus far, drones’ primary commercial use has involved capturing images and gathering data for analysis, rather than package delivery, which remains mostly on the drawing board. Nevertheless, forecasters expect commercial drone spending to top $20 billion globally by 2021,1 driven by widening use across numerous industries.

The following signals indicate the rapid growth in the commercial drone market:

  • Market GrowthIt is estimated that the global commercial drone market, the fastest-growing segment for unmanned aerial vehicles, will exceed $20 billion by 2021.2
  • Heavy InvestmentVenture investment in software-focused drone start-ups in 2016 has surpassed $335 million, roughly double the investment in 2015, and has strongly focused on enterprise-related start-ups.3
  • Tech AdoptionIn the last 12 months, enterprise drone solution providers have adopted new chips from companies that support on-drone navigation and analytics software applications.4
  • Regulatory StandardsNew federal regulations have clarified the rules for commercial drones, which may lead to as many as 600,000 commercial drones in operation by mid-2017.5
  • Discovering UtilityMajor corporations are already using or exploring drone solutions to improve how they monitor construction progress, measure mining extraction, determine crop health, assess property damage, and check warehouse inventory levels.6

Making Sense of the Data Captured

While piloting a drone can be hard, analyzing the voluminous data captured by it is another challenge. However, both these challenges are rapidly being addressed by new software, powered by cognitive technologies such as computer vision and machine learning, which can automate drone operation on the one hand and data analysis on the other.

Powerful new software isn’t just simplifying drone operation. It’s also making it much easier to interpret the data collected by drones. Software can now automatically identify objects such as cars and people, and perform feats such as counting individual plants in a field while assessing their health. It can also automatically flag conditions such as infrastructure breakage, corrosion, or flooding.7 Some analysis can now be performed automatically. In other cases, human analysts can become much more efficient with the assistance of smart analytics.

Software tools are now available that can automatically construct 3D models from drone images married to other data. Applications range from providing realistic visualizations of remote locations to performing precise measurements—reportedly down to the centimeter.8 In just a few clicks, construction managers can evaluate construction progress against plans by taking building measurements; insurance adjusters can calculate rooftop area for a claim.

A New World of Drone Applications

Nurtured by new drone operation and analytics technology, new applications are flowering; dozens of other applications are in development. Supporting what we expect will be a vibrant market for specialized drone software tools and analytics are drone software marketplaces, two of which have recently launched.9

Organizations that conduct frequent inspection or surveillance activities, particularly in areas that are difficult to access or dangerous—such as catastrophe sites, rooftops, oil rigs, pipelines, mines, or construction sites—should consider integrating drones into their operations to build or maintain competitive advantages. Software vendors have already developed a number of applications aimed at industries such as construction, mining, oil and gas, and agriculture, which may lower the effort required for implementation. In other industries, companies willing to invest the resources to develop custom applications have an opportunity to establish competitive advantages. Advances in cognitive technologies and budding marketplaces for drone software technology will likely drive down the costs associated with this path.

To tap into drones’ full potential, it will ultimately be critical for enterprises to integrate them into their current IT systems and revamp operational procedures accordingly. In some areas, such as insurance, where data captured by an adjuster could interface directly with claim management systems, developers may need to craft custom workflows to streamline data processing. New procedures for requesting, collecting, and analyzing drone data will also be important. Unmanned aerial vehicles will allow construction-site supervisors to manage multiple projects remotely, for instance, but changes to operational procedures will be required to derive the greatest efficiencies possible from drones.

However, corporations should not neglect the risks that come with drone operations. Cybersecurity remains a key concern; sensitive or proprietary data could be compromised if drones are hacked or lost. Drones have also created concerns regarding personal privacy and individuals’ safety. Those looking to expand drone use will want to plan to mitigate these risks and ensure that policies and procedures are aligned with current regulations.

Ultimately, while addressing security challenges, enterprises should consider moving beyond simply employing drones where convenient and integrate drone data into their information systems and revamp workflows to take full advantage of the greater insights and efficiencies that drones can provide. Corporate strategists and operations leaders should evaluate how unmanned aerial vehicles, paired with advanced software applications, might be used to transform their operating models, establish competitive advantage, and make dramatic impacts to the bottom line.

Read the article on Deloitte University Press: Drones mean business