Over the course of 2018, Commercial Drones FM podcast host Ian Smith connected with countless thought leaders from across the drone space to explore where and how the technology is making a difference. The insights he discussed with Adi Singh from Ford, Greg Agvent from CNN and George Mathew from Kespry were especially notable, but his “Too Hot For Snot” episode is probably the best example of what it can mean to use drone technology in a way that is an innovative as it is influential.
How that innovation and influence will further play out in the drone space in 2019 is a topic that many are curious about, especially with so much uncertainty regarding everything from regulation to exactly how drone adoption can impact the bottom line for a company. The conversations Ian has had throughout the year made him the perfect source to explore what’s in store for individuals and organizations with drone technology in 2019.
Jeremiah Karpowicz: You’re seen firsthand how drones are making an impact in the construction industry, and we’ve seen companies quantify the value the technology represents. Do you think that will lead to an exponential growth of drones in this sector?
Ian Smith: Growth of the technology in any sector is ultimately about where things are and where they’re headed with FAA regulation. Unfortunately, I don’t think we’re going to see any major regulatory milestones from the FAA in 2019. That’s going to put a bit of a damper on the growth of the whole industry, but it won’t be as big of a deal in construction.
In construction, they don’t really need BVLOS regulations, they don’t really need to operate at night, and they don’t really need flight over people regulations because everyone on the construction site is actively aware and involved with what’s happening. They can already get waivers if they need to operate in restricted airspace, so the growth in this sector isn’t as dependent on what’s going on with the FAA as it is in other space.
The challenge that construction professionals are going to be working through with drones in 2019 relates to scale. Right now, each drone flight needs a pilot, and there’s only a finite amount of people that will be able to operate these drones, because you can’t train everyone in your organization to get Part 107 certified. Being able to scale the technology out to where organizations can cost-effectively use drones before they become this huge logistical issue will be a bigger issue than regulation, but regulation is ultimately what enables the exponential growth you’re talking about.
Without regulations that will help enable that, it’s going to be tough in 2019 to see a ton of growth. 2018 and 2019 I think will ultimately be about incremental growth, rather than exponential growth.
And will that incremental growth be enabled or in some cases strengthened by acquisitions and partnerships that will happen in 2019?
2019 will absolutely bring more of the incumbent software companies into the construction ecosystem, and that’s something we’ve already seen.
For example, PlanGrid is a cloud-based software construction company that wants to totally digitize the construction site. They use drones to capture and collect a lot of their data and augment their products, and Autodesk recently purchased them. That’s a big deal because it means drones are going to be that much more of an integrated product in the Autodesk ecosystem, which is huge. Tellingly, it’s not something that came out of nowhere, because Autodesk has been pushing the limits of drones for the past five years.
We’ll see more of that type of consolidation in 2019 so that drones can permeate throughout some core products to get to even larger organizations. Bigger companies like Autodesk will get sucked deeper into the space thanks to these integrations.
What kind of innovations and developments are you looking forward to seeing in 2019?
There are a few things I’m keeping my eye on.
As excited as I am about passenger drones and flying taxis, it’s too early to really focus on that, in the U.S. at least. Maybe we’ll see something for that in a place like Dubai in 2019, but it’s not going to happen here. I think that’s the future though, but it all depends on Remote ID, regulation, and being able to scale. It’s not going to do anyone any good if it’s just one random route in one city.
What excites me for 2019 is what’s going to happen with a few companies that can really challenge the status quo of the drone industry. There are two companies that I think have the greatest potential to do something really cool, and one of them is Skydio. They’ve opened up an SDK for their commercial operations of their platform, and while regulation is going to limit what you can really do there, companies can use that full autonomy could be used for something like flights in tight spaces. There are a lot of other potential uses that could be developed.
The other company that has that potential is Impossible Aerospace. They’ve essentially created a flying battery, and that means their drone is able to stay up in the air much longer than operators are used to. Technology like that, if they can get some traction with actual use cases, is going to be a really great thing for the industry that will help solve some unique challenges and create some innovative use cases.
I’m also excited about Delair. Full disclosure, I’m a former Delair employee, but they continue to keep their head down and make really nice strides forward on the fixed-wing side. They keep getting investment, making acquisitions, pushing their products and expanding their reach in a way that makes a lot of sense.
And of course, I’ll be looking at what’s next for DJI, but that’s a little bit different because when I said I wanted to see those companies challenge the status quo of the drone industry, what I really meant is challenge DJI. They’re still making moves and expanding into other product lines, but we really need to see some more successful drone companies to spice of the drone industry. Colin Snows reported a 74% global market share in sales across all price points for DJI in 2018, and I think that’s stagnating an important part of the ecosystem.
So I’m looking forward to what we’ll see from them, and what we’ll see in response to them.
Beyond regulation, what topic do you think is going to dominate the headlines in 2019?
There’s a lot of uncertainty around UTM and privacy, and the biggest thing is Remote ID. No one can agree on a specific standard for how that should be handled, and I think that’s such a fundamental thing. I’m hoping to see some real progress toward UTM and Remote ID toward the end of 2019. I really believe that once that’s taken care of, then a lot of things will start to fall into place.
What might not dominate the headlines but will nonetheless be incredibly important is the further maturation of the industry that we’ll see in 2019 which takes us further from the hype. The hype got people interested in drones, but now we’ve got case studies out there in terms of how drones are enabling an ROI and being thought of as a tool. A lot more people have come to realize that this stuff doesn’t have to be exciting, it just has to be useful.
I can’t tell you the last time I got excited about using a hammer, but it’s still an incredibly useful tool. We’re getting people to think in the same way about drones, and that’s probably more important than any headline you’re going to see in 2019.