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Five Skills You Need to Succeed in the Commercial Drone Market

By Colin Snow.

Given the risk involved with starting a new company, it makes sense to assess which markets and use cases provide the best chance of success, the skills you’ll need, and the value-add services you should be offering those markets. Here are five services we think you should consider offering as part of your commercial drone business.

These days it seems just about anyone can get an FAA Section 333 Exemption that allows them to legally use small unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS) for commercial purposes in the U.S. As of October 20, 2015, almost 71% of all Section 333 grants have gone to firms claiming that their primary operation/mission is Film/Photo/Video (and most claim multiple uses). This includes companies that are using drones for movies, as well as for art and real estate, among other things. Inspection and Monitoring has seen the second highest issuance rate, at 31%, while Mapping and Surveying for land and commercial construction, rounds out the top three at 20%.

Looking further into the data, AUVSI reports that at least 84% — and perhaps as many as 94.5%– of all approved companies are small businesses. While we don’t agree with their astronomical forecast (see our write-up here), we concur with this analysis.

But here’s the catch. With the bar so low for starting a commercial drone service, what’s the guarantee these businesses will succeed? According to Bloomberg, eight out of 10 entrepreneurs who start businesses fail within the first 18 months. A whopping 80% crash and burn. So given the risk, it makes sense to assess which markets and use cases provide the best chance of success, the skills you’ll need, and the value-add services you should be offering those markets.

Here are five services:

  1. $ – Video
  2. $$ – Mapping
  3. $$$ – Photogrammetry
  4. $$$$ – LiDAR
  5. ??? – Spectral imaging

I’ve put dollar signs next to each service and listed them in progression to represent both the skill and value each has for potential customers. Notice I’ve got question marks there by spectral imaging. That’s because the jury is still out on whether there is a solid ROI on this service vs. that provided by manned aircraft for precision agriculture. Precision agriculture often gets touted as the #1 place where “drones will transform the world” but the hard reality is this is a specialized application and a very complex market. (I have written about this extensively and you can find some very important details in a post I wrote more than a year ago called Film or Farm: Which is Largest Drone Market – Part 2?) 

Skill 1 – Video

Now some of you may be wondering why I included video on my list. We often see drone video footage on YouTube and think it’s cool. But the hard fact is commercial buyers of drone video services have a much higher standard. So you will, too, if you want to make money in the Film/Photo/Video market.

By now you know shooting good drone video starts with selecting the right drone, the right camera, with the right lens, mounted on the right gimbal. It’s not a secret any drone enthusiast can go out and buy a DJI Phantom Vision 3 for about $1,200 and shoot 4K video. But just because you can fly it and press the ‘record’ button does not make you a professional aerial videographer. There is much more to it than that. For one, shooting good video requires you to be skilled in the basics of:

  1. Shots (FOV, framing, perspective)
  2. Moves (pan, tilt, truck, dolly, etc.)
  3. Technique (zoom, action, follow, etc.)

For another, there is timeline editing. What are you going to do with all that footage? Hand it to the customer raw? You could, but it’s better to have it edited or least know how it’s done so you can offer assistance or more services. For that, you will need to be skilled at:

  1. Storytelling / sequencing
  2. Cuts
  3. Transitions
  4. Graphics
  5. Lighting
  6. Color grading

These aren’t all the things you need to know but if you don’t know these I suggest you get some basic film-school training and offer a better service than the kid next door with a quadcopter and a GoPro. 

Skill 2 – Mapping

In researching drones and aerial photography and mapping, you might find yourself coming across new terms. One of the basic ones you should know is “orthomosaic photo” or “orthophotos.” Orthophotos (aka ‘orthos’) are basically photos that have been stitched together to make a larger one and then corrected. The technique is not unique to drones. Orthomosaics have been created by aerial photographers in manned aircraft for years and used by lots of industries.

The point here is if you are not familiar with the techniques and software to create orthos, then I recommend you acquaint yourself with it because it is a valuable service for which customers in the Mapping / Surveying market will pay handsomely. There are even drone apps that automate the whole process like DroneDeploy and Pix4D. 

Skill 3 – Photogrammetry

Photogrammetry is a technique which uses photography to measure the environment. This is achieved through overlapping imagery; where the same site can be seen from two perspectives, it is possible to calculate measurements. Again, this technique is not unique to drone imagery, but there is some good news here. Off-the-shelf software, like Agisoft PhotoScan and SimActive, is plentiful and fairly easy to learn.

The hard part is providing your customer with valuable measurement information. And the harder part is competing with firms that have been offering this service for years now using ground-based systems combined with aircraft. For this, you will need some specialized skills and will need to be certified so that you are recognized. One way to get certification is through the American Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing (ASPRS).

An ASPRS Certified Photogrammetrist is a professional who uses photogrammetric technology to extract measurements and make maps and interpret data from images. The Photogrammetrist is responsible for all phases of mapping and other mensuration requirements, which include planning and supervising survey activities for control, specifying photography or other imagery requirements, managing projects for mapping or other mensuration requirements and interpretation. You can find more information on their programs here. 

Skill 4 – LiDAR

LiDAR drones are fairly new as the units have become smaller and lightweight. But LiDAR is not new to surveyors and engineers. They’ve been using ground-based and airborne LiDAR scanning units for years.

The good news is LiDAR drones are great for scanning small areas like building sites and getting in hard-to-reach areas like under bridges. In this way they provide a significant cost advantage over aircraft or helicopters with LiDAR units and have the greatest margin potential as a service for the Inspection / Monitoring market.

You can get trained and become a Certified LiDAR Technologist (CLT) through ASPRS. A CLT is technician who performs routine LiDAR collection support and first-level data processing integrating established plans and procedures. Find information on that here. 

Skill 5 – Spectral Imaging

I put this here last because, as I mention earlier, it’s not clear whether drones provide a significant cost savings to the buyer vs. the same service provided by manned aircraft for the Precision Agriculture market.

There are ROI studies being done now, but most people who provide this service will tell you that farmers aren’t willing to pay much for this service. Why spend $4 to $5 per acre for you to fly a drone overhead and deliver a normalized difference vegetation index (NDVI) map unless there is a clear return on that investment? Some will – like growers of high-margin crops like fruits and nuts – but most won’t. Again, this is a competitive market that demands a lot of knowledge about precision agriculture and remote sensing techniques.

Image credit: Shutterstock

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