Even though drones fly without pilots onboard, the unmanned aircraft business could create more than 100,000 new jobs for those on the ground by 2025, according to a report from the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.
Many of those jobs will be generated by old-school industries including agriculture, construction, mining and utilities. Others will be created by companies, including some in the St. Louis region, that train unmanned aircraft pilots, help clients collect and analyze data harvested by drones or build the machines themselves.
In all, the global market for drone technology’s commercial applications could grow from an estimate of $2 billion in 2016 to as much as $127 billion by 2020, according to a report from the consulting group PricewaterhouseCoopers.
“That boom in the industry is definitely here. It’s a good problem to have. We can’t pump enough students through the program to meet industry demand,” said Travis Balthazor, unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) flight operations manager at Kansas State University Polytechnic.
Balthazor estimated that the university graduates 20 to 30 students from its UAS degree program each year. Kansas State also hosts outreach programs for those interested in learning more about what drones can do.
The increased interest in drones is being driven, in part, by declining prices for the aircraft themselves. Not long ago, there weren’t many commercial systems available and those on the market were pricey, hovering around $100,000 per unit, Balthazor said.
“Now, just about anybody can go out there and buy a small unmanned aircraft for easily under a thousand or a couple thousand dollars and they can do a lot with it,” he said.
Although unmanned aircraft systems aren’t as big an investment these days, it’s still important for executives to know exactly how they can apply the technology in their industries, said Carla Rose, founder and chief executive at AerialSync, a St. Louis startup.
In addition to providing consulting services, AerialSync offers 16 training courses tailored to industries including agriculture, construction and journalism, among others.
“I think there has to be education in place. If you just go out and buy a drone, even if you figure out how to fly it, it’s going to sit on a shelf,” she said. “You have to understand what you want the drone to do. The drone is only as smart as the operator.”
Rose said the vast majority of students who complete one of AerialSync’s multiday courses have gone on to obtain remote pilot airman certification, which is required by the Federal Aviation Administration. Depending on the program they choose, participants also learn industry specifics such as how to use unmanned aircraft to conduct utility inspections or survey construction sites.
“The drone pilot who graduates from our course has a very strong understanding of the industry he or she will be working in,” Rose said.
AerialSync will soon be expanding its services beyond consulting and training to include infrastructure inspections thanks to a merger that’s in the works. Rose declined to discuss the deal in detail, but said she thinks AerialSync will be in prime position to win contracts from large companies looking to diversify their supplier networks or from government entities required by law to purchase a minimum percentage of their supply needs from minority- or women-owned business enterprises. AerialSync is a certified Women Business Enterprise and Rose is also seeking certification as a Disadvantaged Business Enterprise.
She also hopes to soon expand AerialSync’s education efforts to those who haven’t yet started their careers.
“We are extending that into STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) programs we hope to bring into the high schools to prepare our young students,” she said. “We are behind internationally and we can bridge that gap with after-school programs.”
Aerial Insights, another St. Louis startup, has its own fleet of unmanned aerial vehicles as well as technological tools to analyze the drone-collected data. The company, headquartered in St. Louis’ Center for Emerging Technologies facility in the Cortex district, currently focuses on utility inspection and surveying. And, because of the company’s use of artificial intelligence technology — or machine learning — Aerial Insights’ inspection and surveying system gets smarter with each flight.
“Our tools are not only the UAVs, or drones, but the integrated sensor packages, and the advanced machine learning and machine vision analysis to best utilize the customer's data to extract pertinent, actionable information and provide geospatial intelligence when and where it's needed,” said Alex St. John, Aerial Insight’s co-founder and chief analytics officer. “Providing the drone service is absolutely necessary for AI to gather the right data to develop machine learning and machine vision algorithms for the task at hand.”
Those tasks could include inspecting existing transmission lines and substations or developing strategies to manage encroaching tree limbs that could bring down lines and spark power outages after the next big storm. Aerial Insights works to help clients cut costs, increase safety and address potential problems, St. John said.
In one example, detailed data sets geared toward vegetation management might include high-resolution digital imagery, 3-D [LiDAR] scanning and hyperspectral imagery, which collects and processes information from across the electromagnetic spectrum, to provide a much more technical picture than those snapped by traditional surveying and inspection crews in years past.
“Hyperspectral imagery and analysis produces highly specific diagnoses of, and prescriptions for, a plant's health. Coupled with LiDAR, we have a full 3-D spatial assessment, which aids in disaster reconnaissance and recovery,” St. John said. “More importantly, particularly in the case of utilities and energy infrastructure, this coupling is now capable of preventing damage and disaster before it happens by assessing plant health as well as location.”
Richmond Heights, Missouri-based startup AirZaar leaves the flying to its clients, who can download drone-harvested data to the company’s secure, cloud-based software platform using a simple USB stick. From there, AirZaar’s software can crunch the data into drawings and analytics.
The technology significantly shortens a process that might have taken survey crews equipped with bulky $40,000 laser scanners and analysts drawing up the data collected as long as 18 hours, said Ravi Sahu, AirZaar’s co-founder and CEO.
“Within a few minutes, we can get them automated 2-D and 3-D models and analytics for a site,” he said.
The type of drone used to collect the data doesn’t matter for the most part, said Sahu. So the savings really add up when clients compare the cost of purchasing at least one laser scanner, which requires a truck and multi-person crew to transport and operate it, to buying a basic drone and paying a single pilot to fly it. He said AirZaar’s drawings and analytics are also more accurate than traditional surveys, according to comparisons made by its clients.
Increased accuracy also helps save time and money, said Sahu, whose company specializes in work with mining and construction clients. AirZaar will be going through a renaming and rebranding process very soon to better reflect its target markets and mission.
Construction project managers can use AirZaar’s data to get a real-time picture of progress at a site or accurately measure the excavation needed to level a piece of land and pour a foundation. At open surface mines, the company’s maps and analytics can help design more efficient explosions, which are used to expose and extract the materials being mined. Better blast plans can also make mines much safer because they reduce rock projectiles, some of which travel at speeds fast enough to prove deadly to mine workers.
“Through our software, we have optimized this process of accurate blast design and really given companies reliable information about the amount of explosives required at a particular location,” Sahu said.
Drone-collected data has also helped AirZaar’s client companies cut the noise and vibrations that are an inevitable result of mine blasts. Eventually, the company hopes to provide even more accurate data that could help mining firms control inventory or more-efficiently process their end product by helping sort particles generated by blasts.
“Our goal is to accurately predict the size of the rock,” Sahu said.
The future of unmanned flight
Balthazor, from Kansas State University, said he expects such capabilities to really take off as drones and the regulations that govern them become more advanced. Among other initiatives, researchers at Kansas State are working to improve the telemetry — or transmission technology — between unmanned aerial vehicles and their control systems. University experts are also helping government agencies adapt and revise regulations governing manned air flight to better fit the particularities of unmanned aircraft systems.
Meanwhile, many drone devotees in the industries hot to hire Balthazor’s students are pushing for a revision of FAA regulations that currently require drones be operated only within the pilot’s visual line of sight.
“So that’s where the industry is going,” Balthazor said. “How soon we get there, I’m not quite sure of, but I think it will be sooner than later.”