Drones: Is That Buzzing In Your Ear An Opportunity Or Just A Pest?

David Cruickshank

Part 3 of the Co-Innovation Series.

Day-to-day adoption of drones for commercial purposes is increasing, and it’s leading to not-at-rest sensors going to work, sensing and sense-making the full spectrum of space between terra firma and outer space. The day may soon arrive where identified flying objects continuously pass you on your street, in the halls of your building, or on campus, dutifully and autonomously carrying out all sorts of assigned tasks. Or not. Sort of like when the first Blade Runner movie failed to reflect any notion of a mobile-enabled world in the year 2019. Instead they went for neon-light-handled umbrellas. A total miss? Sure. Yet prediction of future technology is never easy. There’s always the sequel.

While we may not yet be surrounded by swarms of drones buzzing about us in all directions (which of course does worry some), the technology is nonetheless sound enough and gaining real-world traction. The entire drone industry is now focused upon growth in commercial use, as the technology keeps advancing towards formation of artificial intelligence (AI)-enabled and completely autonomous drones. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) says it estimates the commercial drone fleet will grow from 42,000 at the end of 2016 to about 442,000 aircraft by 2021.The aviation safety agency has said there could be as many as 1.6 million commercial drones in use by 2021. A number of valid use cases for select industries like construction, mining, and insurance are emerging today.

In my last post, I spoke to why I believe co-innovation is a reasonable approach to efficiently taking advantage of data extracted from your business operations using not-at-rest sensors. Such an initiative can take real advantage of what a co-innovated solution can be designed to do. Early adoption of any new technology is driven in part by the relentless belief in the return on investment – in this case from collecting important data from drones and automation, which is largely still nascent. That means you will likely be trying a few things before hitting on what works for your business.

Discovery through others

We are quickly advancing our understanding that this is not about just identifying and capturing more data. As we explore use cases in construction, we’ve already discovered the need to empathize with industries that have little interest in receiving more data than it has time or expertise to process. Co-innovation gets you focused on the solution and applying design thinking principles, which helps you recognize what concerns customers most.

While we may talk a lot about forming end-to-end solutions inside Silicon Valley (all in a day’s work), we also recognize that deciding to extract value from drone technology can be a big step for any given industry. Being able to leverage co-innovation, especially in cases involving nascent technologies and services, offers a chance for all participants to share knowledge and learn hands-on together. It can even spawn more discoveries with respect to the solutions possible. It’s usually the case that as we learn more (about anything), we also wind up finding out how much we still don’t know.

Fly solo or collaborate?

With the use of drones – or any not-at-rest sensor, for that matter – there will always be more to learn and discover. Even before the dust fully settles around final FAA regulations governing drones in industry, it is time well spent to examine what key dimensions of using drones in your business matter most and how they integrate with your business operational model. It’s important to gain a sense of the desired future state through understanding a day in the life of an end user trying to apply insights derived from data collected using drones.

Some early drone adopters, like in mining and construction, have elected to manage their own drone operations. They put their own product operations teams in charge of flying drones out of existing facilities, then transfer the drone’s images, captured on microSD cards, to someone else who identifies the images most useful to the requester. This is a serious undertaking, requiring flight control training and becoming familiar with federal aviation and other local regulations, among other complex tasks. It’s not that it can’t be done and done well. But the question to ask, given your business priorities, is whether it makes sense for your company to fly its own drones to get the data and then act upon it – or is it better to seek another way to consume and benefit from this data source?

In my next blog, we’ll look at how some companies are working to answer these questions.

For more on co-innovation opportunities, see The Future Will Be Co-Created.


David Cruickshank

About David Cruickshank

David Cruickshank is senior director for strategy and operations for the SAP Co-Innovation Lab. He leads the lab's efforts in Silicon Valley to enable ecosystem-driven co-innovation between SAP, its partners, and customers. Additionally, he manages all operational aspects necessary to run a multimillion-dollar data center to provision private cloud infrastructures to deliver productive SAP landscapes consumed by co-innovation projects seeking a faster track to market for commercially successful innovations.