The Big Small UAV Industry

With the recently published small unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) Notice of Proposed Rulemaking by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, the small UAS industry is rapidly expanding and entities are now finding their commercial niche.
By Emily Aasand | April 24, 2015

Into The Industry
PrecisionHawk, a UAS and remote sensing company, believes its place in the industry will be in end-to-end solutions for aerial data gathering, processing and analysis across multiple industries. PrecisionHawk stepped into the UAS industry in 2010, with an initial focus on viticulture under the moniker WineHawk. Its focus was on providing pest protection for vineyards and soft-body fruits.

“The idea of, while we were up there protecting the crops from these pest birds, we'd also be able to do rural sensing imaging and give that data back to the grower on a subscription basis,” says Ernest Earon, president and co-founder of PrecisionHawk. “As soon as we started focusing and got better at gathering the data, general agriculture really picked up on it and took off. We’ve been trying to keep up ever since.”

In 2013, the company rebranded to PrecisionHawk to give a better context of the services it provides on the remote sensing and information-gathering side of precision agriculture, the industry that continues to supply the bulk of its business. The company has eight of the top-10 multinational feed and grain companies as partners, with the energy and insurance sectors rapidly increasing in scope and activity, according to the company.

“Groups of insurers like USAA, need faster and more accurate assessments and better claim response, whether you’re talking about buildings, crops or infrastructure, so it’s important for them to have a team to send out, to collect really good data—reliably and robustly—over and over again and then have a backend to support dealing with the data,” says Earon. “They need help dealing with that information so they can make accurate claim assessments or just better decisions on what they’re going to do next.”

The company currently relies on a fixed-wing aircraft, the Lancaster, but says it has other platforms. The newest platform, in production now, will continue to offer exceptional data capture, a theme the company believes has come to define its operations. “That’s our first priority—data. And our second is ease of use and feasibility,” Earon says.

Along with its fixed-wing platform, it also produces and distributes the back-end software for processing, management and analytics.

“It includes all the planning around your sites, around the areas of interest you’re trying to collect for over time and space, it automatically flows through the aircraft and directs what the aircraft is going to do, shows you the information—the sensor and payload data that’s being collected—and pushes it up to the cloud,” says Earon. “The cloud does the automatic processing and notifies you when your surveys are done and allows you to apply further algorithmic work to it or to share it and comment and collaborate on it.”

Answering questions is one of PrecisionHawks’ main focuses, according to Earon. “Our customers don’t want planes, they don’t want pictures, they want answers,” he added.

“If we’re doing our job right, people will forget about the airplane and they can focus on the stuff they need to do, which is understanding what decisions they need to make to improve their business,” says Earon.

Uncharted Plan
Like most companies, PrecisionHawk has come across major hurdles. The regulation environment surrounding the sUAS industry has been one such hurdle, Earon says. “That uncertainty has created a lot of risk and that risk made it very difficult for large corporations and large business entities to invest in the strategy around the space,” he says.

“The great thing is that uncertainty is now going away,” says Earon. “The aviation authorities are setting down a fairly consistent approach to this, and that’s really good because it means that those models can now be developed. Those strategies, those initiatives can now be adopted by larger players, and we’re seeing that. We’re seeing that activity pick up now that people are seeing what the space is going to look like.”

Another challenge the company is noticing is being able to address the needs of several industries—agriculture, oil and gas and insurance—that don’t necessarily know what services they need initially.

“Remote sensing has been around for years, but it’s only now that the technology and the computation capability has allowed us to do this quickly, easily and relatively inexpensively,” says Earon. “People are now trying to understand: What can I learn and how is this going to impact my business?”

Some businesses have clearly defined needs, clearly defined problems that they’re trying to overcome, which PrecisionHawk can help solve, while other businesses are working with PrecisionHawk to better understand what they need and what model they need to maximize, he adds.

“The big thing is, it’s information first. That’s really the way you come at it,” Earon says. “We’re trying to enable people to make decisions. It’s definitely an exploration for a lot of these people to make sure you’re doing it the way that works best for them.”

Future Models
For Earon, there are two ways to look at the future of the UAS industry. In the near term, he believes there’s going to be growth in specific service offerings due to the FAA’s relaxed rules around the 333 exemptions. Long term, he thinks, the industry is going to see a much more general model and place in a wide variety of other applications.

“There will be organizations who are flying themselves, but I think in a lot of cases, particularly the enterprise level clients, there’s going to be a secondary industry that’s going to build up to service the needs of those clients,” says Earon. “We’re seeing really rapid improvements in platforms and software and the software around the technologies in general, and that’s a good thing. It means that the base level of performance is growing and increasing and that’s a very exciting thing for us.”

As for the future of PrecisionHawk, Earon believes that lies in focusing on servicing and answering questions clients didn’t even know they had.

“I think it’s going to be very exciting over the next couple of years,” says Earon. “I think we’re seeing that there’s a lot of work in building up those models and strategies for our customers and users of this technology to figure out what they’re going to do.

“Companies are taking the time now to do the pilot projects, to understand what those models are going to look like and what they can gain from them,” Eron adds.

PrecisionHawk says it’s seeing very broad adoption in a lot of different industries, but that it’s all happening in a methodical and strategic way.

Author: Emily Aasand
Staff Writer, UAS Magazine
[email protected]


ComEd Takes Flight
Energy provider partners on UAS addition

Commonwealth Edison Company (ComEd), a Chicago-based energy provider, has received approval from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration to use unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) to inspect its power lines.

“This UAS technology will allow us to be more proactive in identifying problems before they interrupt power to our customers,” says Terence Donnelly, executive vice president and chief operating officer of ComEd. “This will be especially useful in remote areas that can be difficult to access and will provide an added layer of safety for our workers by making it possible to inspect lines without sending a person into a hazardous area.

“We have a number of facilities both in transmission as well as distribution that are in hard-to-access areas, so we see a lot of opportunity given our system scale and some of the accessibility of that in order to use unmanned systems to patrol the lines,” Donnelly says.

The FAA exemption allows ComEd to operate DJI Innovation S900 UAS for the purpose of electric transmission and distribution utility system monitoring, inspections and damage assessments.

The project, the company says, is a joint effort with Illinois Institute of Technology. IIT will provide a licensed pilot for the partnership and is evaluating a light, flexible cage around the UAS that may maximize battery usage and protect the UAS, ComEd says.

“IIT is a hometown university and we’ve partnered with them on a number of activities,” says Donnelly. “We partnered with IIT, who actually had been working on UAS, and had some trained pilots as part of their research programs with their students. We figured it’d be a good idea to partner with them on how we can further develop this technology and improve the efficiency of the craft.”

“It’s exciting to be working with ComEd to study robot in real-world conditions,” says Matthew Spenko, associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at IIT. “From a research perspective, this will allow us to learn more about how robots perform in unstructured, outdoor environments.”

ComEd is aiming to launch the technology into the field this summer.

“The use of emerging technologies like UAS and other robotic technologies is an important factor in ensuring the continued resilience of the power grid,” Donnelly says. “We are continuing to seek out innovative technologies that will bring improved benefits to our customers.”


Blue-Chip UAS Branches Out
Exemption clears path for commercial options

Blue-Chip Unmanned Aerial Solutions has joined the growing list of U.S. Federal Aviation Administration unmanned aircraft system (UAS) exemptions after receiving a nod to use UAS to provide services across the oil and gas, wildlife, agriculture and aerial photography industries.

With this exemption, Blue-Chip UAS is able to have flight operations within 5 nautical miles (NM) of any airport or airfield inside Class E airspace with an approved certificate of authorization, airport manager approval and issuance of a Notice to Airmen.

“The fact we are approved to operate inside 5NM truly shows the FAA’s willingness to continue moving forward with the integration process,” says Clint Stevens, executive director and co-founder of Blue-Chip UAS. “This provides our company with a significant opportunity, as it dramatically increases our operational area.”

Blue-Chip UAS will be using the Sensurion Magpie UAS to provide consulting and service solutions across multiple industries.

“What’s unique about this aircraft is that it’s the first FAA-certified through its special airworthiness certificate, which they accomplished in conjunction with Nevada Institute for Autonomous Systems test site,” says Stevens. “We felt that was the aircraft to stay with based on the certification. We can go to our insurance companies, for example, with a certified aircraft, with certified pilots and now with the authorization to conduct these operations under this exemption.”

On the consulting solutions side, Blue-Chip UAS will go in, analyze an organization’s needs and build a program—which the company can decide whether to keep in-house or outsource it to Blue-Chip UAS through its services business. Blue-Chip UAS then helps each company find the type of aircraft that would best suit its needs.

Blue-Chip is prominent in the oil and gas industry right now, utilizing the Magpie to gain seismic collation data for oil and gas exploration.

“We also have a client that we’re working with to monitor infrastructure—looking at well heads, oil pumps and pipelines—to look at some of the efficiencies,” Stevens says.


Total Safety Flare Inspections
In-house UAV use for oil, gas clients

Total Safety U.S. Inc., an integrated safety and compliance services provider, was one of the first U.S. companies to use unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) to perform inspections of flare stacks under a recent U.S. Federal Aviation Administration exemption.

“Typically, chemical plants and refineries are no-fly zones, so making these visual inspections is only possible from a distance,” says Lawrence Crynes, general manager of Total Safety Flare Services. “But distance and other factors can compromise the effectiveness of an inspection and they are sometimes impossible to do because of weather, trees, wires, fencing and other restrictions.

“Our goal is to check the mechanical integrity of the flare and visible components to help determine the need for repair or replacement,” Crynes continues. “Mechanical integrity has an impact on the safety of employees, the facility and the community. Plus, a flare that is not performing properly, may also produce emissions that are outside regulatory requirements.”

Total Safety’s UAV technology is a two-person operation, having one technician pilot the aircraft and the other wears special goggles to see what the camera can see and take close-up, high-resolution photos and videos for further study.

“This method is faster than other methods and provides an instant record of the inspection,” says Chris Barton, downstream district manager at Total Safety. “Setup for aerial inspection using a Total Safety drone is quick and easy to perform.”