Drones are everywhere — in the news and soon to be (legally) in the skies. They are quickly moving beyond their controversial military use and taking on the role of force multiplier in a myriad of industries including agriculture, inspection services, humanitarian, conservation, and emergency services. For companies, organizations, cities, and even average people, drones are fast becoming an efficient and cost effective way to get places and capture images and video that we couldn’t otherwise see.
Drones may be today’s novelty, but they could be tomorrow’s game changer, with significant and life-changing uses. Imagine: A drone patrols a large national forest during a forest fire in the middle of the night (without endangering human pilots), hunting for the flames’ boundaries. In another remote area, a drone pinpoints the location of injured climbers stuck on a snowy ledge to direct rescue efforts. A citizen floats a drone over a protest to view and share with the rest of the world what’s happening — the future of citizen journalism. Drones could change how we get information, how quickly we get it, and ultimately what we can do with that information.
Human-rights organizations and private satellite firms have been teaming up since the early 2000s to get better visual intelligence on human rights violations. Recently, a terrorist attack in Nigeria garnered press, but no one could confirm the circumstances or even pinpoint exactly where it occurred. It wasn’t until a week after the news was reported that Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch received images from satellites showing striking before-and-after images that confirmed a major, violent action had occurred. The power of the images documented the scale of the devastation and evoked a strong response from other countries and the public.
In the near future, drones will be able to help make this sort of confirmation in a matter of minutes or hours instead of weeks. In a world where drones can collect information, constant images and video footage can provide immediate verification of terrorist acts and natural disasters and provide after-the-fact information that can help tell a broader story so action can be taken. Faster.
Drones offer disruptive capabilities that have, up until now, not been available to industry. Soon, they will become a commodity, and as production ramps up, we will see them in all shapes and sizes, to suit any application. Why? Because drones make so much sense. Drones are far less expensive to operate than helicopters and airplanes. They can get closer to their subjects, and they can get there faster. A drone doesn’t have to wait until daylight to search for lost hikers or monitor hotspots from a forest fire. They can be positioned quickly and vary their camera’s angle, rotation, and zoom accurately and consistently, which is critical to measuring change over time. This disruptive technology will soon change how we gather information and make decisions based on the data.
Entrepreneurs can advance the commercial use of drones. Overnight.
Here’s some advice to young entrepreneurs looking to dive into the drone market: Think about applications first, before you build anything. Think about why your customer needs a drone in the first place. What questions do they want to answer? What kind of information do they need to gather in order to answer that question? From there, you can customize a drone that can fulfill the mission, capture the correct data, in the right format, and make sure the solution is reliable, accurate, and robust.
Drones will soon be blended into our everyday lives. They will be easier to fly — even autonomous. They will fly themselves on preset courses safely without a pilot. Then innovative computer vision and image processing algorithms will help analyze the drone imagery and convert the data into useful information in real time. Flying cameras plus high performance computing plus fast data processing technology equals more accurate answers than we have ever had at our fingertips.
Every sector in our economy stands to benefit from the new type and speed of information that drones can gather. Journalism will be broadened with multiple cases of coverage about a significant news event, instead of every news outlet showing the same blurry video 24/7. The oil and gas industry will monitor its difficult-to-manage infrastructure to prevent critical issues. Insurance companies will assess home damage after a natural disaster more quickly and get claims processed faster. And local governments will tackle logistical and organizational issues by literally “seeing” what needs to be repaired or completely replaced in real time. Police forces will have a new tool to investigate abuses and expose facts. The list goes on, and many of these industries are already seeing how drones can help them find the truth, and find it faster.
The technology is here. Now we need an army of intelligent entrepreneurs to take the tools to the next level to create solutions and find answers to critical questions. Petabytes of drone imagery and video, plus software that can process and automate each second, plus human oversight equals a better future for everyone.
Sean Varah is founder and chief executive of MotionDSP, a maker of computer vision and advanced video analytics software.