Drones have arrived. We’ve seen a plethora of ideas springing up around drones and their potential uses for business – aerial surveying and reporting, real estate assessment, wedding photos, sports action photos, to name a few.
And with plenty of new software and hardware coming out all the time, the opportunities for drone-oriented startups are virtually limitless. But what really interests me are the “crossover” opportunities between drones and other technologies that will give rise to truly new innovation that will change the way we live and work.
Here’s a list of some of those crossover opportunities that seem ripe at the moment. Hopefully you’ll find them interesting. And if you have any fantastic startup ideas using drones, please add them to my huge small business ideas list.
1. Crop-management drones
Drones can monitor relatively large swathes of agricultural land relatively cheaply. This means they offer the perfect way to monitor crops for signs of disease – and potentially use targeted spraying at the source of an outbreak early on.
Companies like senseFly offer drone-based crop monitoring and analysis using a range of sophisticated sensors to help farmers identify areas where their crops are doing well and where they’re not. This allows them to go out into the field and test specific areas for signs of disease and other problems. Once identified, the farmer can take targeted action. Much better than simply blanketing entire fields with toxic pesticides.
But if drones can help us find trouble spots, what’s to say there isn’t scope to get them to fix the problems too?
Like senseFly, your business could set up a system of drones to monitor every corner of a crop using a variety of sensors. All the data you gather (which could be anything from visual to infrared, and possibly even air and plant samples) could be saved to the cloud or analyzed on-site by the farmer – or potentially by a team of experts back at your headquarters.
Once a problem is identified, your company would load up crop-spraying drones to deliver precisely the right herbicide/pesticide in the right amount to the right area. This would not only save on expensive poisons, it would also save on other costs – i.e. driving a tractor out to spray a specific area is going to be far more expensive and time consuming than sending a lightweight drone.
2. Traffic Enforcement Drones
Most of the world is currently focused on controlling and managing drone traffic. In fact, NASA is currently testing drone traffic management systems in Nevada.
But instead of thinking about how to control drone traffic, what if we looked at controlling city traffic and congestion with drones?
Imagine how infuriating it would be to double park while you run in to pick up your dry-cleaning only to find that you have been issued with an electronic ticket by a traffic drone. Infuriating, yes. But consider how much more pleasant the roads would be if no one felt they could take a chance breaking the rules because they would get caught.
Human traffic officials are ground based and slow — and they are expensive to train. This means many drivers are happy to flout the rules here and there because it is unlikely they’ll be caught. Each one of these little infringements adds up, leading to congestion, delays, and accidents.
Enter the traffic drone.
Your traffic control drone company would patrol a specific turf searching for traffic infringements (either using AI or human operators back at the station). It would footage of identified infringements, with a timestamp, save the data to the traffic departments’ cloud database, and issue an electronic ticket directly to the driver’s smartphone (identified from the driver’s license plate number). You could also passively and randomly scan for vehicles with outstanding offences.
3. Herd-management drones
Herding cattle and sheep is not always as easy as it looks in the movies. It’s important to be able to move quickly to head off animals that startle or separate from the herd. This is where a drone could make a huge difference.
Initially drones would be used to augment the farmer’s existing herding methods, like this farmer herding his sheep using a drone.
But your drone company could add some improvements to the manually controlled version that would enable drones to herd animals autonomously. This would allow farmers to ensure their herds were taken to the best grazing and back to safety each night from the comfort of their high rise apartment in town.
But why stop there? On large farms it can be a challenge simply finding a herd. Drones could offer a cheap and effective way to locate them and herd them to wherever they need to be.
At the same time, why not use the drone’s sensors to count the herd and ensure there are no missing animals. Infra-red and other sensors could help to monitor for disease outbreaks – as they do with humans arriving from certain tropical hotspot areas at modern airports.
This data, gathered from the field, could be stored in the cloud, where either the farmer or a dedicated herd-management company (based anywhere in the world) could analyze it.
And again, if drones are monitoring the health of livestock, there’s no reason they can’t be used to act on those problems. Drones could be fitted with paint ball type guns armed with inoculation pellets, allowing them to deliver medicines to the right animals.
4. Appified universal drones
What made the PC such a revolution was that it was arguably the first true multi-purpose machine. Unlike a toaster, which can only toast or burn bread, a PC can run software that allows it to perform all sorts of different, useful tasks.
We can do the same for drones by creating something called a Universal Device Socket (UDS). A UDS would allow drones to plug into a limitless number of devices that provide their own unique functionality.
Each device, once connected to the drone via the UDS, could communicate via the drone to the user’s smartphone or tablet. Knowing what device is plugged in, it would be easy for the app to download the correct driver for that device from the Web if it didn’t have an up-to-date driver available already.
Think of a situation in which a drone has to fly up to a damaged powerline to repair something.
It might initially need a bolt cutter. No problem, plug into the bolt cutter and control it from your drone’s smartphone app. Once the lines have been cleared, it may have to drill, saw, or screw something. Simply fly back down, unplug the bolt cutters and plug in the saw.
The user’s smartphone detects a change of device, ensures it has the right driver, and presents the correct saw controls via the app’s interface. In this way, drones could evolve from specialists into generalists, and one drone might be able to handle a huge array of tasks in a much more elegant and cost effective manner.
5. Printed drone repairs
In any burgeoning industry, there is always a commensurate increase in the demand for maintenance and repairs. And given some of the YouTube videos I’ve seen of spectacular drone crashes, a good drone repair service is never going to be short of work.
Repairing drones probably doesn’t sound like the most revolutionary business opportunity in the world, but there might be a great way to undercut the market and grow quickly in this particular niche — use 3D printing to lower costs.
Buy a 3D printer to print spare blades and other parts. It’s not too hard to scan items, select from a range of suitable printing materials, and produce a high quality spare part without needing to go via a middleman supplier. Companies like Shapeways are already supplying printed drone spares.
Drones, like any mechanical device, will also require regular maintenance, and any business that performs repairs will be well suited to become a servicing agent for companies, municipalities, and governments operating many, many drones. There are going to be a lot of repairs and maintenance required and if you can do it cheaper than anyone else, you’ll make money.
The icing on the cake? Have damaged and repaired drones delivered to and from your workshop via drone, allowing customers to manage the entire process from their own residence or place of business.
6. Public drone-charging stations
Assuming that drones become part and parcel of our daily lives — monitoring traffic, doing deliveries, handling chores for us — at some point, they are going to need to be recharged while on the go. On an industrial scale.
Induction charging stations are not a new idea. For example, Amazon has filed a patent to recharge drones on streetlamps, and Skysense sells drone charging pads. At this time, however, there is no business offering drone charging stations to the public – and there’s an elegant way to do it.
Place smart induction chargers on building roofs. Each charger would be able to identify incoming drones and recharge them if they are registered and have sufficient credit.
Drone operators would register with your recharging company online, receive some sort of identifier (most likely a device-specific password transmitted via bluetooth) for each of their drones, and then have access to all the charging platforms you place around the city.
You would then provide charge at a competitive price based on what each drone uses. Like garages for autos, charging stations would be commonplace. And, what’s more, assuming you are able to secure some decent roof space, there would be scope to power the chargers using solar or wind.
Renewable energy to power the city’s fleet of drones – public and private.
On the other side of the equation, drones would be programmed to recognize when power is low and fly to the nearest available rooftop charging station to recharge before returning to duty.
7. Drone software development
As we gradually demand more from drones, they will need to perform their tasks with as little human intervention as possible. But things we take for granted can be tricky for software developers to enable in machines.
Think about a rescue drone searching for people in a burning building. It needs to be able to navigate around obstacles, potentially avoid flying debris, search in a pattern that doesn’t leave any unsearched areas, and so on.
Each task requires unique, sophisticated software. While there are already attempts to provide open source drones that come with the basics of flight built-in – like Spiri, which offers a programmable flying robot based on Ubuntu Linux – there is going to be demand for a lot more.
Whatever you can imagine drones doing, there will likely be a need for new software to enable it. We’re only at the start. In time, the rise of drones is going to lead to amazing technologies that ripple back out into the wider world and help other industries and niches to evolve.
Software that tackles NP-hard problems can be used to autonomously maximize the efficiency of swarming drones. Currently, companies like Optergon use multi-threaded, multi-server, heuristic software to solve related problems that allow companies to produce incredibly efficient real world route optimizations. This software, amongst others, can be modified and incorporated into drones to help them maximize their efficiency.
The ideas I’ve listed here are just some of many upcoming opportunities in the drone space. Expect to see some innovative plays emerge in 2017 and beyond. And if you’ve already started an innovative business that uses drones, let me know.
David Mercer contributes to SME Pals, a blog dedicated to helping entrepreneurs and small business owners thrive online by turning creative business ideas into profitable startups. He is a tech entrepreneur and published author with programming and Web development books translated into over 13 languages worldwide.