6 Things to Consider When Starting a Drone Program

Jul 16, 2021 4:39:14 PM  |  0 Comments

Drone technology is revolutionizing countless industries, making it possible for businesses to expand operations, extend reach and capability, and improve operational efficiency.

Whether you run a wind farm and need to monitor your turbines or manage construction sites and want to track progress, you’re probably here because you suspect that drones can help your business thrive. And you might be wondering what you need to know before starting your own drone program.

No two drone programs are the same—even within the same industry, such as agriculture, drone programs in different organizations are going to have different needs and challenges. However there are some common questions that every business should consider when starting a drone program.

This article will help you understand what to consider and how to fulfill your specific needs.

1. Do You Need a Drone Program?

Drones can help your business. You have no question about that. But the first step in starting a drone program is answering a very important question: do you really need to build out an entire internal drone program, or will a drone service provider suffice?

The truth is, not all companies need to have their own drone program. Sometimes, hiring external drone services will be sufficient for your company, at least in the short run.

Here are some reasons you might want to consider hiring a drone service provider instead of building your own program:

  • Cost: Between purchasing equipment, adopting software and hiring and training pilots, it can be expensive to build a drone program from the ground up. The upfront cost is especially high, so it's important to consider your budget.
  • Safety regulations in your industry: Some industries have advanced regulations that must be followed. If you build your own drone program, you need to ensure that your team is up to date with current regulations and guidelines. A drone service provider has the experience necessary to abide by these regulations on day one. 
  • Organization and processes: When you build out an entire drone program, organization and internal processes have to be developed, as well. It can be a lot for a small team to handle, but existing drone providers already have robust processes in place.
  • Hiring and licensing: Being a drone pilot is a specialized skill that requires training and licensing. Whether that means training and licensing existing employees to pilot drones or hiring an already experienced pilot, it can be a big expense in terms of time and money. Existing drone programs already have a fleet of licensed pilots at the ready to fulfill your drone program needs.

Now that we’ve covered the reasons you might want to outsource your drone program, there’s one big reason you wouldn’t want a service provider—the long-term cost.

That’s right, cost as a factor can go either for or against outsourcing your drone program. While starting a drone program does involve a lot of upfront costs, outsourced programs can be expensive in the long run if you’re doing a lot of flights. So if your organization is committed to making drone technology a permanent part of operations, it might make sense to build your own drone program.

2. What Kinds of Flights Are You Going to Do?

Once you’ve decided that you want to start your own drone program rather than hiring a service provider, it’s time to think about what kinds of flights, also known as missions, you’ll do. After all, the types of flights will impact the equipment you buy, software you use and what kind of data you can collect.

The different types of flights include: 

  • Corridor mapping (e.g., mapping a length of transmission towers)
  • Large-scale aerial mapping (e.g., mapping an entire forest)
  • Small-scale aerial mapping (e.g., mapping a golf course)
  • Asset inspection (e.g., inspecting telephone poles, wind turbines, bridges, buildings and fencing)
  • Vertical façade inspection (e.g., inspecting window panes)
  • Aerial viewpoint shots/recordings (e.g., capturing data for emergency response teams and footage for news stations)
  • Entertainment and marketing materials (e.g., wedding videography and commercial real estate marketing materials)

You may decide that over the long run, your organization will be involved in multiple flight types from the list above. However in the early days it’s helpful to start with one or two primary use cases and understand that your needs might change over time.

3. What Data Do You Need, And How Will You Use It?

When it comes to your company’s drone program, what data will you need to process and how often do you need to process it? The answer to this question will guide your drone, sensor and software purchases.

For example, is the primary goal of your drone program standard data collection, such as analyzing standard RGB images of job sites? If so, you probably don’t need thermal sensors or advanced software solutions. However, you will need a software data management solution to store those images. 

If you’re trying to automatically detect deterioration (which is common in transmission and distribution) such as the laminate deterioration on a wind turbine, you’ll need a software solution like Measure Ground Control.

Mapping also requires a software solution. Something like Maps Made Easy is a good starter mapping software, but advanced jobs such as elevation mapping might require more advanced sensors and software.

4. What Equipment Do You Need? 

After you’ve chosen those first two primary types of flights, it’s time to select the equipment you need to have a successful drone program. Looking back to the last question, the types of flights you plan on taking will be the primary driver of what kind of drone or drones and sensors you’ll want to buy. 

What Drones Do You Need?

There are four types of drones, all of which have their own advantages and use cases.

  • Fixed-wing: Ideal for long flights, such as corridor mapping.
  • Small Quadcopters: Portable, lightweight, great for inspections.
  • Mid-grade Quadcopters: The workhorses of the drone world. They can fly longer because they have larger batteries. They can do a combination of inspection (by a good pilot) and mapping.
  • Large Quadcopters: Can carry heavy payloads like seed pods and can be used for spraying crops and releasing bugs. They can fly for longer but are a little clunkier. 

Take vertical building façade inspections as an example. You’ll want a quadcopter of some kind as opposed to a fixed-wing drone because fixed-wing drones can’t fly straight up or hover. Or, if you’re mapping larger areas, you’ll want a drone that has a longer battery life and perhaps a larger size overall, which could be a quadcopter or a fixed-wing drone.

You also might be limited to using or avoiding certain brands of drones. For example, if your company has government contracts, you may not be able to use DJI drones to service those contracts. These cases are rare, but they exist, so be sure to do your research concerning drone brands.

Category

Uses

Pros

Cons

Battery Life

Example

Fixed-Wing

Corridor Mapping

Capable of long flights

Bad for vertical imaging

Long

Parrot Disco

Small Quad

Inspection

Portable

Lightweight

Shorter battery life

Short

Parrot ANAFI USA

Medium Quad

Inspection

Mapping

Longer flight time

Workhorses of the drone world

Inspections require skilled pilots

Medium

 

Large Quad

Mapping

Planting seed pods

Crop spraying

Releasing bugs

Long flight time

Capable of carrying large payloads

Clunky

Long

 

 

What Cameras and Sensors Do You Need?

The types of data you want to collect—and what you want to do with it—will help you decide which cameras and sensors you need. The primary types of cameras and sensors include:

  • High-Res RGB: Basic imaging. Ideal for simple inspection or to track progress or deterioration over time. 
  • Thermal sensors: Capture temperature data. Popular for everything from search and rescue to detecting energy loss.
  • Multispectral sensors: Captures broad spectral data over the electromagnetic spectrum that aren’t visible to the human eye or standard RGB cameras. Can be used to measure reflection of plants to monitor growth.

With the number of cameras and sensors on the market, it’s easy to get overwhelmed early in your drone program. We recommend using the “Choose a Sensor” tool from MicaSense if you’re still not sure which sensors are right for your organization.

5. How Do You Manage the Program? 

There are two especially important elements to running a drone program—the software you need and the person who will manage it.

What Software Do You Need? 

Drone fleet management can be as advanced as a software solution like Measure Ground Control or as simple as a manual flight log or digital drone log book. 

For smaller drone programs, you might be able to get by with a manual log book. However, the problems with manual flight logs become apparent as you begin to scale up your drone program. When you start adding drones, pilots and flights, the manual log book simply can’t keep up.

That’s why even smaller drone programs use software solutions like Ground Control on day one. They understand that starting and growing with a software solution will be easier, less time-consuming and ultimately less expensive than starting with a manual log and eventually porting your data over into a software solution.

You might even want something like Measure Ground Control even if your drone program is small with no real intention of scaling up—especially if your pilots are flying a lot. That’s because even small companies and programs may need the advanced compliance features of Ground Control.

The bottom line is, if you need compliance at scale and large-scale management, you want a solution like Ground Control.

Who’s Going to Manage the Program?

At Measure, we’ve noticed a trend. The person in an organization who pushes hardest for a drone program tends to end up being the first person to head that drone program. 

Sometimes, that’s totally fine. There’s a lot to be said for having the person with the most passion for drones running the show. They probably even know their way around a drone and have certainly done the research to see how drones can help your company. 

However, there are downsides to not having a dedicated drone program manager.

One big downside is a lack of time and attention. If the person pushing for the drone program already has a dedicated job and many other tasks, asking them to head a drone program is simply adding more work to their plate.

Another downside is lack of expertise. Unless the person pushing for the drone program has previously run a drone program, there could be a big knowledge and experience gap. Before the program can be successful, that person has a lot of training and education ahead of them. 

6. How Are You Going to Train Your New Pilots?

Since drone programs are still relatively new, it’s hard to find talented, licensed drone pilots who will be ready to fly on day one. One popular option for new drone programs is to train existing employees or hire and train new pilots who might have some hobby experience.

There are three primary methods of training and certifying new commercial drone pilots. The first is to send pilots to a drone pilot school or training program. During their training program, their curriculum will include use cases, practical skills, Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) safety regulations and more. At the end of the program, they'll have a remote pilot certificate.

The other two ways are to hire a drone consultant to come in for a period of time or to hire a chief pilot. 

Both of these options will enable employees to learn to fly on-site and prepare for certification and licensing directly from industry professionals. The only difference is that a chief pilot would be a long-term hire and a consultant will simply fulfill their contract and move along to their next assignment.

The Bottom Line

Ultimately, drone programs are only as successful as the time and energy put into them. If you’re willing to commit to making your drone program a success, then it likely will be. If you have a main point of contact who has the time and energy to commit to setting everything up and making the important decisions, you’re well on your way to a drone program capable of improving and elevating your business. 

Are you ready to get your drone program off the ground? Reach out to our team to see how Measure Ground Control and its partners can help make drones work for you and your organization.

New call-to-action

Request a Free Consultation with an Advisor.

Please take a moment to let us know more about you.