In the latest blockbuster film Spectre, we see the Centre of National Security try to replace 007 with an armoury of surveillance technology, including drone monitoring systems. But fans fear not, for we all know Bond is as irreplaceable as he is indestructible: while drones cannot replicate the sixth-sense abilities of the world's favourite spy, they can aid him in his missions. Both Spectre and the British Secret Service recognise the power of data, alongside the investment community, where drones are becoming an established theme within the tech sector.
Drones are unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly known as UAVs. The pilot-less aircraft integrate hardware with software to perform specific tasks. For example, easyJet uses drones to inspect its aircrafts and identify damage. By reducing the amount of workers and machinery needed to check the airplanes, easyJet saves time and money.
The potential applications for UAVs are endless but the basic function is data collection, and that is where its investment value lies.
Drones can be low flying, high flying, tiny or huge. Depending on your perspective, they can be your best friend or your worst enemy.
The world of drones is still nascent but the possibilities are endless. Beyond the hype, they are finding valid roles in industry. Some of the most popular drone applications include:
1. Search & rescue (thermal imaging over avalanches)
2. Forestation, agriculture, oil & gas (monitoring and inspection)
3. Security & surveillance (see more from above)
4. Aerial mapping & photography (3D Volumetrics)
5. Parcel delivery (delivering medicines to remote clinics)
Drones on patrol
The electronics giant Sony is leveraging its camera and cellular radio technologies, its cloud-based data management and its robotics control software in order to produce commercial drone systems.
Facebook's Connectivity Lab is about to start testing its autonomous base-station aircraft to deliver internet access to remote areas. Codenamed Aquila, the solar powered drone will stay sky-bound for up to 90 days. Autopilot will keep the craft circling in a 3km radius above a fixed point, while it beams down internet access to remote Facebook users. As such, Mark Zuckerberg's mission to connect the world takes another step forward.
Opportunities in operating
There is a big opportunity for a standardised operating system in the sprawling world of UAVs. What is needed is a platform that bridges a large set of applications with a large set of drone manufacturers. Airware is a private company trying to do just this. It has announced energy giant GE as an "enterprise customer" for its operating system for commercial drones. GE has already enlisted drones to patrol its power grids and identify and photograph faults, improving grid efficiency and reducing maintenance costs.
From the lessons learnt from the smartphone and the gaming industries, we know that hardware manufacturers eventually get commoditised and that platform and software providers take the greatest share of the profits. The value in UAVs will be in the business intelligence derived from data collection.
Data is the new oil
Data is so important in today's digital economy that it is heralded as the 'new oil': an untapped but immensely valuable asset. As with oil, for those who learn how to extract value from the raw product, the rewards can be huge.
Drone data sets are being used for cost-saving preventative maintenance, operational intelligence and to improve customer service. From multi-million dollar infrastructure industries, such as oil platforms, airlines and super tankers, through to farmers looking to improve their yields and small businesses wanting to be more efficient, data is the key.
The future: personal drones
To give you a feel for where the personal drone market is going, fast forward a few years and we may not only be living in a world where driverless vehicles are ubiquitous, but where every person who carries a smartphone has a personal UAV.
Best Friend Butterfly: Your portable, personal, everyday drone
It's the year 2041 and 'Best Friend Butterfly' is being launched. A small drone the shape and size of a butterfly, it floats around taking pictures of you and your friends. Selfie sticks are a distant memory. More crucially, it is an effective 'kid safety' app for parents. The software recognises face and body and follows your child from home to school. It can wait outside the school (perching on a window ledge) until the child comes out. It HD records sports matches, plays and concerts before following the child home. Tracking and video data is uploaded live to the cloud, where parents can view and see how their child's day is going, ensuring they never miss that winning performance.
The investment opportunity
A new generation of wannabe entrepreneurs will be designing, coding and launching new apps in the hope of hitting upon the next drone-facilitated data explosion. We are watching this space intently for robust opportunities to capitalise on what we believe will be an enormous tech-market trend.
Mark Hawtin and David Goodman, GAM Tech Team