Commercial drones gaining altitude with top IT vendors

Cisco, AT&T, Verizon and others have begun to make their moves in the commercial drone market

Commercial drones gaining altitude with top IT vendors

Google, Verizon and others are partnering with NASA on an Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) traffic management scheme. Microsoft has been working with universities on drone-enabled mosquito traps in an effort to stall infectious diseases from spreading. Cisco has shown off drones whose cameras feed into the company’s collaboration technologies. And AT&T, IBM and Intel have all demonstrated advanced drone-based research.

All of this activity by enterprise IT vendors in the commercial drone field is a far cry from what was being done -- or at least being publicly discussed -- back in late 2014, when our efforts to get such vendors to share their ambitions largely went unheeded

Not that you could blame the vendors for being gun-shy. After all, the legal landscape for commercial drones has been murky at best, with the Federal Aviation Administration scrambling to roll out rules designed to allow hobbyists and commercial enterprises to benefit from flying drones but also to prevent these devices from smashing into people, structures and airplanes.

High profile drone-based delivery systems floated by the likes of Amazon and Google have already become cultural phenomena, but since late 2014, the FAA also has granted 5,000-plus Section 333 exemptions to organizations seeking to experiment with or use drones for less publicized commercial purposes, such as aerial photography by realtors, surveillance by various entities and pipeline monitoring by energy companies. Among those nabbing exemptions have been enterprise tech companies such as Apple, Microsoft and Qualcomm, and numerous others have been able to employ drones via partners in the aviation field (see Infographic below for more data on this).


It’s no wonder that enterprise IT vendors are seeking to get in on the action, even if that means not so much building drones themselves, but rather providing supporting technology, from network connectivity to network management to collaboration tools to big data analysis. Hundreds of millions of dollars are being pumped into drone-related startups, and the investment arms of companies such as Intel, Qualcomm and Verizon are among those leading the way (Drone companies like Airware and DJI are launching venture arms, too!). Market watcher Grand View Research says the global UAV market will be worth more than $2 billion by 2022.

“Drones are just a mobile platform that carries sensors and so basically, they are another IoT platform,” says Gerald Van Hoy, a senior research analyst at Gartner who tracks semiconductors, robotics, drones and more. “Anything you can think of that is IoT related as far as connectivity or software will probably bleed into the drone space. The more sensors you put on these, the more data has to be collected off of them, has to go to the cloud, has to be stored and processed.”

In other words, all the kinds of things that enterprise IT vendors specialize in now.


Former Cisco CEO John Chambers’ recent investment in hot drone startup Airware recently grabbed headlines (“Cisco ‘s John Chambers toying with drones in “retirement”), but Cisco itself is up to much more than that.

The company has been talking about the Internet of Everything for years now and is putting its money where its mouth is via moves such as the $1.4B buyout of IoT platform provider Jasper Technologies earlier this year. And drones fit right into this burgeoning networked world of sensor-based devices.

While Microsoft declined to talk drones with us, and IBM, Dell and HPE never responded, Cisco had plenty to say. Much of what Cisco is thinking about drones can be gleaned from Biren Gandhi, a distinguished engineer and strategist in Cisco’s Corporate Strategic Innovation Group, who has been blogging about drones for the company over the past year and has been on the drone conference circuit as well. Gandhi spoke at the NASA UTM Convention and the Las Vegas InterDrone event last year, and is taking part in a couple of panels this week at the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International’s Xponential 2016 show in New Orleans (Cisco's Chambers spoke there too, and warned about the Top 7 Mistakes Enterprises Make in Talking About Drones).

Gandhi, who is excited about the possibilities of drones to do good, spoke to Network

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