Drones

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

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World last week about Cisco’s approach, which he emphasized “is not a concrete proposal – we have a hypothesis and series of beliefs, and so do other companies” (See: “Meet Cisco’s go-to guy on commercial drones”). Cisco’s Strategic Innovation Group focuses on evolving ideas that are 3 to 5 years out from really taking off and for which Cisco may not already have a business unit.

Cisco sees numerous angles through which it might get involved in drones, including by partnering with outfits such as Dimension Data. The companies are working in South Africa to help a game reserve protect Rhinos from poachers in part by using infrared camera-equipped drones for surveillance.

Gandhi says “the de facto play” for Cisco and others is in network infrastructure, providing drone operators with options regardless of where drones are flying. Whereas ad hoc Wi-Fi networks might be the cheapest and best way to control drones in some locales, pricy satellite might be the only choice in more remote places. Gandhi and a colleague have actually filed for a patent recently on a method for dynamically sorting all of this out.

But Cisco also has demonstrated the use of collaboration and conferencing technologies, such as WebEx and Spark, for making on-the-fly use of drone camera video footage, and sees possibilities through fog computing for helping drone operators process data more efficiently than just dumping it all into the cloud – a process that can take days if you’re talking about really rich data.

BEYOND LINE OF SIGHT

With the FAA focusing seriously on drone safety, vendors like AT&T and Intel are exploring how their technologies can help drone operators fly their devices beyond line of sight.

“We believe the LTE network is well positioned to provide connectivity to UAVs, enabling features such as real time live video feeds to safe operations for Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) as approved by the FAA,” says Matt Walsh, Director of Business Development, AT&T Internet of Things organization, via email. “LTE connectivity will also be an essential part of air traffic management and fulfilling the FAA’s goal for UAVs, including registration, flight plan data and location information.”

AT&T and Intel are working together to enable live views of cameras and sensors on drones and to evaluate how the LTE network fares at higher altitudes, including for video streaming and transmitting telematics, Walsh says. “Use cases such as package deliveries, video streaming and emergency response will depend on drones being able to fly farther and longer safely, beyond visual line of sight and out of the way of other flight paths,” he says.

AT&T isn’t interesting in supporting drones for just its customers either: UAVs could also be used to inspect some of the carrier’s network assets.

Verizon too is serious about commercial drones. The company is working with NASA on its development of Unmanned Traffic Management solutions and investing through Verizon Ventures in startups such as PrecisionHawk, which provides aerial data and safety platforms for commercial drones, with an emphasis on users in the agriculture, insurance and telecom industries, and Skyward, which connects drones and their operators with the information they need to fly safely and in compliance with regulatory and insurance requirements.

Dave Famolari, a director at Verizon Ventures who a year ago penned a blog post titled “Now’s the time to invest in UAVs”, says the carrier has focused its developing UAV strategy in three areas. These are:

*Connectivity (“We want to provide all these devices with the best, most reliable data connections so that sensor data and management information can be exchanged in real-time.”)

*Data analytics (“For everything from agriculture to mining to energy to insurance, we need up-to-date real-time information, and UAVs provide a whole new perspective on that.  Through advanced data analytics, the information collected from drones are giving companies in all those industries unique insights into their operations.”)

*National Airspace Integration (”It will be critical to effectively manage the airspace for safety, and like many public good projects, success comes from a collaboration between public and private entities to service a highly effective network with infrastructure across the country.”)

Famolari advises that enterprise IT pros pay attention to all of this as well: “IT will play an important role in both the useful application of drones to industry as well as the safe integration and management of drones in our public airspace.” 

POWER BEHIND THE DRONES

Geir Ramleth, who runs a small investment/consulting/advisory group called GeirHeads, concurs that carriers could play a role in how drones and their data are connected to enterprise networks. As for the Ciscos, Microsofts and others of the world, he thinks they could play a role on the back end, such as in supporting applications like asset surveying (as former SVP and CIO of Bechtel, he knows a thing or two about these sorts of operations).

“What you will have is more input, different input and probably much more frequent input [including data and images] because you have taken down the cost of doing the survey so tremendously on the front end,” he says. “With the number of sensors and amount of data that could come out of [drones], it’s pretty amazing.”

One possible role traditional IT players could play on the front end, though, is figuring out how to improve battery life and network transmission power for lightweight drones, Ramleth says.

Gartner’s Van Hoy says that because the drone market is so nascent, “we probably haven’t even seen the players yet who will be the big contenders in the market in 5 years…I’m not even sure they’re in the market now.” Traditional tech companies like Samsung and Sony, for example, have been making noise in the drone market, but then there also are the big aerospace firms and literally thousands of drone makers in China (according to one of Van Hoy’s colleagues in Taiwan). “I still think we’re in the pre-dawn period of this market.” 

But with hundreds of millions of dollars being poured into drone startups and a traditionally acquisitive bunch of enterprise IT vendors hovering around the market now, it’s a good bet that some pretty familiar faces will wind up making their presence felt.

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