Alastair has over 10 years’ experience leading research activities in scaled, high-growth industrial and technology markets. At Interact Analysis he is responsible for electric trucks and buses, autonomous trucks and off-highway electrification.
Commercial drones – those used for precision agriculture, mining, site inspection and other applications – are big business. They are a key tool for improving efficiency and safety whilst reducing overheads. But problems exist: how can drones be piloted safely and is there a way to magnify their impact yet further? Several companies, backed by fresh investment, are driving exciting artificial intelligence drone developments.
Why is AI critical for drones?
There are several reasons why artificial intelligence is an essential building block for the commercial drone market. First, AI can be used to drive superior efficiency in drone operation:
- Multiple drones can be piloted by one operator, reducing labour costs and/or freeing up operator time to interpret results.
- More effective use of the drone battery can be achieved by allowing the AI to take more precise control of the drone’s operation.
- A more effective flightpath can be achieved with an AI system. Taking precision agriculture as an example, an AI enabled drone can intelligently ‘decide’ upon the most efficient course to scan a field.
- During inspection activities, AI enabled drones can use real-time intelligence to highlight anomalies or events to an operator. Rather than reviewing entire logs, operators are freed up to focus on key activities/events.
In addition to more efficient operations, AI enabled drones could prove to be safer than their human piloted counterparts. In a human piloted scenario, AI could be used as an ‘intervention tool’ if the pilot loses connection with the drone or doesn’t react to a potential collision event.
In a fully autonomous scenario, drones may be able to react more quickly than a person to a range of scenarios. This remote operation or ‘situational awareness’ may be critical for drone safety and operation when connectivity fails. A costly commercial drone must be able to safely navigate/land in difficult conditions or when it loses connection to GPS/cellular signals.
Finally, sufficiently advanced AI will enable safer night time operations, effectively increasing the hours of operation and return on investment that can be made from a single drone.
Investments driving innovations
Investment dollars are flowing into the industry, with several start-ups and established companies receiving funding to the tune of nearly $60m in the last year. This doesn’t include the investments being made by drone manufacturers or hardware providers into their own platforms/systems.
|Jan-16||22,500,000||Airobotics||Unmanned drone solution||CRVVC, Noam Bardin, BlueRun Ventures, UpWest Labs, Richard Wooldridge|
|May-16||3,200,000||Gamaya||Farmland mapping and diagnostics||Peter Letmathe, VI Partners, Sandoz Foundation, Seed4Equity SA|
|Jul-16||2,000,000||area17||Software for autonomous navigation||Red Dog Capital, Morado Venture Partners|
|Dec-16||3,500,000||Exyn Technologies||Drone platforms that do not rely on human control or GPS information||IP Group Plc|
|Jan-17||14,000,000||Neurala||Deep learning neural network software||BYU Cougar Capital, Idinvest Partners, Draper Associates, 360 Capital Partners, Motorola Solutions Venture Capital, Sherpa Capital, Pelion Venture Partners|
|Jan-17||1,500,000||Iris Automation||Collision avoidance for industrial drones||Paul Buchheit, Kevin Moore, Liquid2 Ventures, GGV Capital, Social Capital, Bee Partners|
|Apr-17||10,500,000||Shield AI||AI for autonomous, unmanned systems||Founder Collective, Bloomberg Beta, Homebrew, Andreessen Horowitz|
This augers well for the industry as a whole – these companies are working on critical technologies for the advancement of the commercial drone market. However, it should be noted that this is a drop in the ocean by comparison to the automotive industry. This isn’t a criticism – the automotive industry is orders of magnitude bigger and has deeper pockets – but it should be a sign-post. The commercial drone market should build connections with the automotive AI community to understand best practices, understand the progress made, and what can be taken and adopted for itself.
By themselves, commercial drones are demonstrating value and a return on investment. But to truly recognise the value they bring, they must be enabled with artificial intelligence. Not only will AI make drones safer, it will allow them to operate more efficiently and provide greater value than they do now. The investments being made in the enabling technologies are a positive, but they do not yet match the scale of investment being made in other industries. There is an opportunity for those with experience of AI in other industries – like automotive – to bring their experience and deep pockets to bear in this growing market.