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Drones Meet Big Data: Now Is The Time

Francis Vierboom

Cofounder & Managing Director, Propeller Aerobotics

Drones are in the headlines every day now—and for good reason: They’re going to change the way industrial sites are run. Autonomous flying robots can capture hundreds of acres of precision surveying data in a matter of minutes, make dangerous inspections cheaper and safer, and provide literal ‘oversight’.

So far, though, the commercial rollouts for major applications have been limited. Although drones get great results and capture incredible data sets, there’s a whole new problem created: the data is enormous and diverse, and the desktop tools made for traditional professional surveying and technical uses aren’t designed for it – they’re missing out on a lot of the value in the comprehensive, regular data now possible.

Propeller Aerobotics is a platform that solves the big data problem created by drones. We take the raw data from drone pilots and make it powerful and accessible on the web for the industries that are ready to start using it today.

But we didn’t start out that way: Propeller started out as two guys who loved flying drones and wanted to get into this big new industry. We started by applying for our drone pilot license in our home base in Australia, where there have been regulations in place for drones operations since 2002. There are already more than 200 companies with licenses to operate commercially.

But after talking with leading engineering companies about their aerial surveying needs, we heard the same problem over and over again: “We know the data’s good – but it’s too much of a hassle when we get a USB key or a Dropbox link to get the data integrated into our systems.”

So we decided to fix that problem instead. Together with our first customer, Craig & Rhodes—a local surveying firm with a keen eye on the future, exploring how drones were going to change their business—we created a web platform that made the precision surveying data easy to view and download online, as well as a cloud-based processing system to automate the intensive computing required to create the mapping outputs.

At that time, we were still waiting on our pilot-licensing paperwork, so we ended up subcontracting out the drone flight to another local operator. And we realized we could just keep doing that, too. The drone operators loved our platform almost as much as the data customers did; it saved them huge amounts of time on processing, and it gave them the ability to start working with the big customers that could give them work on a monthly basis, not just for one-off photography and video projects.

We’re now working with one of the largest quarry operators in the world, Hanson Aggregates, subsidiary of the U.K.-based Heidelberg Group, and helping them start to use drone data to manage volumes on their site. We’re also working with a major Australian outsourcing and maintenance group, Transfield Services, and a state water utility, TasWater, with hundreds of dams and facilities requiring regular maintenance and inspection.

Why is now the time for Propeller? It’s actually the combination of a few big changes underway right now in technology—and not just drones.

  • Smartphone factories. They’re actually the reason drones are suddenly so affordable and popular. The electronics a robot needs to fly itself—GPS, accelerometers and gyroscopes that can detect precise movements—are vastly cheaper today thanks to the millions of them being made for smartphone manufacturing. Together with the incredible open-source movement at DroneCode pushing forward the autonomous capabilities, the hardware layer is ready for the big time.
  • Cloud computing. Drone data is seriously big data, and the process of turning still images into precision 3-D models (called ‘photogrammetry’) soaks up enormous amounts of computing power. Thanks to cloud computing, wide area maps that used to take weeks to process can be turned around in just hours—and that time is coming down, too.
  • WebGL. 3-D on the web is just now becoming possible. Your browser, tablet and phone can now all show 3-D rendering, which makes it possible to visualize sites as they really are.
  • Tablets. The web isn’t just for office workers now. Businesses are starting to connect their workers in the field with access to enterprise apps. Convenient access to aerial imaging on Propeller in the field means safer and more efficient work sites of all kinds.

The future for commercial applications in drones is big. Estimates range from $8 billion in 2020, to an eventual $400 billion.

Propeller is key part of that wave. We’re working with the operator communities and with hardware that’s already available around the world, helping them deliver across the last mile into the organizations where cloud integration is key.

Francis Vierboom

Cofounder & Managing Director, Propeller Aerobotics

Francis is cofounder and Managing Director at Propeller Aerobotics, a platform for drone data for construction companies and site managers. His career has taken him from drafting e-contracting legislation in…