Q&A: Can AV pros make money from drones?

In the Jan/Feb edition of InAVate magazine Tim Kridel looks at the growing use of drones across many fields and asks some experts how AV professionals can take advantage of the emerging technology. Here, in the second of a series of Q&As he speaks with Andrea Sangster, who managed a projector line at Christie before becoming senior marketing manager at Aeryon Labs, a drone vendor.

TK: Your website has some examples that are a good fit for pro AV. For example, the inspection one could be useful for rental/staging companies for checking sets and other gear that otherwise would require sending a human into difficult or dangerously high locations. The security one could be useful for applications where it’s not practical or possible to permanently install a camera or use a cart-mounted one. Based on your experience with AV, what are some other potential pro AV applications of UAVs?

AS: UAVs are a beneficial tool for inspecting hard-to-reach/hazardous structures. A pro AV environment offers some different challenges because of the other activities that take place during an event: set up/during/tear down. The following needs to be considered, especially since most events/installations will be a commercial application. Hobby rules and regulations will not apply. If for a government installation, there might be different considerations. 
  • Whether indoor/outdoor venues, safety must be a top priority. People walking/climbing, working during the UAV operation. The operator needs to be aware and other safety guidelines put in place. If the inspections take place when no other workers are onsite, then safety is less of a concern, but doesn’t always match the event schedule
  • Indoor venues there are a number of structural obstacles in most arenas or convention centres, including the rigging devices that are being used. The UAV needs to be navigated around the obstacles. Operator experience/expertise is valuable in these situations. Aeryon sUAS can only operate outdoors, but there are smaller systems that might be suitable for indoor venues.
  • Outdoor venues – weather conditions, structural obstacles come into play
  • Operator training – there are different types of UAVs, many require two people for the operation. AV companies will need to ensure they have trained operators. Aeryon’s UAS only require one operator, but application expertise is required to ensure the inspection takes place quickly and the required data is captured correctly.
  • For outdoor venues or perimeter security of a building/venue is a potential application. Again, operator training needs to be a priority. A flight Certificate of Authorization (COA) will be required, so the application process will need to be built into the event logistics. Would the AV company request the COA or would they hire a security company who would have the approval?
  • Privacy issues might also need to be addressed as well.

TK: I’m trying to get a sense of the types of companies – UAV vendors? UAV systems integrators? Something else? – that businesses and other organizations typically turn to when they decide that they have applications that could benefit from UAVs. InAVate readers have a lot of experience designing, building and maintaining systems that capture and manage video, such as for surveillance. But I’m not sure if the organisations that hire them for those types of applications would consider them a natural place to look when it comes to UAV video applications.

AS: There are service providers that use UAVs to collect aerial imagery and data for their clients. The industries vary: forestry, mining, agriculture, oil & gas, energy, conservation, etc. I don’t know of any service providers in the AV industry that are using our systems. There could be some that are using the technology, I just don’t know of any.

Our experience has been with service providers who see the value of UAV technology to provide their clients with imagery/data. There are companies that have their own UAV team on staff that are responsible for inspections, monitoring, surveying, etc. Some service providers already offered aerial imagery through some other method, so it was through their own interest in UAV technology they have adopted the technology. Others were military UAV operators so they’ve built a business on their expertise.

From my experience with systems integrators, I agree, I don’t know that their clients would think of them to provide the technology. It would be up to them to have the interest and then promote to their customers showing the value. They could include a UAV as an option for collecting the outdoor aerial imagery instead of a camera, but they would need a way to ensure the end user company had a trained operator. Would training then become part of their business model? The opportunity is there. It all depends on the regulations where they live and whether there are regulations that enable the client to fly.

There are government, energy and other organizations that use UAVs for perimeter security, if a SI is doing an installation for them, a UAV could be included. The systems integrator just needs to know how to include the technology in the mix of their offerings. Depending on the company, a stationary camera still might be the more affordable option. Again, a flight authorization (COA) needs to be approved by the FAA for the end user customer and the operators need to be trained.

TK: What does the UAV ecosystem look like in terms of the types of companies available to help organizations implement any type of UAV application?

AS: There are companies that provide UAV training, globally. And as the technology becomes more affordable and accessible, the number of companies will increase. Many companies have trained pilots for other types of aircraft.

Universities and colleges have UAV programs that teach how to become a pilot and build it. There are also other research organizations that provide their expertise when recommending UAVs according to application requirements.

Again, there are service providers who are UAV pilots that can provide services according to the application.

For our systems, we provide two days of training for our customers. Additional training is available. Other manufacturers do offer training; I’m just not sure the extent or the approach they take.

TK: What are the top things that AV companies should consider when deciding if and how to expand their portfolio to include UAVs? For example, what types of certifications and skills do they need to operate and maintain UAVs? How can they determine which laws apply to the cities/countries they serve?

AS: The top considerations are:
  • Safety
  • Cost of system. What are the capabilities of the UAV that are required? How does that affect cost? How much will the system costs, replacement parts, maintenance, training?
  • Image quality. How is the system being used? What resolution and clarity is required? Do you need detailed images and video? How will the images and data be used?
  • Operator training and number of operators required for the application and/or UAV system.

We have a whitepaper that highlights what to consider when choosing a UAV. It’s targeted at police, but many of the same considerations apply.

Each country has own regulations for commercial operations. Some countries have strict regulations, others don’t have any. In the US right now, commercial applications are limited, but this is starting to change. Here in Canada, Transport Canada just announced some changes that will enable some organizations fly without seeking approval. Most of our customers will still need to request approval, mainly because of where they operate their systems.

Typically, an application is made to the federal aviation organization for approval according to how/when the system will be used. We have some information on our website that might help.

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