Economies around the world are imploding due to the shut-down of businesses in the COVID-19 era. But even in downtimes, there are winners—companies that provide the right products or services for the needs at hand. In the era of social distancing, drones are emerging as a no-contact solution for many jobs. We’ve seen many examples recently of new drone delivery services coming online. But these are still tiny pilot programs that don’t make much or any money. The bulk of the drone economy is in aerial photography, including surveying and inspecting properties and industrial facilities.

That sector is going strong, claims Dan Burton, CEO of DroneBase. The company matches certified drone pilots with clients who need work done—mainly inspecting buildings or energy infrastructure, like wind and solar farms.

No-contact technology

Burton says that most business is not dropping off, because the work still has to get done. “They have to inspect these wind turbines every year and these solar farms every year,” says Burton. But with the need for social distancing, drones are in even more demand. “Now in the Covid era, there’s much more focus on this technology’s ability to provide safer inspection, risk-free, contact-free inspection,” he says.

Burton says he sees this across several industries the company serves. In insurance, for instance, drones offer a way to inspect damaged properties remotely. “Many folks have just reached out to us because their workforces are essentially locked down,” says Burton. A local drone pilot can go to the site, fly a drone, and collect images that are analyzed by cloud-based AI software, with no need to actually walk the property or climb up on a roof.

Burton points to the tornado outbreak of March 2-3 that hit Tennessee, Alabama, Missouri, and Kentucky. Twenty-six people died and about $1.1 billion in damage occurred, creating a huge job for insurance claims adjusters just as social distancing policies were starting to take effect. “We certainly saw increased adoption,” of drone services, says Burton. (Yet more tornados hit the south in mid-April when lockdown measures were much more widespread.)

Demand for drones on building and construction site inspections has also gone up, he says, as workforces are locked down. That’s true even for companies that had in-house drone departments. Burton says that these companies were already starting to outsource to providers like DroneBase, but that the desire to keep their employees safe has accelerated the move.

The one business area that has slacked off, he says, is real estate, where drones often provide aerial views to show properties off to prospective buyers. People just aren’t buying and selling property much in the lockdown economy.

Accelerating the process

But he claims an uptick in demand for inspecting energy infrastructure. And other data backs that up. Research firm Frost and Sullivan recently reported that the market for drone inspection of the power and utility industry is growing at 23.6% per year and will be worth $515 million by 2030. Social distancing promises to accelerate the process. “This feels like a once in 10 years sea change,” Burton says about the switchover to drone inspections.

We’d all rather live in a world without COVID-19. But for at least some drone entrepreneurs, the economic impact has been minimal or even positive. It took the desperate times and desperate measures to push forward a trend to automation.

Image: courtesy DroneBase

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