The world of drones is changing – and fast. And these changes, specifically around autonomy and automation, will undoubtedly have implications for many of the commercial pilots around the world – particularly those who fly in the Enterprise space.
There will always be a need for qualified drone pilots who meet Part 107 (or equivalent, depending on the country you’re in) requirements. And that’s great, since the FAA tells us there were 233,569 card-carrying pilots in the US as of June 21, 2021. However, depending on the types of jobs you’re doing, the nature of this work is going to change in coming years. Automation means autonomous drones will be carrying out their work on their own, with a pilot simply watching a monitor.
This shift is coming, and you’ll want to keep it on your radar.
Small drone operators
The capabilities of drones, combined with people’s passion for flight (and hey, drones really are cool), has led many people to pursue a career as a drone pilot. Some run small companies offering real estate imagery, some specialize in CineWhoop piloting for commercial clients, while still others are running (or working for) more Enterprise-related companies.
The latter means doing inspections, scanning buildings and equipment, doing volumetric calculations, and more. This kind of work requires more skill, and a deeper familiarity with (generally) third-party software. Mission planning, data crunching, using LiDAR sensors etc. requires deeper technical chops than simply taking pictures or video from above (though, of course, some people are highly skilled at this, including post-production).
But changes are afoot. And those changes are going to shake things up for Enterprise drone operators.
The Age of automation
Many Enterprise pilots are already familiar with and use some of the many mission-planning, fleet management, and photogrammetric software offerings out there. Such software takes care of a lot of things in the background. And many routine inspections these days – especially if you’re monitoring assets or projects over time – are flown using mission-planning software. That means the pilot inputs the flight path and other parameters and then simply lets the drone do the work.
With rare exceptions, the pilot is still hands-on to a certain extent. They’ll run through their checklist pre-flight, inspect the vehicle, ensure the weather conditions are appropriate, and check for any temporary flight restrictions that might be in place. Then they’ll launch and monitor the mission and surrounding airspace. So they’re still busy, even if they aren’t handling the sticks during the mission.
This is how things are now at many operations. The future? Well, it’s going to become a lot more automated.
AI and autonomy
As we’ve seen from companies like Skydio, Percepto, American Robotics, and others, there’s a big push toward automated, autonomous flight. Machine Vision, Machine Learning, and other parts of the AI bundle are already in some drones. And in the case of the companies above, this is a key part of their business model and value proposition: Flights that take place automatically, with the drone launching from a charging station that can be sealed from the elements when the drone is not in flight. Persistent monitoring and inspection, with no one touching the drone except for scheduled maintenance checks.
Automated drone flights without human intervention
You see where this is going, right? Here’s a video teaser Skydio released nearly two years ago, showing how the dock system work. You’ll notice something here: There’s no drone pilot in the scene:
Drone pilots will still be needed – even with automation
But in an automated, autonomous future using docks, they’ll likely be tucked in a building somewhere – perhaps even across the country, simply monitoring software. The flights and data acquisition will take place automatically. And some of these pilots might be monitoring fleets of drones that are operating simultaneously, acting more as a caretaker in case the system flags an anomaly requiring human intervention.
As Skydio puts it in the description for the above video:
The concept of a “drone in a box” has long offered the promise of fully automated data collection for myriad enterprise applications from repeated mapping of construction sites, to security patrols of sensitive areas, to keeping drones on call as first responders for emergency situations. However, nothing has come close to delivering on those promises. Existing solutions are massively complex, expensive, and impractical. And beyond all of this, if you want persistent operations that don’t require a pilot in the loop, you need a drone that’s smart enough to fly itself.
Note that last sentence carefully: “…if you want persistent operations that don’t require a pilot in the loop, you need a drone that’s smart enough to fly itself.”
Sure, there will always be a need for qualified drone pilots who understand the regs. But when it comes to the Enterprise side of things, we fully anticipate that more and more operations will be fully automated and autonomous, regardless of whether it’s for a Visual Line of Sight operation, or longer missions requiring Beyond Visual Line of sight.
At ZipLine, a single operator could monitor four drones in 2016. Now, that same operator is capable of monitoring up to 24 drones at once. Not so long ago, a similar kind of operation within Visual Line of Sight would have theoretically required 24 pilots – even if they were simply monitoring mission planning software and not manually controlling the flight.
The point is: As Enterprise companies scale their operations, more drones won’t necessarily translate into a demand for more pilots. More likely, one or two qualified pilots will be monitoring a system capable of dispatching and monitoring multiple drones simultaneously.
If you’re in the Enterprise world, it’s possible that none of this is new to you. But if you’re just starting out and are looking at the industrial or delivery sectors, it’s worth staying on top of this. Because it won’t be long until pilots, at least on many routine missions, will simply be watching a monitor.
Don’t get us wrong; there will still be drone piloting jobs out there. But, at least on the Enterprise side, those jobs are going to become significantly different compared with today.
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