At some point in the not-too-distant future, fleets of commercial drones are expected to swarm across European skies. Companies in a wide range of industries will employ unmanned vehicles for tactical advantage—inspecting infrastructure, surveying crops, maybe even estimating how much your new roof will cost.

And when these drones fly, a torrent of data will follow them like an invisible contrail.

“Data is the new oil,” Intel Corp. Chief Executive Officer Brian Krzanich said this week at the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International’s annual Xponential conference in Dallas, the industry’s top trade show, also for a lot of European companies. He cited a growing competitive separation between companies that collect and understand their data and those that don’t. A single autonomous car can generate the same data trove as 3,000 people surfing the internet, while a small drone fleet could easily create 150 terabytes of data per day. The data rate is going to explode on us in the next few years.

But how to handle that wide open fire hose of information?

Operation of an unmanned system is no longer a stand-alone activity. There is an assortment of maps, images, video, and intelligence which are being broadcast to the operators and this needs to be fused into a common operational picture. This proposition, unsurprisingly, is leading to an array of new business models aimed at helping companies sift through and exploit the mountains of information headed their way.

The proliferation of commercial drones won’t be so much about getting your pizza or new shirt faster—although there is that consideration—but a broader change in how companies employ aerial surveillance and data to inform their businesses, spurred by efficiency. However, legislation that allows commercial unmanned systems to operate at farther distances and autonomously are necessary in Europe.

A diverse array of companies, ranging from insurers and utilities to real estate and energy, are likely to shift some of their operations to UAV. Some of the work now done by helicopters could be replaced at lower cost. Insurers, for example, are finding aerial surveillance to be a good method for assessing claims after tornadoes and hurricanes and to help understand risks in their underwriting activities.

To date, one of the major impediments to commercial drone flying has been the lack of European rules, which are now being proposed and will be implemented much too late in 2020. In the US they are also slow at getting federal rules squared away, bu teven so the American UAV service market may mature more quickly than in Europe, owing to the U.S. having only a single regulatory body. Something to bear in mind.

Yet as soon as these new commercial operations take flight, those who employ them will be grappling with the whole info-glut problem. It’s an interesting challenge because the amount of data that drones generate is huge—we’re talking petabytes and petabytes of data. It really becomes that big data problem everybody keeps talking about but no one really knows how to address.


Image: Airbus Defence and Space