Building a drone program that can scale


Share | 08/02/2021


By starting a drone program, you’ve already taken the first step to improve the efficiency and safety of your operations. And now to fully leverage the value of aerial data for your organization, you might be considering how to scale your drone program across your business.

At this point you probably have a few questions, for example:

  • How can you maintain high standards for operational excellence while scaling your drone program?
  • How can you expand without risking what you’ve already built?

Regardless of business size or industry, every drone program faces similar challenges when it comes to ramping up drone operations. You’ll need to take a forward-thinking approach and anticipate barriers to adoption—including organizational buy-in, cost and potential technical difficulties.

Though there’s no ready-made formula for scaling your drone program, the steps outlined in this article will help you build a program that can handle larger demands and maximize the value of drone data for all stakeholders.

Create a Systemic Growth Plan

Once you’ve achieved measured improvements in efficiency and safety, the next phase of growth involves scaling up your drone program to multiply the benefits across your broader organization. Some ways to scale up your drone program include:

  • Adding more drones to the existing fleet. 
  • Experimenting with new use cases for drones.
  • Expanding operations to other departments.
  • Starting operating in new regions.
  • Adding new pilots to your program.

With so many ways to grow, it can be a struggle to stay focused. A step-by-step growth plan can remind you what your priorities are and keep your drone program on track. When building a growth plan, think about factors like:

  • Long-term business objectives.
  • Ease of access to trained personnel.
  • Return on investment (ROI). 

These baselines will give you a clear picture of the benefits that different departments or regions could achieve from using drone technology. These benefits will form the basis of your discussions with other stakeholders and help clinch management buy-in.

Focus on Key Applications

Drones are capable of doing dozens of things that can help your business, from simple imaging to deploying payloads. That makes it easy to get options paralysis in brainstorming sessions. Instead of focusing too broadly on all the potential applications of drones, stay focused on identifying specific opportunities where drones will offer the most benefits.

For example, if you’re a construction company, it would make sense to allow your drones to tackle inherently dangerous, time-consuming, or expensive tasks across the enterprise, such as vertical asset inspections. You can grow your drone program by strategically planning out ways to expand your vertical inspection capabilities to more job sites. By putting a systematic plan in place, you can decrease those hazardous work hours across your entire organization with ease.

Demonstrate Intent Clearly

Effective communication is paramount in getting organizational buy-in. After all, how will the rest of your company understand how growing your drone program can help different departments if you can’t communicate the benefits? When you talk to other internal teams about how a drone program could help them, share the data products you have and demonstrate the ROI they have brought to your department.

For example, let’s say you’re a utility manager. How do you help teams understand how easy and fast data access becomes with drone-based inspections?

One way would be to show team leaders that you can pull up data from a flight earlier in the day on an iPad that clearly shows damage to a wind turbine after a storm the night before. Traditionally, that task might have included hazardous work hours and have been postponed several days.

Define Performance Metrics

Any enterprise-wide drone program should do at least two things:

  • Quantify the impact of drone applications on your pre-existing operations (e.g., reduction in hazardous work hours).
  • Measure the efficacy of the drone program itself (e.g., pilot flight activity, asset readiness, safety compliance).

In a well-structured drone program, it’s easier to immediately see the impact of drones. For example, let’s say that before adopting drones, you were only able to conduct asset integrity inspections annually. With drones, you can now conduct these inspections monthly. As a result, damage is detected and repaired earlier—bringing down the asset failure rate from “y” to “z”.

The efficacy of your drone program would depend on how well you log and manage flight operations data. Many companies prefer to use a software solution like Measure Ground Control for maintaining flight logs with screenshots and playbacks and to flag incidents. They like to track equipment usage and other detailed information about missions. 

Tracking different parameters will give your program the oversight needed to ensure consistently safe and compliant drone operations. And you can easily generate reports demonstrating this to management, too.

Establish Authority Processes and Safety Standards

Managing the tasks and responsibilities of a small in-house drone team is relatively simple. When you increase the moving parts across the business, the amount of coordination, oversight and execution of various tasks required grows as well.

Delegate Responsibilities

At this point, it becomes essential to delegate responsibility and establish processes. For example, who will have the authority to approve flight operations and under what circumstances? Without clear standards, you might find your drone program overwhelmed with redundant or unnecessary mission requests.

As we note in our Guide to Managing an Effective Drone Program you should:

  • Determine which departments are allowed to put in a request for drone operations.
  • Establish a mechanism for internal review to approve or deny flights. When variables such as permits, pilots, aircraft availability, schedules, etc., increase, it’s best to use a dedicated online work order management software.
  • Once a mission has been approved and a pilot team assigned, ensure that the pilot-in-command has the authority they need to make situational, on-the-ground decisions.

Promote a Culture of Safety

To improve safety outcomes and determine responsibility in case of an accident, it’s necessary to have clear delineations of responsibility within the team.

Safety violations can expose your business to major civil and legal liabilities. To keep your drone risks low and rewards high, make sure all pilots abide by federal FAA, state and local regulatory compliance guidelines.

Make standard operating procedures the foundation of your drone program. Maintain pre-flight checklists to ensure safe operations. Leverage airspace tools to check for weather and airspace approvals to request Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability (LAANC) authorizations.

It helps that some enterprise drone solutions like Measure Ground Control come with a built-in system of audits and alerts. This ensures any drone activity outside of safety best practices is automatically flagged and checked.

The ultimate goal for establishing authority and safety processes is to keep your drone program as standardized and transparent as possible. If there is a possible liability, it should come up during an audit. If there is a problem or an accident, you should be able to analyze the incident records to prevent it from happening again. Including safety protocols early on in your drone program is paramount to growing your drone program successfully.

Get Organized with Drone Data

Data is the core of your drone program. As you grow, this data can multiply exponentially, making it difficult to track, manage and analyze the information. 

As you scale up your drone program, ask yourself these questions:

  • How do you want to store this data? What’s the storage cost?
  • Who will need to access the data? For how long?
  • How will you ensure automatic data backups and security?
  • How will the data get transferred to an analytical platform? How seamless will this process be?
  • How will you facilitate effective data search once the volume grows?

Sure, it’s inconvenient to manually download data from your drone fleet, upload it separately for analysis and then again download the results for sharing. But it also raises the question of data security, especially if you are working with external clients. The European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), for example, has made companies worldwide rethink customer data security.

As your drone program grows, being able to find the information you need from a basic storage folder—much less extracting actionable data from it—would become next to impossible unless it’s baked into your growth plan.

Find an Enterprise Solution That Delivers

By investing in a centralized program management software platform, you can help to future-proof your drone program. Solid drone fleet management software allows you to securely upload and store high-resolution image and video files from each mission directly to the cloud, along with all other mission essentials—scheduling, logs, pilots, aircraft, flight plans, files and more.

You also get the freedom to limit access to the data with predefined roles. You can combine the monthly image processing allocation from all users into a single, shared account and can optimize the team’s usage the way you like.

Aim for Actionable Insights

While efficient data management is a pivotal part of any large-scale drone program, at the end of the day what you really want are usable, actionable insights. You don’t want to bury the end-user in unnecessary images and point clouds—you want to make sure the ROI of the program always stays visible to the top management.

A user-friendly technology platform will play a fundamental role in visualizing, analyzing and distributing aerial data to stakeholders throughout the organization.

For example, Measure Ground Control is an all-in-one solution that comes packed with industry-leading data tools such as Pix4D. This means you can process imagery into high-quality orthomosaics, digital surface models, contour maps and agricultural indices from within the same software that you used to set up automated grid flight paths. 

You can also increase image processing accuracy with RTK drone data or upload ground control points with your maps for increased accuracy. All individual 2D and 3D data products can then be shared and accessed easily via links without requiring any logins.

Similarly, you can sort and upload asset inspection images to an interactive map powered by predictive maintenance leaders, Scopito. What’s more, you can create and download a PDF report customized to show the inspection results important to your business.

Never Stop Learning

The drone industry landscape is constantly adjusting to new technologies, regulations and use cases. Lean on your vendors (both hardware and software) to learn how their other customers are leveraging drone technology. Join an industry council to keep up with all the latest developments, especially regulations.

For example, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is rolling out requirements for remote identification of drones. While the rules don’t require you to start complying today, these regulations will guide your investments in drone hardware for the years to come. You should also think about your organization’s need for beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) operations and whether you need drones that can capture and process mission-critical data autonomously.

This kind of forward-thinking that comes from continuous education will help you to focus on the longevity of your drone program. Just like you don’t want a drone platform that would become obsolete after two years, you don’t want a software solution that can’t adapt to the needs of your growing business.

Keep yourself informed so that the solutions you choose offer the features, integrations and support you need to make your drone program a success year after year.

The Bottom Line

Running a drone program can feel like running a mini-business within your own organization. Between ensuring regulatory compliance, administrating multinational operations, managing data processing and running enterprise-wide integrations, there are a lot of processes that need to be followed correctly to ensure the growth and success of the drone program.

While looking to solve the challenge of bringing drone operations to scale, you should count on experts that will help you to get the ROI as quickly as possible. Invest in a solution that will help you to plan missions confidently, fly safely, collect quality data, post-process that data and deliver actionable insights—all in one place. 

We trust Measure Ground Control. But you don’t have to take our word for it—sign up for a free trial today and see the results yourself.

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