Interest in unmanned aerial vehicles, more commonly referred to as drones, has grown significantly over the past few years. This increase in popularity has prompted an influx of publicity, both wanted and unwanted, most notably the reported collision between a drone and a British Airways flight at Heathrow airport.
However, although this recent peak in interest has made the technology seem new, drone technology has in fact been quietly gaining momentum over the past decade. Recent advances in drone hardware and software in the commercial space has seen the technology rapidly adopted across a number of key markets. Now with a thriving ecosystem of suppliers, developers and certified pilots, drones represent a viable solution for a number of sectors.
Over the years, commercial drone use has begun to have a profound impact in traditionally slow-moving, resistant-to-change organisations such as agriculture, construction and offshore services. In many ways, the opportunity for early success and long-term growth in these sectors is not dissimilar to the challenges facing housing providers, namely operational efficiency and revenue generation. Let’s look at some emerging use cases.
Traditional methods of roof inspection often involve the construction of scaffolding over the course of a few days to support working at a height across a number of homes. This process is both expensive and involves a degree of risk for the inspection team.
Now, imagine being able to inspect a group of properties, accurately and safely, in under an hour.
With a high-quality drone, a pilot can record stable and clear footage at 4K resolution. So weather permitting, a five-minute flight can yield suitable images and video for a detailed roof inspection on the ground.
By offering an improved safety profile and a dramatic reduction in time-to-completion, using drones for roof inspections has become an established service offering from drone operators around the world.
Energy efficiency surveys
Often overlooked as an ‘edge-case’, thermal imaging has seen a spike in adoption in recent months, particularly by fire and rescue services. The ability to accurately scan a building’s thermal properties from a safe height and distance provides invaluable real-time data to the people on the ground.
In a housing context, this enables thermal efficiency surveys for doors, windows and roofs. Using a modular drone platform, a pilot can replace the standard 4K camera with a thermal-imaging camera, for detailed thermal profiles on a large scale.
The rich data produced from aerial thermal inspections can provide accurate insight into the key factors contributing to the energy efficiency of a property. Knowing a particular property has a large gap in the roofing insulation or that the back windows are exhausting a high amount of heat can lead to inexpensive changes for a property.
As a social housing organisation, this kind of information can help you make quantifiable, cost-effective decisions on the improvements required for a property. Ultimately, this kind of inspection can lead to reduced heating bills for tenants which, in many cases, could have a dramatic impact on their personal circumstances.
A recent survey by estate agents in the US found that including aerial footage and 3D models with a property listing dramatically improved the number of leads generated.
As more social housing organisations start to slowly shift to listing available properties in a more conventional ‘Zoopla’-style property search, providing a unique customer journey is key to the experience. Showcasing available properties with aerial video footage and 3D models offers a distinctive search and discovery experience over traditional property portals.
If your organisation is ready to make the move to deploying drones for key use cases, then you’ll soon be in a position where a portion of the existing workforce is skilled as certified commercial pilots.
A small workforce trained and certified in a unique skillset creates new opportunities for outsourced service provision. Not only would your team be well placed to produce cost-effective and safe roof inspections, thermal surveys and 3D models for your organisation, but their skills would be well-suited as a revenue-generating service offering to other businesses not suited to managing a full time ‘drone’ team.
By using drones, these existing jobs will become less costly, be completed in less time and potentially create the opportunity to generate revenue as a B2B service.
Beyond the standard set of scenarios for social housing, there is an underlying need for integrated ecosystems that can support the adoption of drone technology. Generating a large amount of image, video and model data requires suitable end-to-end integration with your housing management system. At present, there are no viable solutions offering an integrated toolkit for social housing platforms.
Working with Orchard Information Systems, our R&D team is in the early stages of the development process for building a robust integration toolkit for incorporating drone data into the asset management data set.
Aidan Dunphy, head of product strategy at Orchard, said, “Proven in the construction, energy, transport and logistics sectors, drones are a viable technology platform for real solutions in social housing.”
Certification and training
If you’re considering running a trial drone programme, you’ll need to be aware of and prepared to follow the CAA guidelines. As the UK’s specialist aviation regulator, the Civil Aviation Authority is responsible for setting the guidance and safety rules that apply when flying unmanned and model aircraft.
To operate a small unmanned aircraft systems (SUAS) commercially, pilots must first show an acceptable degree of competence. Certification for commercial drone operations can be obtained from a number of national qualified entities across the UK, such as Heliguy with its training centres in Newcastle, Manchester and Farnborough.
One of the most common barriers to the adoption of drone technology by businesses is the perceived costs. Of course, the efficiency and cost-saving benefits have been touched upon, but how much does it really cost to get started and which drone manufacturers are highly regarded?
Compared to traditional methods, businesses can expect to pay between £3,000 to £6,000 for a complete solution, including the drone hardware, software, certified training and the liability insurance required to start operating.
Widely recognised as the leaders in the commercial drone space, companies like DJI and 3DR are bringing drone technology to the mainstream. The Phantom and Solo ranges respectively offer cost-effective hardware solutions capable of operating in a wide variety of use cases.
As the CAA reviews its guidelines over the coming year, businesses ready for a more forward-thinking approach will see success with deploying drones as a fundamental part of their operations.
The journey won’t be without its challenges, as drones face an uphill battle with public perception, but every new market faces these before a phase of explosive growth.
My advice would be to start small, with a single unit and one trained operator, trial the use cases right for your team and evaluate its impact on your business over time. In the not-too-distant future, tenants will come to expect their housing provider to operate with drones. Will you be left behind?
Armin Talic is the commercial director at Komodo Digital.