A few Colorado Springs companies are hoping to capitalize on the latest drone technology that allows them to do a lot more than take pretty pictures with their flying machines.
These companies are trying to harness the power of data alongside the images they collect to help commercial businesses, farmers and government entities learn more about the land they own or are building on.
"Watching drones fly is fun and interesting, but at the end of the day, people pay for a service, and that service is the data we provide them," said Tim Haynie, CEO of Spectrabotics, a Colorado Springs company that recently won a $50,000 state grant. "That's the future of drones. Really, it's what you do with the camera or sensor data that will determine how much utility you will have."
These days, drones can analyze crops and point out potential problems and where are the best - and worst - moisture points in their fields. The images drones can collect can track construction progress or take minutes to survey acres of land that might take hours or days on land.
Governments can use the technology to track wildfires or assess the health of their forests. The problem, these companies say, isn't the capabilities of drones, but rather that there are so many possibilities and there is so much data available that potential customers are often overwhelmed by it all.
"There's so much data available that our customers don't know what to do with it all," said Ken Hanes, an owner of AGL Drone Services. "We almost have to dumb down the data when we give it back to them."
Since the technology is so new, a big part of their businesses is educating customers about the possibilities available in the data and pointing out the best solutions for the problems they are facing, Hanes and Haynie said.
"Everyone just thinks we take pretty video," Hanes said. "Most of the time, they have no idea about the services we can provide."
In many cases, businesses and governments have been doing their work for years a certain way, and drone companies have to convince them that they can provide the information they need and get it faster and for less.
"The biggest challenge is the education piece," Haynie said. "It's new technology. It's disruptive technology. They have to understand what it can do and what it can't do."
They also have to persuade the public in general to accept drones, Hanes said.
Right now, if a photographer is taking pictures on the ground in a public space, people don't seem to mind, he said.
"But if you are taking those same pictures of public spaces from the air, people get scared," he said. He thinks, as people get used to seeing more drones and as pilots are responsible by not invading the privacy of others, that people might become more accepting.
For companies hoping to get into the drone business, there isn't a lot of competition yet, Hanes and Haynie said. That may be because companies hoping to fly drones for commercial purposes must have a Federal Aviation Administration exemption. Getting the exemption is a lengthy process, Hanes said, and can be tough because the FAA requires that commercial drones be flown by licensed pilots.
Hanes, a licensed pilot, has the exemption. Haynie does not. Rather, he uses drone companies that do have the exemption to collect the data and his company does the data analysis for them, often combining the images with other datasets to help tell a bigger story about what's going on in the area being analyzed.
"When you mix and match with other datasets, you learn much more than looking at each of these layers individually," he said.
Hanes said the exemption is necessary for those flying drones because it helps ensure that commercial drone pilots are following FAA rules. For example, when President Barack Obama was in town Thursday for the Air Force Academy graduation, there were flight restrictions to ensure his safety, which meant that drones weren't allowed near the academy.
"That means I'm grounded," Hanes said. "There are a lot of drone pilots who don't know any better. As for me, I'm keeping my nose clean and staying in business."
Haynie said he is excited about the future of drones and how they can be used to help others by using the data they provide.
"Flying the drone is routine; that's not the hard part anymore," he said. "The hard part is managing the gigs of data that come from them and turning it into a useful product."