Some drones may be consumer toys, but they’re about to bring big data to big industries

Drones may be touted for the future of delivering Amazon packages or a pizza and it’s obvious they have found a niche with consumers who want to produce cool videos of hard-to-reach places. However, one of their yet-untapped applications is as an internet of things sensor in the sky.

In a panel at Gigaom’s Structure Connect conference on Tuesday, 3DRobotics CEO and co-founder Chris Anderson and Autodesk’s SVP Amar Hanspal made the point that drones are as much a connected device as a wearable or a lightbulb, and their applications will provide more than cool aerial footage.

For one thing, a drone has access to the sky, an sensor-less area where it’s normally expensive and dangerous to send humans to gather the same level, Anderson said. Once the drones start flying, they’re generating mountains of data in many forms.

“One of these can gather about a half terabyte per hour per drone, and there are hundreds of thousands of them out there,” Anderson said. “In terms of a big data opportunity, you’ve seen what Google did with street view. This is sky view. The question is what are we going to do with it?”

Both Anderson and Hanspal see drones moving beyond its current use as basically a flying GoPro and becoming an industry tool, scanning everything from a construction site to a farm.

“In the press you hear about Amazon delivering a book or pizzas may come to your house,” Hanspal said. “That is a cute thing to talk about, but the real action is in more B2B, industrial applications.”

Hanspal has already seen drones used in disaster situations to map and create 3-D images, like in the Washington mudslide in April. “Just like robots, drones don’t complain,” Hanspal said. They can also have smaller-scale applications like just mapping a park or creating a 3-D rendering of a building.

Anderson described a “scan van” that he wants to launch in the next few months that could travel around a city like a food truck and mapping construction sites. Once at a site, a “scan van” could open up a hatch on the truck and a drone would launch, flying over a structure and then returning to the helipad. Inside the van would be all of the equipment — Anderson hinted at possibly in partnership with Autodesk — to process the data within the truck and create 3-D models on the spot. Farmers could also use drones to monitor their crops and know where to spray pesticides if infestation creeps up or spot a water leak.

Anderson sees industries like farming and construction as jumping off points for industrial use, in part because of their locations. There’s less of a safety concern if the drones are flying over open fields or in an area where people are always wearing hard hats, Anderson said. Right now, farmers aren’t clamoring for drones, but that’s because they don’t know drones could be the answer to a lot of questions they have.

“This is bringing big data to the biggest industries in the world,” Anderson said.

Photo by Jakub Mosur

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Disclosure: 3DRobotics is backed by True Ventures, a venture capital firm that is an investor in the parent company of Gigaom.