Industrial drones are becoming indispensable tools in business.
They could be buzzing overhead, mapping topographies, filming construction sites, inspecting high voltage masts, and scaling high rises.
They may even be spying on you from 10 km away without you suspecting their presence, or speeding out of sight inside a dirty pipe.
Some are big enough to need land transport while others you could hang on a keychain or fit in the palm of your hand.
No matter their size, drones, in the space of a mere 3 years, have grown in popularity, and are here to stick and hover around.
Telling us more on this is Rabih Bou Rashed, CEO of Falcon Eye Drones (FEDS) http://feds.ae/, pioneers of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in the region, and with whomAMEinfo had this exclusive interview.
Who is FEDS?
Falcon Eye Drones is a professional drone operator and service provider in UAE, Middle East, and Africa. FEDs have done more than 34,000 flights and covered 83,000km area worldwide and is the first business in the MEA Region to provide imagery, inspection, and surveillance services with latest commercial drones, data automation, and imaging software.
“We began working on this in late 2012, after hearing of the technology and the future benefits it could bring,” begins Bou Rashed.
“The target was to start a drone business in the Middle East because there wasn’t one, so we were the first in the region to provide drone solutions.”
FEDS was established in the UAE in 2014, as the country welcomed the technology with open arms, despite few small challenges in the form of legal frameworks, manufacturers, and R&D, but the company worked with the few that were there.
The main idea was to bridge the information gap and develop trust in the sector between manufacturers and end users.
“At the time, manufacturers were making and designing drones, software, and autopilot mechanisms, but it was hard for companies to start using drones because the models were either too expensive or too complicated to operate,” explains Bou Rashed.
“So we were that bridge where we would invest in drones and provide it as a service for hardware or software.”
This is still a core activity for FEDS.
Almost stalled on take-off
When FEDS started, and being an aviation company, it faced legal obstacles any time it dealt with air space boundaries, privacy and security issues.
“It’s not an easy license to operate drones,” shares Bou Rashed.
In January 2015, the entire sector was put to the test, when people started flying drones right next to the airport forcing it to shut down for an hour or so.
“With each hour of shut down being about $1 million per minute worth of losses, the UAE quickly took action towards regulating the industry,” says Bou Rashed.
“But us being industry pioneers gave us an edge. We were consulting on how high, or how far to fly drones, how to operate them while minimizing risk, etc.., and this put us in a strong position.”
Huge savings with drones
Considering the alternatives, drones save companies a lot of money.
“In the oil &gas industry, what a helicopter can cost in 1 hour, which is a few thousand dollars depending on the type of craft and pilot experience, I could cover 1 or 2 days worth of work,” says Bou Rashed.
“Our fees are at AED15,000 AED ($4,087) per day per team, including operator, co-pilot, payload operator, and drone, is still a bargain for any job”, Bou Rashed adds.
When used for mapping to produce a topographical map for an area of say 10 km2, previous options were limited to hiring a land surveyor.
“Your land surveyor would deploy as much as a 15-man team and would need at least 4 weeks to finish the job. He would use SUVs, trucks, equipment, and cost AED3000-5000 ($817-$1,363)/day/team,” details Bou Rashed.
“Compared to helicopters, we can do the same mapping job in 1 or 2 days with 2 guys, one car, a bunch of drones and end up much much cheaper.”
The same thinking applies to construction jobs. Drones bring a bird’s eye view of the project that wasn’t available before, unless builders hired a helicopter, and can cover massive development projects like the Palms Dubai with the same quality of shots and details.
Drone companies are covering multiple verticals such as GIS aerial mapping & surveying (4-5 competitors in the region), inspection of power lines, Oil & gas utilities, infrastructure (4-5 competitors) and aerial photography for media (100’s of competitors).
“We are doing all verticals. The most lucrative vertical is GIS mapping but we see inspection jobs eventually taking over,” reveals Bou Rashed.
“We grew last year by 600% over 2016 in terms of revenue growth. This year we grew by 300% over last year, hitting our targets for 2018 with enough contracts to cover half of 2019,” adds Bou Rashed.
But it wasn’t always like that. When starting in 2014, FEDS did a lot of free work and went that way into 2015 until the company had more and more people getting into drones, through exhibitions, applications, and then the government began to realize that they needed to be involved.
“So it exploded.”
Drones’ Achilles Heel
A drone can fly in a range limited by the communication range between the base station (control station) and the machine, which for industrial drones is usually in the kms.
“The other limit is the battery life. So if you go too high, you need a battery change. So we talk about 550-600 meters,” says Bou Rashed.
“If I am flying 800 meters high, I will struggle to come down quickly before running out of batteries.”
Bou Rashed says long-lasting batteries is the one tech that is lagging behind, a similar predicament faced by smartphones, and electric cars.
“Drones are weight sensitive, so we need to reduce that ratio of weight to battery life, to make it fly longer.
So will flying taxis ever see the light of day?
Being much heavier than drones, will flying taxis’ batteries hold up to make these cars fly?
“Flying taxis are about 4 years away from some of us taking one to the skies,” announces Bou Rashed.
“There are some 20 companies internationally developing them and 100’s of millions of dollars are being invested in developing them, with 2 such companies being at a really advanced stage with working prototypes, building them like commercial airlines, like they should, because they would-be carrying humans.”
He said the technology can exist, but the infrastructure is not there.
“If your company is on the 29th floor, where would the taxi park or land?” asks Bou Rashed.
As for the skies, there would exist an “air highway” similar to one for drones traffic only today, which is about 120 meters high from the ground.
“Air taxis would need to have more regulatory control, away from high towers, away from emergency flight air spaces, away from fire departments, etc, but that’s the easy part,” says Bou Rashed.
Future of drones
Bou Rashed said that the next step is to make drones communicate smartly with each other without mid-air collisions.
“We have this today but what we don’t have is a unified algorism between all drones to allow them to talk the same language because everybody is prototyping without a common international standard,” he says.
Also, drones are shrinking in size, like what happens with microchips. “There is a wide range of drones. Today you can hang one on your belt or keychain and still use it at an industrial level,” describes Bou Rashed.
“We work with things 50 cm in diameter, and new 10cm and 20cm diameter drones are coming.”
Of course, drones are now delivering our pharmacy orders, ATM cash and food.
So far, the industry has focused mostly on functionality and has not paid attention to drone styles and colors.
“When I show clients some drones, some might say ‘but it’s too ugly’, to which I reply ‘but it does the job’.”
Well, it may do the job while mapping some unforgiving landscape or while inspecting a dirty pipe, but accepting pizza delivery from a silvery, menacing looking drone might just kill the appetite.
Pizza Order: “We need a red and green drone, pls, to deliver 2 large pizzas, no anchovies.”