Commercial drone services taking off

Commercial drone services taking off
PHOTO: Buildtech Asia

Commercial drone services here have taken to the skies and are becoming a full-fledged industry of their own, with a growing number of firms offering professional services like aerial photography, videography and surveying for clients.

Drones have become cheaper over the past few years, lowering the cost of entry for such firms.

Businesses and public agencies have also found ways to use drones for either commercial or industry purposes, further fuelling the demand for such drone operator services.

Drone photography and videography firms that The Straits Times spoke to say they have seen 20 per cent to 50 per cent year-on-year growth in the number of projects they are doing.

The Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS), which regulates the commercial use of drones here, said it has received over 1,300 applications for operator and activity permits since June last year, when a revamped regulatory framework took effect.

Of the some 1,000 activity-permit applications, 87 per cent of them were for aerial photography, videography, surveillance or inspection, said a CAAS spokesman.

Operators are required to obtain permits from the authorities if they use drones for commercial work, such as drone photography or landscape surveying.

There are at least five such firms here which have set up shop over the past four years to take up aerial projects from a variety of clients.

Mr Rude Lee, founder of aerial photography firm Flyht Studio, said: "A big market has opened up for drone use - companies have realised they can hire us to do complicated shots at low cost."

The studio saw a 20 per cent increase in the number of projects this year, compared to last year, its operations director Victor Gui said.

Both the private and public sector have taken an interest in hiring such companies for their expertise.

Their projects range from producing marketing materials such as photos of company events or of their premises, to surveying works like construction monitoring or building measurements.

Home-grown firm Avetics has worked with government agencies like the Housing Board and National Heritage Board, as well as private firms such as oil company Shell Singapore and travel booking website Experia.

Its projects have been increasing some 50 per cent year-on-year since it was set up four years ago.

The company's work also extends beyond aerial photography.

"Our projects range from commercial photography to industry inspection to custom drone design, and research and development on drone hardware and software," said its chief executive Zhang Weiliang.

The rise of such firms is also partially due to the ease of obtaining operator permit for commercial drone projects: It is now easier and faster to get the permits approved, according to these drone operator firms.

In June last year, the CAAS revamped its online permit application portal into a one-stop online portal where operators just have to apply to CAAS, simplifying what used to be a tedious process of obtaining approval from multiple agencies.

"The authorities have fine-tuned the process... It's definitely better than the previous years," said Mr Darick Yeo, creative director of two-year-old drone media firm INFINYTE Media.

These firms use a mixture of specialised, professional drones, and off-the-shelf models for their work.

INFINYTE, for example, uses Inspire drones from popular China brand DJI, which come with cameras that can shoot in high-resolution 4K formats for its media work.

Flyht Studio too uses DJI drones for its photography work, but it also has two custom drones with six and eight propellers to provide more power in order to fit bigger cameras.

Avetics, on the other hand, uses only custom drones it builds from scratch as there are stringent requirements for the projects it undertakes.

"Different projects require different payloads (the equipment attached to a drone) - like a camera for photography work, or a laser scanner for surveying and measurement," said Mr Zhang.

"We need to make sure our drones can take the weight of the payload, and to ensure they can remain steady in different wind conditions."

Industrial drones outfly consumer models

A custom-built drone from local drone operator company Avetics (left), used for industrial purposes, will weigh and cost more than a consumer drone like the DJI Phantom 3 Pro (right). PHOTO: AVETICS

The drones used for professional, industrial work aren't the kinds you see hobbyists toting around on weekends at the Marina Barrage.

While professional drone operator firms also use off-the-shelf drones - such as high-end models from brands like DJI or Freefly - there are professional models on the market tailored more towards industry use.

Here are a few ways professional drones differ from hobbyist drones:

NUMBER OF PROPELLERS

Consumer drones are usually quadcopters - the drone body is equipped with four rotors.

This provides more than enough power for them to remain in the air for about half an hour andcarry the weight of an attached camera.

Industrial drones, on the other hand, can have up to eight rotors, which are necessary to provide enough power to carry larger cameras, like DSLRs, or other equipment.

More rotors also mean greater propulsion redundancy, said Avetics' Mr Zhang.

Such propulsion redundancy is important for safety, he said, as that means drones can stay airborne and be landed safely even if a rotor fails while the drone is in flight.

"If a quadcopter rotor fails, the whole drone may crash," said Mr Zhang.

"But industrial drones have been tested to withstand rotor failure in mid-flight, and the operator can still control and land it safely."

PAYLOAD

Most consumer drones come with attached cameras for hobbyists to take aerial shots.

However, these cameras are fixed to the drone.

Professional drones give operators the flexibility of mounting their own cameras - such as DSLRs or camcorders - for higher-resolution photos and videos.

Sometimes, the drones don't even carry cameras.

Sensors such as laser scanners, temperature sensors or gas sensors can be fitted on drones doing surveying or data-gathering work.

This also makes them much heavier and bulkier than consumer drones.

A custom Avetics drone weighs between 7kg and 15kg, depending on the payload, while the DJI Phantom 4 weighs only 1.4kg.

COST

Consumer drones generally top out in the low thousands, while professional-grade drones are significantly pricier.

Custom-made drones, like the ones Avetics uses, can cost more than $10,000 to produce, depending on the type of equipment strapped to it.

lesterh@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on Dec 14, 2016.
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