It was one of the heaviest snow falls in years but that didn’t deter the more than 3000 leaders representing heads of state, government and international organizations alongside leaders from business, civil society, academia, the arts and media from attending the 48th Annual World Economic Forum (WEF). The theme this year: “Creating a Shared Future in a Fractured World.” As CEO of Airware, I joined this elite group of leaders as a Tech Pioneer – one of 30 trailblazing companies selected given our potential to significantly impact business and society through the design, development and implementation of new technologies and innovations.
My specific role: educate, influence and engage the WEF members in the area of commercial drones. Engaging with me on these topics were other top experts and influencers including the US Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao, ICAO Secretary General Dr. Fang Liu, and Airbus Space and Defense CEO Dirk Hoke. Collectively, we explored the use cases for commercial drones, the opportunities they present and, importantly, the challenges we need to come together to solve to scale the technology and promised benefits globally.
Many of my Davos discussions started with people envisioning the drone delivery of pizza to their doorstep. While this may be possible in the future, today the focus is on higher value items being delivered via drones, such as essential medical products in Rwanda. Beyond the delivery of goods by drone, there are 3 other powerful commercial drone use cases: providing internet connectivity from high in the sky; transporting people; and delivering data. My area of expertise is the last use case; commercial drones that deliver data. Currently this data takes the form of photo and/or thermal images that allow us to digitize the physical world and bring all the benefits of modern technology to industries such as mining, property management and construction.
Digitizing the Physical World
So how does digitizing the physical world work? We fly a drone over a structure and/or piece of land and take lots of pictures with the camera the drone carries. Then we upload those pictures into the cloud and stitch together a 3D model. Once that is done, we can do all sorts of powerful things. This starts with users comparing progress and changes from one date to another in an automated way.
Users can easily measure elements of the structure or land, such as stockpiles, to help them complete accounting tasks, ensure enough materials are on the site to complete a concrete pour, or measure a rooftop during the underwriting process. Teams across locations and continents can collaborate by leaving annotations and messages for each other on the cloud-based images. For example, a CFO sitting in Canada can get real-time information and communicate easily with the site manager of a mine in Australia through the cloud. A safety manager can tag a piece of equipment that needs to be moved and message the mine worker responsible to make it happen. In the insurance space, an adjustor can file a rooftop claim report for hail damage without ever having to climb a ladder. Another important use case in the wake of the hurricanes in the United States was using drones to identify which houses have been irreplaceably damaged in order to pay out claims more quickly.
Adding in AI
Where all of this gets really interesting is when we blend in the use of machine learning and AI. We use deep convolutional neural networks (DCNNs) to measure highwalls on a mine to ensure they are within required safety limits. We use integration of state-of-the-art GIS simulation libraries for water drainage and pooling analysis.
In industries such as insurance and property management, we use data processing algorithms to automatically extract and measure rooftop dimensions, classify features (eave, hip, ridge, etc.), and generate reports. We also use deep learning models to identify rooftop wind and hail damage trained on thousands of drone-collected images. We have the ability to further enrich the insights we provide our users by blending in other data streams. For example, we can integrate the telemetry data from the mining machines on a site (such as idle time) and provide the geospatial understanding to know not just what is happening but also where and why.
It was clear in my WEF discussions that leaders are excited by the benefits of digitizing the physical world. A big reason for this is that many tasks that traditionally required putting workers in harm’s way, such as climbing two story structures to assess hail damage, measuring stockpiles or inspecting power lines, can now be done with drones. Drones allow people to do these tasks while keeping both feet on the ground and to do them in a more efficient way. This, in turn, frees up innovation opportunities and can help organizations do more with less. Who wouldn’t like this?
Across all four use case categories, drones have the potential to transform business models and tackle social issues. However, enabling millions of drones to fly in the sky at the same time is raising some good questions. All the government officials we spoke with at WEF are looking at what regulations to put in place that will strike the right balance of enabling innovation while keeping their citizens safe and secure. One big question is around airspace management. The number of drones will only increase, and we need to think through the rules of the sky as these vehicles take off. There is also the concern of safety; the desire to ensure that we avoid drones falling out of the sky and hurting citizens/property. The fear of these things happening is what is behind US restrictions that prohibit flying drones directly over people or beyond visual line of sight. That said, the benefits are so big that governments around the globe are committed to finding ways to partner with industry to strike the right balance to maximize the overall societal benefit of commercial drones. Some recent regulatory changes in Rwanda have been made with specifically this in mind.
Achieving Global Impact at Scale
While there were many different perspectives shared in our WEF discussions, two underlying themes seemed to be universal: commercial drones will be transformative around the globe and we will scale their use more effectively by partnering together. To this end, the WEF has established a global drone and aerial mobility council which I belong to along with many other global subject matter experts. As part of this council, we focus on identifying opportunities for impact, co-design policy frameworks and governance protocols, collaboratively implement pilot projects, and scale insight globally. I look forward to my role on this council helping to leverage drones to create a better world. I look forward to your input and perspectives in this process, as well.