Build, Buy, Rent, or Hire?

This entry is part 5 of 7 in the series May 2019

Seven years ago I was invited to attend a UAS flight course; this was an exciting proposition as the drone craze was not yet under way. In fact, the rules for operating drones in the U.S. were so in flux (as far as commercial and private drone use) that the course had to be held in Canada. Read about it in our 2012 feature, Flight School.

Since then, rules have been refined, and licensing for UAV operations is as simple as meeting minimum requirements, filling out an application, and passing an exam. And now we find that the drones themselves have become highly commoditized.

In 2012 there were few turnkey drones on the market. You couldn’t just go buy a ready-to-fly drone from your local big-box electronics store as you can today. With limited commercially available platforms, folks often chose to build one from scratch or with parts from a burgeoning UAS components market.

(Note that the vehicle itself is simply a platform, an unmanned aerial vehicle [UAV]. Once you start adding an autopilot and for-purpose payloads such as a camera for photogrammetry or inspections, it becomes an unmanned aerial system, or UAS. And, for the most part, UAS for surveying, engineering, mapping, and construction are small UAS, or sUAS.)

A boom in do-it-yourself sUAS came next, and by some estimates tens of thousands of small firms were building and, in many cases, trying to market sUAS. Software developers stepped up to provide photogrammetry suites that were so easy to use that any savvy sUAS owner could (with proper procedures) begin to produce useable deliverables.

By the time that many builder/practitioners had ironed out all the bugs, ready-to-fly UAV and aerial mapping sUAS systems flooded the market. A small firm could buy one ready-made. Some very large players nearly monopolized the market for such craft, even beginning to add RTK and companion base stations. Add your favorite photogrammetry software into the workflow and fly onward.

Build or buy have been the mainstay offerings on the market for several years, but innovation has not abated—more options have emerged. In 2014 we visited a booth at the Esri User Conference “startup zone” where a small firm named Skycatch was offering the option to rent a sUAS, and their business has grown rapidly. (See No Need to Buy to Fly.) This is more than just renting the hardware. You also get a subscription to a complete workflow—including processing and client data access.

While it has been the construction segment that took early advantage of such rental systems (i.e. for earthwork volumes and aggregates), we are now seeing surveying and engineering firms choosing this option. You free yourself from having to engineer or master all the elements and can concentrate on procedures to provide the best deliverables.

Four years later at the 2018 Esri User Conference we were introduced to a firm named Hangar that operates a service that brokers on-demand sUAS flights from a pool of owner/operators. Essentially, this is like a “ride-share” service, like Uber or Lyft. You choose an area to photograph or map through an app, and local sUAS operators are contacted to see whom you can hire to perform the flight (per your specifications). Options are offered for processing and access to deliverables for your clients. See UAVs Enter the Sharing Economy, and also our Rent a Drone article in last month’s issue about a similar service in Europe.

Here we are in 2019, with four excellent business models for sUAS, each with strengths and weaknesses for different jobs. There’s now something for everyone with different needs, comfort levels, expectations, and value propositions. But one thing we can be sure of is that there are probably many more options already in the works.

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