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In my last post, Five Biggest Commercial Drone Trends of 2017 and the Challenges Ahead, I used data from our 2017 Drone Market Sector Report to illustrate the major trends of the past year and describe the major challenges ahead for the drone industry. That post looked back, but this one looks forward, offering our specific predictions for 2018, including investments, technology improvements, ecosystem partnerships, and software innovations.

(Listen to this companion Drone Radio Show podcast here for our complete assessment.)

1. Investment and testing will continue in earnest on Unmanned Traffic Management (UTM) and beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) operations.

With regulations moving at the speed of government and dissenting views on Drone ID, it seems like UTM (air traffic management for low-altitude drones) is an elusive dream. However, there is hope that testing being done on beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) operations in drone corridors will provide the necessary inputs to integrate drones into the national airspace. Expect news this summer from the vendors and service providers conducting tests at NUAIR in New York as they release results and performance-based navigation standards begin to coalesce.

2. You’ll see more news on improved sensors, hardware integration, networking, and processing.

Already, we’ve seen announcements like this one for new thermal imaging drone payloads. Expect to see further Ethernet / IP sensor integration efforts as more and more remote managers demand immediate access to data from local operations. Expect more news on LiDAR / drone integration like this one from Delair-Tech as more land surveyors and construction professionals demand further time and money savings over traditional methods.

3. Look for more partnerships, software, and innovations coming from the DJI Enterprise ecosystem.

We noted in our 2017 Drone Market Sector Report just how much DJI dominates the industry with its 72% market share. All the major mission-planning and mapping applications—like DroneDeploy, PrecisionHawk’s PrecisionMapper, Skycatch, and dozens more—now run on the DJI SDK. What our report didn’t mention was DJI’s focused efforts to further expand its commercial ecosystem. DJI Enterprise’s AirWorks Conference is but one example, an event whose purpose is showcasing applied drone solutions for the commercial industry’s most challenging obstacles. Expect many innovations from DJI’s partners in the hardware, software, and service sectors.

4. Software will dominate advancements.

Along with the new imaging sensor announcements in 2018, we expect to see imaging software advancements as companies seek to combine RGB, thermal imaging, orthomosaic, and radiometric data.

We also expect to see more aerial imaging and mapping software firms announce artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities. Right now, most of this is cloud-based machine learning (aka deep learning and predictive analytics) where data sets are trained by specialized teams. You may see some edge-based AI announcements for image recognition/machine vision, but be cautious when you do. We think it’s still early in the technology development cycle and AI is at peak hype.

We think the big news for 2018 will be the integration of drone data and workflow into asset management systems. Capabilities include documentation, tracking, and GIS data integration. It may bring a yawn to some but we believe when you can connect the dots and show the effect of drone data capture on the balance sheet, CFOs and CEOs will take notice and drive further enterprise adoption.

Parting thoughts

As I speak to clients, I always like to remind them of two things about the commercial drone market. First, it’s not a drone market, it’s a data and information market. The drone is just a data capture device. Second, drones are aircraf, not consumer products and as such their operations are regulated by aviation authorities.  All technology advancements aside, this is a regulated market, so always expect lumpy, bumpy growth.

We hope you keep those in mind as well and wish you best success in the coming year.

Listen to the companion podcast here http://bit.ly/2CXe6uK.

If you have questions about what’s in the report I mention or would like to comment, write me at colin@droneanalyst.com.

Image credit: Shutterstock and Skylogic Research

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