The Disruptive Potential of Drones
What is the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear the word “drone”? I am sure, for many of you, it still has a negative connotation. You might think of warfare, espionage and surveillance. Indeed, drones were invented and first used for military and governmental purposes and looked something like that:
However, in the last ten years, the user base has vastly expanded from the military, hobbyists and academics to general consumers and companies. If you follow the biggest Youtube filmmakers and bloggers, for example, you might have noticed that some of them incorporate aerial drone footage. For the sake of focus, I will restrict my observations to the highest and largest tier of the civil drone market, the professional and commercial areas of application. In the following paragraphs, I will make the case that this tier has the highest disruptive potential. Compared to their military precursors, these drones differ in their appearance and functionality (see Figure 2).
When Amazon first announced their concept for a package delivery drone several years ago, many people believed it to be a marketing stunt rather than a feasible and realistic solution. Little did we know that only a couple of years later they are already doing field tests. Steady progress has been made to lay the grounds for commercial drone applications. Governments – the US and France are more progressive than the Netherlands – are in the progress of setting up regulatory frameworks (compulsory safety certificates, drone pilot license), the public perception towards drones has mellowed, and the technology has become safer and cheaper. The average costs dropped from $ 100.000 in 2007 to $700 in 2013. A whole market worth over $ 500 million (2014) has emerged, and forecasts depict a growth to over $ 6 billion worldwide in 2020, a substantial amount of that will be captured by the commercial sub-market. Looking at these numbers, we can see parallels to many disruptive innovations in the past that have also displayed exponential growth within a short period of time (see Figure 3).
Clayton Christensen (1955) defines a disruptive innovation as an innovation that creates a new market and reshapes existing ones, displacing established market leaders. To freshen up your memory on disruptive innovations, watch this video. Since drones stand at the beginning of their market life cycle, their disruptive potential has yet to manifest itself in the coming years.
The advancements of the drone industry are tied to the advancements of their underlying technologies. Chip and sensor technologies, smartphone technologies and cloud computing, also disruptive innovations, exerted the highest impact on the consumer and enterprise world in the last decade. This has allowed drones to become safer, cheaper, and easier to operate. Emerging areas of application for commercial purposes include monitoring of infrastructure, construction, or wildlife; oil and gas exploration; precision agriculture; and mail and small package delivery. What do they all have in common? They replace people! General Electric, for example, utilizes drones to collect aerial images and data on their oil pipelines, power lines and wind turbines. This visual inspection can be done much cheaper, more efficiently, and more effectively with drones, who are equipped with cutting-edge sensors, high-resolution cameras and image processing software, as well as precise GPS. They facilitate better data acquisition, analysis, and subsequent decision making for the end-users. This has huge implications on the whole industrial inspection industry, whose services companies seek to inspect their industrial complexes and infrastructure. They either have to make their services more affordable and convenient to compete with drones, or build up their capabilities to include drones in their services. Using drones to inspect oil and gas platforms and pipelines might also be safer, due to the explosive and dangerous environment. The Dutch government, for example, already imposes safety certifications on drone manufacturers and a pilot license for operators to guarantee safety. The competitive forces in the market confirm how attractive it is. Figure 4 shows the M&A activities since 2011.
There is a trend of consolidation. Electronic component suppliers like Intel or Qualcomm are vertically integrating into the market. By acquiring high-tech drone manufacturers, they tailor and develop their processors to advance drone capabilities (e.g. avoiding obstacles in real time, real time mapping, AI object recognition). This is their strategy to capture a large share of the emerging market. Unlike the consumer market, with established market leaders, the commercial market has yet to be captured. As the consumer drone market is nearing its maturity, incumbents like DJI and Parrot are looking for new growth opportunities by going pro.
The biggest obstacle inhibiting commercial applications to really take off are the potential end-customers. Although some big players like General Electric are willing to adapt, the majority still needs to be convinced, since pilots have to make an initial investment of $25.000 to $50.000 per drone. As with the adaption of any emerging technology, companies display inertia to change, they are cautious and tend to stick to the methods that work for them. Once the first-movers gain a competitive advantage due to the cost and time-saving effects, the majority will follow.
Public safety is of utmost importance, therefore the regulatory framework is constantly adapting to the capabilities of drones and arising issues. The misuse of drones to endanger public safety is always a risk, and incidents could increase the strictness of laws, thus narrowing the user base as well as the areas of application. This is also the reason why the mail and small package delivery service has not taken off yet. It remains interesting to see where this is all headed and how the market landscape and our skies will look like in the next 5 to 10 years.
As drones for consumer uses are becoming more affordable and smartphone enabled, do you think it will eventually become a commodity? Are you thinking about acquiring a drone yourself or do you already own one? What would you use it for?
I am looking forward to your answers!