In all the hype about how drones are revolutionizing our world, we forget that aerial data collection predates drones. We forget that most of the aerial data collection applications suitable for drones can also be accomplished with a piloted aircraft. Take collecting agricultural data as an example, piloted aircraft have been carrying cameras for over a century. If aerial data was as valuable to farmers as some of the pundits claim, farmers would have been using it years ago, maybe even decades ago.
Drones are cheaper you say, but are they really? A drone needs an operator and a plane needs a pilot, so one salary to pay in either case. Aircrafts may be expensive to purchase new but they last decades and, at least here in North America, the hourly rate to rent a small plane is quite low. You can rent a Cessna 172 for a little more than $100 USD per hour, that’s with gas. I’m not sure of the operating cost of a drone but while the cost to buy a drone is low, its lifetime is also relatively short.
A small aircraft has many advantages over drones. You can operate a small plane almost anywhere, day and night, without government approval, even over cities. If you need to collect information from 5,000 feet above the ground, it’s no problem.
You can fly straight from one job to the next at about 140 mph. And when I say straight, I mean straight. There’s also nothing to pack up and put in the trunk of your car at the end of one job or unpack at the next.
A Cessna 172 can cover about 800 miles before you need to refuel. If you have a large area to cover, not having to stop and change your operating location every half hour is going to save lots and lots of time. If your job is in a remote location, you can fly straight there. Who needs a road?
Your choice of equipment is also very flexible. The useful payload of a 172 is measured in hundreds of pounds, not tens of ounces. I’d put a million-dollar camera in a 172 without thinking twice. I wouldn’t even consider putting a hundred-thousand-dollar camera in most drones.
This is not to say that drones don’t have their advantages; however, when you’re building your drone startup’s business plan around some killer app, you might want to ask yourself, “why haven’t we been collecting this information for years?” It’s certainly possible that it didn’t make sense until drones arrived. It’s also possible that the information you’re hoping customers will pay for is not all that valuable to them.