Companies Are Turning Drones Into a Competitive Advantage

By Guillaume Thibault & Georges Aoude

WE expect the global drone market to surge to nearly $7 billion by 2020, driven by regulatory clarification, decreasing costs and innovation that connects drones to big-data analytics.

Leaders across a spectrum of industries are already taking advantage of drone-based data. In the oil industry, for example, inspection work that once took weeks can now be accomplished in days, thanks to drone-based thermal imaging and gas “sniffer” technology for oil rigs and pipelines. Sky Futures, a drone services company that specializes in such inspections, is working with BP, Shell, Statoil and Conoco Philips.

In transportation, America’s BNSF Railway is partnering with the US Federal Aviation Administration to test drones for remote track and bridge inspections and air-quality monitoring. Network Rail in the United Kingdom is using drones to digitize the country’s rail network in 3D, enabling better track maintenance. Easyjet and Lufthansa have adopted drones for aircraft inspections.

Mining giant Rio Tinto uses drones to survey equipment and mining pits in Australia. Drones are the cornerstone of Komatsu’s Smart Construction service, which can automate bulldozers and excavators. And Wal-Mart is testing how drones can help improve warehouse inventory management.

The multiplying possibilities of drone-based data could lead to major savings in analysis of inventory stockpiles, thermal imaging of pipelines and rail lines, 3D modeling of insurance claims and nondestructive terahertz imaging for buildings. Businesses will need to determine whether to run their own drones or to outsource. A company might opt for in-house drone operation if it’s concerned about proprietary issues or security and wants to take a “learn by doing” approach. French railway operator SNCF is using an internal drone program to enhance safety and maintenance through network surveillance.

Partnering with drone-services firms is a popular option. In some cases, these partnerships are leading to new business ventures: Lufthansa Aerial Services signed a deal in January with drone-maker DJI to develop specialized commercial unmanned aerial vehicle applications—starting with a pilot project for a wind-turbine manufacturer.

Guillaume Thibault is a partner, and Georges Aoude is an associate, at Oliver Wyman.

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