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Guide to Drone Series: How We Choose the Right Tool

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By Andrew Maximow, Chief Drone Officer.

At Firmatek, we believe in using the right tool for the right job. Utilizing the best technology available helps ensure that we can equip our clients with the business intelligence that they need to improve their operations. In order to deliver on that objective, Firmatek evaluates our client’s site needs and develops an action plan. A one-size-fits-all solution in our industry isn’t practical, so we work with our clients to determine the best tool for precise and efficient data collection.

We frequently get asked about the drones or UAVs that we use.  What is the best drone? Why do you use such-and-such vendor?  The answers to those common questions vary. It depends on the particular customer problem we are trying to solve, the insights, the technical deliverables, and several other key factors.  Those other factors include the type of data being collected, data accuracy, and other aspects such as environmental conditions, mobility, simplicity, etc.  Oh, and of course, the cost!  Part of my responsibility as CDO is to utilize technology that delivers high quality results for our clients in a mutually beneficial way for Firmatek.

There really isn’t a one-size-fits-all drone that has all of the desired characteristics of an ideal payload, flight time, ease of use, and affordability. Each user, even within the same industry, has his or her own needs and preferences. This presents a complex problem that is compounded by the speed of innovation.  There are a handful of dominant players but there is no shortage of product development by established players and startups— especially in the data acquisition, navigation, software and analytics space.  Consider this, there’s a new software/app/portal product announcement roughly every 4-6 weeks. Based on a recent count, there are no less than 30 LiDAR sensor vendors.  Granted, much of the innovation is driven by the self-driving car industry, but relevant to UAVs.  So, how does Firmatek navigate this complexity and make sound technology and product decisions?  How do we work with vendors and pick the right UAV for the right job?  I’ll break it down in this blog post and others to follow.

First of all, Firmatek is not a drone company.  We’re not an OEM, nor are we a systems integrator. We are not tied down to a specific technology or product.  We are a services company that provides insights based on analytics derived from a variety of data collection tools, including UAVs.  Our services-led, technology-enabled approach allows us to be hardware agnostic, constantly evaluating a plethora of commercially available, off the shelf (COTS) HW/SW platforms. We prefer simplicity and therefore lean towards COTS products with clear product road-maps that tend to support innovation and avoid obsolescence.

Let’s cut through the complexity by explaining how our services-led, technology-enabled approach simplifies the UAV evaluation and product selection process.

If we consider the commercial UAV space as four primary markets, we can quickly narrow down the platforms & products supporting Firmatek’s primary industries of mining/aggregates, landfill, and construction. The four primary markets are:

1) Reality Capture, 3D Mapping

2) Public Safety

3) Inspection

4) Professional Video/Photo, Cinematography

For the markets that Firmatek serves, we need the UAVs that excel in the Reality Capture/3D Mapping market. Insights, deliverables, and measurements in this market need to be geospatially accurate, demanding a particular type of payload and camera spec, positioning system, and autonomy (more on these criteria in a future blog post). There are very few UAVs that do Reality Capture/3D Mapping well because of these requirements.

While these requirements are constant across all types of work that we perform, there are differences based on the type of work. We have a few different business models and types of work that we perform at Firmatek: production-oriented, special projects, and R&D.

The majority of our work is based on frequently recurring mapping projects. These production-oriented projects require a high volume of consistent and repeatable data collection.  For this type of work, we enable some of our clients to fly/collect their own data and upload to Firmatek. This allows them to utilize a robust UAV system that is easy to use, purpose built, and autonomous with minimal configuration while still being inexpensive to operate. It also provides our clients with the flexibility they need.

By contrast, special projects and R&D require specialized UAVs. These special projects may be unique because of their size and scope or because of the type of sensor needed to accomplish the job.

Usually, the customer’s site size dictates the type of UAV. Based on roughly 2,500 projects performed last year, we can group them in categories of small (less than 200 acres), medium (200-500 acres) and large (more than 500 acres.)

As we examine the data, there is a correlation between production-oriented projects and small/medium sized sites. These types of projects, while still requiring high accuracy, are mostly flown by our clients. All factors considered, the logical choice is a small, inexpensive multi-rotor UAV that delivers repeatable, accurate results when combined with some form of ground control.

Medium and large projects often times have special technical requirements or challenging environmental constraints that dictate a fixed-wing UAV rather than the quadcopter we typically recommend for the smaller sites. One of the advantages of a these types of UAVs is that it can fly for longer, and therefore it does a better job and is more efficient covering these larger areas.

As you begin to consider your options think about asking yourself these questions:

  1. What type of information am I looking to get from a UAV?
  2. What are the requirements for achieving this information? What sensors? What level of accuracy?
  3. Will I be performing repetitive work or one-off projects?
  4. How large of an area will I need to fly?
  5. What is my skill level (or my pilot’s)? How complex do I want my solution to be?

Determining the right tool for the right job is dependent on a number of factors that are unique to your operation and your projects. When choosing a UAV platform, we consider the particular customer problem we are trying to solve, the insights needed, and the technical deliverables requested. Providing quality data efficiently has always been a priority for the Firmatek team. We are a services-led, technology enabled company, which enables us to evaluate many types of hardware and find the best one for the job at hand. We will continue to strive be a trusted advisor to our clients and thought leaders in our industry.

In a future blog post we’ll dive deeper into why we choose specific UAV products at Firmatek.