‘That’s just a toy, it’ll never be useful!’ In 2011, this was the reaction to my suggestion to use drones in our field of work following the launch of one of the first commercial drone systems in the world.
We came in contact with Ecoflight, a specialized company for the use of unmanned aircraft through a contractor. They were way ahead of everybody else and applied the technology in different areas: to determine the volume of bodies of soil, for digital terrain models and to measure stress effects on plants using NDVI measurements (Normalized Difference Vegetation Index).
At the time I didn’t manage to get the project off the ground, but seven years later we can’t do without this technology in our field of work. And this is just the beginning…
We were in the middle of a recession in 2011. Retrospectively, my idea to implement drones was not the best idea at the time. As a technical specialist with a passion for innovative measuring techniques I failed to understand at the time that for a technology to ‘succeed’ there are many other aspects that need to be taken into account, not just purely technological ones.
I had even already found a potential client who was interested. It was to do with research into the spread of iron arsenic depositions. A large area around Nieuw-Bergen (Limburg) had naturally occurring iron-arsenic depositions. We were able to give insight into the effects of the deposition on plant vegetation by using a drone and looking at the differences between visible and invisible light.
In the end we couldn’t convince the client, the investment proved too big. And I wasn’t allocated a budget from the Tauw Innovation Program either, and so the idea ended up in the ‘failed ideas’ drawer. I resigned myself to this, perhaps it did belong to the ‘Toys for Boys’ category after all.
Today, many years later, you only have to consult the (social) media and time and again you come across new applications for drones. The technology is even tagged as the ‘hottest technology for changing the future’. The term ‘drone’ is widely used, whether it is relevant or not, but the drone itself is just a ‘carrier system’. The added value for our products lies in the sensors suspended from the drone and the way in which the data generated in this way is used.
At the end of 2016 the management asked me: ‘Is there something in these drones for us?’ We then re-examined all the possibilities and the applications turned out to be endless. Development had not stood still! We soon concluded that the time was ripe and that we should also embrace the idea.
As it turned out we did the required pilot projects with external specialists in 2017. Every single one of these projects proved to have direct added value potential for our clients. But the question still remained: should we purchase drones ourselves or continue to make use of external specialists?
The answer came when we drew up our business plan for batch testing volume measurements. We started the training course, went through the licensing procedure and now we are the proud owners of drones. We are starting small, but I have already made it clear that drones should be part of the standard field equipment for field workers and that certainly applies to supervisors.
We currently use drones with a normal RGB camera to take photos of an area. We use software capable of taking several pictures of every measuring point, which enables us to determine the overlap of those photos. It can then be used to calculate a 3D point cloud. Where in the past we had to use a measuring wheel to determine the volume of a soil batch (maximum volume 10,000 tonnes per batch) we now use a drone to carry out this task. This yields significant time gains especially in the case of batches that haven’t been deposited so neatly or are high.
Furthermore the added value also lies in the processing of the data into usable information in the field (where is drilling to take place?) and for drawing up a report (clear maps). The use of 3D point clouds like that is useful at various levels, for example for the integration of the current situation for a landscape designer, for determining a current elevation model to create a Flood Map, etc.
My timing in 2011 was not perfect. The market was tense and consultancies were more focused on surviving than looking ahead. More than 80% of the start-ups from those days failed to make the grade, but the percentage that did are the market leaders of today.
What it taught me is that there is no such thing as a ‘failed’ innovation. For an innovation to succeed factors other than just the technological possibilities have to be taken into account. Timing, expertise, vision and perseverance are just as important.
All the same I am curious about what things would have been like if I was one of the other 20%…