Software Innovation Will Take Drones to New Heights

Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock, in a no-fly zone or perhaps a combination of the two for the past couple of years, you’ll have noticed the steady rise of drones throughout the commercial and consumer sectors.

DJI has been dominating the consumer side of things with its shiny, white, professional photography machines. And when they haven’t been making the headlines, amateur pilots have stepped in, flying with varying degrees of success, spying on the White House, dive-bombing ski tournaments and generally getting in the way of much larger aircraft – all this, combined with a constant stream of hardware innovation, has meant that not a day goes by without some fresh drone news for enthusiasts to mull over.   

But in the background drone technology is already driving innovation in a number of commercial sectors. From agriculture to mining, real estate and search and rescue, entire industries are being dragged into the 21st century with the help of a drone or two. And although more and more advanced hardware is bringing with it the potential for drones to increase efficiency and perform new tasks, it’s the software side of things where most of the action is happening right now.

Drone software is about more than selfies | GoPro

Drone software is about more than selfies | GoPro

There are three main markets out there for drone software. The first is probably the type that most drone enthusiasts are familiar with. Manufacturers are developing drones capable of flying for longer and with more precision. This means that the software has to keep up, not only with hardware capabilities, but with the demands of an expectant public. This first type of software is all about making drones smarter, and includes things such as flight planning, automatic take-off and landing, obstacle avoidance, GPS-guided navigation and the ability to autonomously reach a given location via a series of waypoints. This software governs the interaction between drone and pilot, it’s pretty important. The Airnest app is a great example of this.     

The second market for software is more suited to drone use for commercial purposes. Being able to take a great selfie or film yourself snowboarding is one thing, but in industry data gathering is key. Drones, in tandem with some of the software mentioned above, are pretty useful when it comes to gathering information. They can fly over farms, mines and infrastructure, covering a lot of ground and taking high quality images in no time at all. So the second type of software is in the analysis of all of this information.

Yes, thousands of bird’s eye images might help a farmer see what’s going on with his crops. But software which can rigorously analyse these findings, develop 3d models, assess health, nourishment, UV levels and the spread of pests or diseases is truly revolutionary. And it’s not just analysis. Handling drone data requires entire applications to be built, enabling users to edit, share, store and make sense of all the high quality footage at their disposal. This market is sure to explode as drone legislation gains clarity and the technology is more widely accepted.  

The third market is still, due to the drone industry’s relative youth, in its infancy. None of the above software would be possible without the hard work of developers. Building applications is no easy task, and developers often do their work on platforms which effectively do most of the heavy lifting and help stitch things together. In the industry this is known as Platform as a Service (PaaS).

Many platforms offer software components, known as middleware, for developers to integrate into their applications to help simplify speed up the whole process. So if you’re building an app for your online shop, some handy middleware might be the payment process. This kind of thing allows developers to focus on more important things, and relies on the technical wizardry of someone else to form a part of their application. So, back to drones. Drone software developers don’t currently have access to this kind of platform. So there’s plenty of room in the PaaS for a drone-specific platform offering developers middleware that will help them realise their ambitions. Once this is cracked, industry standards will start to develop, and hopefully the rate of drone software innovation will increase.  

So there you have it. Three ways in which drone software is set to further transform an industry already on the rise.