Commercial use of drones is a promising sector: in France, a number of startups are making a name for themselves in this field. But in order to crack the industrial market, manufacturers will have to improve the accuracy of the data collected and Big Data processing.

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Drones are increasingly being used for professional purposes, chiefly for aerial photography, precision agriculture and public safety. In the industrial sector, the most common applications of drones are currently for inspection and infrastructure monitoring, as illustrated on the table below drawn up by Oliver Wyman.

But the full potential of UAVs has barely ben tapped into yet.

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The crucial issue is information, the real added-value of drones, thanks to advances in electronic technologies, embedded software and the cloud, which can improve the precision of visual recognition and Big Data collection and processing. American firm 3D Robotics is paving the way: it has teamed up with Autodesk and Sony to develop a UAV-to-cloud solution.  The new unit can scan a location and upload a 3D model or map to the cloud from the air, allowing those files to quickly get into the hands of offsite engineers or managers.

Commercial applications are also inspiring manufacturers in France: Parrot is the first name that springs to mind where civilian drones are concerned. Since 2013, the company, pioneers in France in this field, have been developing professional applications of UAVs, investing in R&D and marketing and acquisitions, and focusing in particular on mapping, aerial surveillance and monitoring of sites and precision agriculture. Parrot’s reputation, combined with the potential of UAVs for commercial use, is driving startups to innovate.

The latest experiments show the potential in this field: Donecle’s drones are used for carrying out aircraft inspections, far faster than by using humans. The company recently won the La Tribune Young Entrepreneur award for its innovations.  Meanwhile, Pixiel, a startup from Nantes, has developed tethered drones with a 6-hour battery life. And Xamen Technologies’ drone is the world’s first to obtain ATEX (EXplosive ATmospheres) certification after delivering a package to a liquid gas tanker off the coast of Denmark.

Another startup is following in Xamen’s footsteps: recently-incubated firm Orbit has already won first prize in the “Epitech Innovativ Projects 2016” awards for designing an open source drone for monitoring industrial sites. The project was deployed in partnership with Bouygues Energies & Services, which already uses it on its premises. So what makes this project stand out from current solutions on the market? The creators have found a way to stabilise the drone in a particular area and collect more accurate data. According to Clément Ouanhnon, one of the team of 12 students involved in the 3-year study project, the “magic ingredient” was “the development of 2 apps. One runs on a smartphone and retrieves data and displays it as a graph which helps the pilot guide the drone more effectively. The other runs on a computer and is used by the pilot to create the drone’s flight plan.”

The commercial drone market is booming

The budding French civilian drone sector already has over a thousand players and is worth over one hundred million Euros in annual revenue, according to estimations by Oliver Wyman, and several hundred million according to the French Civilian Drone Council. The global market, meanwhile, is valued at €1.6 billion.

Growth over the next ten years will be driven by commercial uses and services and in particular data collection and analysis, once business models become viable thanks to harmonised European regulations and more competitive costs compared with existing solutions (satellites, helicopters and light aircrafts). The CAGR for commercial and civilian drones is estimated at 19% between 2015 and 2020, according to BI Intelligence.  In France, Toulouse-based company Delair-Tech, which makes industrial drones and decision-making solutions has reported 1000% growth since its inception five years ago and recently raised €13 million in funds.

The French civilian drone sector is getting organised

In France, the Civilian Drone Council was created in June 2015 for the purpose of combining initiatives made by separate organisations. At the same time, regulations in this field, where France was a pioneer in 2012, have been updated and the Council now aims to identify technological priorities and strategies for developing the French offering overseas.

Meanwhile, the FPDC, (Professional Civilian Drone Federation), has over 300 members including manufacturers (around forty, some of whom are operators), resellers, (around thirty, some of whom are also operators and manufacturers), around twenty training centres (design, remote piloting, photography, etc.) and various institutional organisations, research centres and insurance companies.