SILICON VALLEY -- The commercial use of drones has been a hot topic lately. Perhaps creating the most buzz is Amazon.com's plan, announced in 2013, to launch a delivery service that will use drones to whisk packages to customers' doorsteps within 30 minutes of an order. And last September, Google chimed in with similar plans of its own.
But the drone business involves far more than delivery. It is also giving rise to a number of information services that combine data collected from high-altitude satellites and ground-based sensors with data obtained from low-altitude drones.
Eye in the sky
In the U.S., competition in this service segment is heating up. At the center of it all is Google. The search-engine provider is moving ahead with the development of drones that can be used in shipping, putting it in direct competition with e-commerce powerhouse Amazon.
And last year, it purchased Skybox Imaging, a U.S. startup that uses small satellites to make fixed-point observations of the movements of cars and tankers from space. Both developments underscore just how much the information business is at the heart of Google.
Skybox founder Julian Mann said drones and satellites are highly complementary when it comes to providing information. He added that no other company is using the skies to gather information on the scale that Google is.
Google is also partnering with U.S. company DigitalGlobe -- which supplies even more-precise satellite data -- for gathering information. Google has assembled some of the world's most prominent researchers in artificial intelligence and is honing its image-analysis technology. It plans to go beyond simply using the enormous amount of image data it collects for its map service; the company will also use the detailed information about weather, traffic and logistics it gathers to improve the precision of its main business -- advertising.
The use of drones to collect data is also increasing in such traditional industries as agriculture and forestry.
Last autumn, U.S. chipmaker Intel invested in drone startup PrecisionHawk, also of the U.S. PrecisionHawk sells drones, but that is not its main focus. According to President Ernest Earon, the company is a service provider that combines information obtained from drones with other data and supplies the results to clients.
For example, a farmer's crop status as photographed by a drone could be combined with information gathered from satellites and ground-based sensors -- such as humidity levels and the overall status of the cultivated land. That data could then be sold to the farmer for analysis. The service is already being used by U.S. railroad operator BNSF to monitor railway lines in remote areas. Plans also call for starting services for insurance and other companies that would use data collected from the skies, such as the status of crops and progress in infrastructure projects.
Affordable new tool
The mass production of drones means they are becoming more affordable, making it easier than ever to employ them for data services. Drones made by major French manufacturer Parrot are priced from around $100. Combine this affordability with the development of other technologies -- such as lightweight cameras and sensors that automatically adjust the amount of water given to crops -- and drones can even be used in large-scale farming.
"We focus on consumer business, but I received a call from Monsanto laboratory. They think they can combine our product for industrial usage," said Parrot manager Jerome Bouvard.
Still, the industry is in its infancy. High regulatory hurdles must be cleared before transport drones are allowed to fly over populated areas. And when it comes to competition over selling the hardware itself, Chinese manufacturers have a huge pricing edge. For now, the main battlefield in industrialized countries is the data business.