Gadget lovers helped the drone industry to flee, but its future seems to be more industrial, with an increasing number of drones sold for tasks such as surveying and inspection. A good example of this transition is DJI, which today announced its largest shipment of commercial UAVs: 1,000 drones with artificial vision software from the American company Skycatch, all sold to the Japanese construction giant Komatsu.
The drones in question are all one model: the Skycatch Explore1. It is a semiautonomous quadcopter based on the corporate UAV Matrice 100 from DJI that uses artificial vision to inspect and supervise construction sites. Produce maps with an accuracy of five centimeters and can help in tasks such as stockpile control (for example, how much cement or sand you have left). In the case of Komatsu, the data produced by the drones will also be used to control their robot construction vehicles, currently under development.
A screenshot of the Skycatch drone application used to trace buildings. Image: Skycatch
Speaking to The Verge, Skycatch CEO Christian Sanz says the company's drones have already been used in more than ten thousand construction jobs in Japan, and almost the same number in other countries. Skycatch has helped survey future Disney theme parks, data center sites for Facebook, and recently took on a particularly large job for an anonymous company in Cupertino. "You can imagine who I'm talking about," says Sanz. "We've been flying there every day, several times a day … Now we're helping with the gardening work."
Skycatch drones are sold directly to customers or hired together with technicians. Although the company has its own set of machine learning algorithms that can recognize basic materials in a construction site, as well as people and vehicles, customers can provide their own data to train new algorithms.
The Explore1 drones also come with a base station, the Edge1, which handles image processing without the need for an Internet connection. It's basically a "cloud-in-a-box computer," says Sanz, and is needed for 30 percent of the 15 million active construction sites around the world that do not have an active Internet connection.
Skycatch has been producing the Explore1 since the middle of last year, but says that the new DJI order marks a turning point for the world of construction. "This is an industry that has been moving at a slow pace, and this order is a great sign that things are accelerating," says Sanz. "Automation in construction is no longer something to consider, four or five years in the future, when you go to a job site, you should expect to see robots on the floor."