The commercial drone technology ecosystem has come a LONG way in the last five years, and businesses all over the world have spent years exploring the potential of drones. Over this time, there have been at least eight distinct levels of evolution within commercial drone technology. The eight phases include the following:

One: Affordable and Reliable Flight Control Systems –The first phase that signaled the start of the commercial drone era was the debut of drones that had stable and reliable flight controls while also being affordable enough to deploy in large masses.

Two: Autonomy –The next phase brought forth the automation of flight planning, geofencing and the flight itself (which also meant easier operator tasks) right around the time that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) released Part 107 (the Small Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) Rule). This phase greatly reduced the skills necessary to conduct a drone operation and therefore, widened the user base.

Three: Reliable Data Collection – In phase three , drones became valuable to businesses (and industries as a whole) when they began to be equipped with onboard sensors capable of collecting data. Once commercial drone products became available with high-level data collection capabilities, many businesses began transitioning processes typically conducted by personnel to drone-based processes.

Four: Data Collection at Scale – Here, data collection must be reliable –that is, the drone must collect data in the same way every time, across many different sites, varying types of sites, and over much larger areas. At this stage, drones started collecting data at scale and storing it (and processing it) in the cloud.

Five: Data Management – In phase five, collection of aerial data resulted in a massive amount of information which all needs to be processed, stored and organized. In this phase, data is no longer confined to local machines. Instead the data is distributed throughout a business. This was the point at which the benefit of drone technology went beyond incremental improvements to conventional performance metrics. Entirely new types of business insights and processes are available in this phase.

Six: Machine Learning – While we have only begun this phase of the drone technology revolution, this phase would include drones with automated feature recognition, change detection and defect detection, which will further reduce the amount of time and expertise required to reap the benefits of drone-collected data.

Seven: Industry-and-Application Specific Analytics – In this phase, once the technological and operational foundation for commercial drone technology has been strongly established, businesses can achieve deep insight by using that foundation as a platform for application-specific analytics. Even predictive analytics can provide businesses and industries with recommendations for equipment and infrastructure, and create significant competitive separation (if other businesses and industries don’t adopt similar measures to keep up).

Eight: Systems Integration – Lastly, drone data, integrated with traditional business systems could enable even deeper insights by creating entirely new workflows. Data from disparate sources within a business can be integrated and increase efficiency, and, hopefully, lower costs dramatically.

With commercial drone technology only starting to mature, these phases will surely evolve and new phases will form. All we know now is that drones are part of (and will be part of) our lives and they seem to be here to stay.