French drone specialist Delair has signed a major strategic partnership with Intel, providing the analytical software that Intel plans to use to launch the upcoming Intel Insight offering. We spoke to Thomas Nicholls, the ex-Sigfox CMO, who joined Delair a few months ago, to find out more – and of course, ask about what happened at Sigfox.
Nicholls said that Delair was born out of experience in the oil and gas pipeline industry, where its founder decided that using drones to provide monitoring services was a viable opportunity. In 2011, had seen a huge opex reduction opportunity, and so with a colleague from the oil and gas firm, plus two university friends, they launched Delair.
The first design was a fixed-wing drone, selected because of the much longer flight times that fixed-wing can provide compared to quad, hex, or octo rotor drones can achieve – which are almost always less than an hour, and usually only just north of 30-minutes. In addition, the Delair team knew that the weight of their payloads would further hamper a more common quadcopter design, and so the focus was always on fixed-wing.
Now with a range of drones, Nicholls said Delair’s core offerings are cameras and LiDAR units – designed to provide aerial surveillance and monitoring of their customer’s infrastructure, and provided by a company called Riegl (which has gone as far as co-designing units with Delair, to better suit the drones). In terms of customers, Delair sells to oil and gas, energy distribution, industrial, and rail with each flight potentially generating terabytes of data.
Delair quickly moved into offering the analytical software needed to process this data, after realizing that most companies wanted to get additional information. Things like vegetation encroachment and using growth or death patterns to identify gas leaks were notable examples. This led Delair to creating the Delair Stack, the software service that generates reports for customers, highlighting potential operational issues.
In 2016, Delair acquired Trimble’s Gatewing drone subsidiary. Trimble, a major player in the geostationary surveying market, had realized the potential for drones in that sector, but had come to find that drones were a radically different technology to its conventional tripod-mounted units. Trimble reached out to Delair in 2016, and the conversation led to Delair acquiring Gatewing and gaining access to Trimble’s seller and partner network – a big step forward for the company, which now has around 70 distributors.
But a much bigger leap forward came via Intel, which took an interest in Delair’s Stack software. Drones were part of Intel’s strategy of entering markets that generate extreme amounts of data, to fuel demand for its core CPU offerings, and to that end, Intel had acquired Ascending Technologies and MAVinci.
Last year, Intel carried out its due diligence on drone processing software, and deemed Delair’s Stack to be the industry leader. This led it to brokering a strategic partnership with Delair, which now sees the Stack offered as Intel Insight, and analytics package that still has Delair’s branding on it. The joint project will apparently see Intel use Insight for analyzing other data streams, not just drones, and the system is not exclusive to Delair’s drones either.
Nicholls said that it was being pitched at any company looking to manage physical assets, using 3D modeling and Digital Twin services to better understand their operations. There are currently some 15 enterprise beta users, and Intel plans the public launch of Intel Insight within 2018, with Delair enjoying a revenue-share deal.
In some ways, Delair has already mitigated the main concern of all IoT hardware companies – what happens when the market commoditizes your technology offering. With Stack, the company should be well positioned if a spate of new rivals emerge in the drone hardware side of things.
As for current customers, Delair has had a lot of success in its home market. French legislation is current very friendly to drones, allowing beyond line-of-sight operation (LoS). Major utility EDF has begun replacing a fleet of 200 monitoring helicopters with drones from Delair, and SNCF, the national rail operator, is such a fan of its drones that it now even has a business unit that provides pilots for other businesses.
In the US, Duke Energy and Southern Company, are notable adopters, but the USA’s FAA restrictions mean that all flights must remain within LoS. Delair has mining customers in most continents, and agriculture is another major opportunity. Airbus Aerial, a US Airbus subsidiary, is another adopter, using Delair to power its Drone Service Provider wing. An Argentinian mine has found drones are 15x cheaper than using helicopters.
These drones aren’t cheap. Ranging from around $20k to $120k, the most expensive units are those with integrated LiDAR. Delair is on track to sell 1,000 drones this year, up from 500 last year, and while the drones themselves last years, it is exploring a third-party servicing center concept with one of its US distributors.
As for rivals, Delair’s main competitor on the hardware side is Parrot, which is the current market leader in terms of volume. Precision Hawk and Phoenix Systems are also in the LiDAR space, but Delair believes it is the leader there. The company is also working on building integrations with other IoT companies, to add other data to the drone platforms.
But Nicholls stressed that there is a global need for airspace management systems to catch up with drones, as the current systems are not suited to the smaller aircraft. It seems likely that some form of automation will need to be incorporated, to scale the current manual system to accommodate many more units in the air. In addition, beyond LoS legislation would help drive interest, but because there is such variance between national airspace rules, there won’t likely be a global solution to this problem.
Nicholls was Riot’s first contact with Sigfox, the LPWAN network operator that recently announced a climb-down of sorts. Given a spate of recent coverage, led mostly by Light Reading (which has mellowed slightly from a time when it evidently had an ax to grind), it was obvious that we had to ask what had happened at Sigfox.
Nicholls said that he had spent five amazing years at Sigfox, and that the most exciting thing was being a part of the creation of the term ‘LPWAN.’ He said that the objective had changed to one of onboarding, and so Nicholls felt like it was an opportune time to move on to the next challenge – at Delair.
The CMO (check) had left a few months before that particular wave of news broke, about the ‘executive exodus.’ He said that it was expected that people leave startups, and as for rumors about excessive parties and clashes of personalities, Nicholls was full of praise for current Sigfox CEO Ludovic Le Moan.
Admitting that there were certainly parties, Nicholls said he had worked with Ludovic for about 12 years, across 4 companies, but said it was not as rowdy as some of the rumors we had heard. Adding that it was a good thing that entrepreneurs had personality, he did say that some people don’t like hearing what he thinks – and that different cultural outlooks don’t always enmesh without friction.
Nicholls was full of praise for Le Moan, saying that the CEO loves to see people grow under his leadership and that his involvement in the Toulouse IoT Valley (key in its establishment) was proof of this. We’re sure Light Reading’s source/s might take a different view on that, but Le Moan’s biggest challenge remains in scaling pilot projects into full-scale deployments. Nicholls said that the large projects had taken longer than people hoped for.