SoftBank tries to get ahead of Intel’s new Insight drone platform

Just ahead of the unveiling of Intel’s Insight Platform for drones, SoftBank announced that it was partnering with DroneDeploy to launch a similar offering. This past week has seen two giants move to carve out a slice of the potentially very lucrative drone services market, as more enterprises begin realizing the potential uses for drones in augmenting their businesses.

Riot recently profiled Delair, the company behind the Intel Insight Platform. Intel is licensing Delair Stack, the software component that evolved as Delair sold its advanced fixed-wing drones to customers. These users found that they wanted to perform analytics functions on the video and lidar scans that their drones captured, and Delair worked to facilitate that.

Meanwhile, SoftBank has been working with DroneDeploy to provide a similar suite of tools and services. The DroneDeploy Cloud Service has now been launched in Japan, and will be distributed by SoftBank’s Commerce and Service (C&S) division. To be clear, SoftBank initially has domestic plans, while Intel is hoping for a global presence.

In total, the commercial drone market is thought to be worth more than $13bn by 2020, according to SoftBank at least. The company will be hoping that its IT products and services reputation will help it win over Japanese companies looking to add drones to their existing business processes.

In the short term, drones will be used to cut costs – replacing helicopter or satellite inspections with a much cheaper alternative. In addition, these early uses will see drones provide more frequent inspections, thanks to their lower costs – allowing a company to carry out daily instead of weekly inspections, or weekly instead of monthly.

There’s also a huge benefit to businesses that operate in hazardous conditions. Using a drone could remove the need for a human worker to suit up and climb potentially dangerous rigging. Things like roof or powerline inspections are obvious examples, as well as oil and gas. In a similar vein, large pieces of infrastructure could be surveyed much more quickly using drones than with manual inspections – such as pipelines, bridges, or roads.

“We’re excited to be working with SoftBank C&S in Japan. It provides us immediate global reach into one of the most mature enterprise drone markets,” said Scott Lumish, VP Business Development at DroneDeploy. “We believe SoftBank C&S will help DroneDeploy dominate the aerial data space and become the operating system for all drones in Japan, and eventually the rest of world.”

DroneDeploy itself has been in business since 2013, raising $31m in funding to build out its cloud platform. It says that these tools have been used by customers to map over 30 million acres (121,405 km2) across 180 countries, in applications like agriculture, construction, mining, and surveying.

The DroneDeploy Cloud Platform is pitched as a way to create 2D maps and 3D models, in just two clicks apparently. It has integrations with DJI, one of the most popular drone companies on the market, and can automate mapping flights using its mobile app. The process is being made as simple as possible, and seems aimed at smaller businesses.

However, there’s an enterprise option that promises to help companies manage teams of pilots and their drones. More enterprises will soon wake up to the potential of having a fleet of hundreds, and DroneDeploy is looking to be the company at the heart of that system. With flexible data exporting tools and its APIs, DroneDeploy is also looking to make it as easy as possible to link the drone data with existing business software and systems – a major hurdle for many enterprises, when it comes to adoption.

In addition, DroneDeploy has an application marketplace, where developers can build and then sell applications to other users. DroneDeploy will be getting a cut of such sales, but the system means that there is a better chance for a new user to find an off-the-shelf answer to their particular problem. Easier adoption should lead to a better customer experience for DroneDeploy, and there’s already quite a few available.

They range from a John Deere integration, for uploading photos of fields to a John Deere account, to TensorFlight’s tree-counting tool for orchard management, and KittyHawk’s weather and airspace awareness tool. There are more pragmatic tools too, such as Box for storage, DroneLogbook’s logging system, and Verifly’s on-demand insurance system too.

But as it stands, SoftBank’s clout is only being focused on Japan. Intel has the larger initial scope, but Intel also has a reputation for dropping projects after just a few years. Drones should generate a boatload of data that needs to be processed by its Xeon CPUs, and so drones should be a long-term opportunity for Intel in the data center.

Intel also has hardware interests in drones, thanks to its acquisition of Ascending Technologies and its drone-focused RealSense silicon options. It’s unclear if Intel wants to spend much effort in that particular sector, as its main interest will be the data center portfolio. ARM-based efforts are sure to pile on the pressure on Intel’s designs, and just as the laptop market is moving to ARM, it’s hard to see x86 CPUs keeping much of a foothold in the market, should the ARM ecosystem up the ante.

Intel unveiled more of the Insight Platform at AUVSI Xponential, demonstrating its Mission Control flight planning software, as well as updates to its Falcon 8+ drone. The first unveiling happened back in September 2017, at the InterDrone show. Intel now says that enterprise customers across several verticals are now using the platform – to manage and store the rich data generated by their drones.

The new Falcon houses a 42MP camera system, based on Sony’s RX1R II camera, as well as a dual-camera variant for stereoscopic image capture. New obstacle avoidance features are being emphasized, but we can’t say we heard many complaints about drones smashing into things while on the job. The concern is valid though, as these things are delicate, and are increasingly carrying expensive payloads.