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From Site Selection magazine, July 2015


Could drones be the next-gen tool for evaluating sites?


That if the real estate and facility data you’re seeking, storing and filtering could be connected to real-time site reconnaissance from unmanned aerial systems (UAS)?

The Federal Aviation Administration has yet to issue its final Small UAS Rule, but Section 333 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 allows the Secretary of Transportation to authorize exemptions for operators wishing to use drones for commercial purposes. As of mid-June, 601 petitions had been granted, and more than 2,600 requests were pending.

Drones could be helpful for locations that are off the beaten path or potentially treacherous to visit — a closed chemical manufacturing complex, for instance, or a mountaintop antenna. They might also be handy for real-time video during a sales presentation.

Thom Bogle, the former JLL and Studley corporate real estate consultant who launched his own firm, Apogee Advisors, says two applications of UAS come immediately to mind.

“To be able to literally fly 360 degrees around the building and see the surrounding areas, from your phone or desktop, is a huge advantage to people in the business of buying and selling real estate,” he says. “The second would be in the maintenance phase, particularly industrial buildings with huge roofs where you could fly close — particularly as cameras get more sophisticated and you can look for things such as where heat is being released.”

Identified Technologies Job Site
UAS applications in energy, mining, waste management and construction proliferate among the hundreds of authorized and yet-to-be-authorized firms seeking to find their niche in the small-drone airspace.
Photo courtesy of Identified Technologies

Rooftop inspection might be especially helpful where triple-net leases are concerned, he says, as “one of the few things landlords have to pay for is that roof. Get someone to fly over and take pictures, and look at it in high resolution, and you might just rule out buying that building on day one.”

Quality aerial imagery has been part of the site selection process for a long time. Drones add efficiency and reduce cost. “To be able to have your broker pull up five potential sites within a single or multiple geographies at the beginning of a process would be helpful,” says Bogle, while also expressing concern about their eventual ubiquity. “You can envision in a business district a lot of drones in the area for multiple reasons. It’s only a matter of time before two of these things collide and fall into a parking lot. As the business takes off, it could be its own worst enemy,” he says.

But in the meantime, “It’s as close as you can get without buying a plane ticket. I think it will help buyers exclude properties more quickly. Then, rather than visit five or six locations, they can visit one or two.”

Getting Global Fast

Specialty uses among commercial drone firms include rail, pipeline, electrical power line and flood control facility inspection; reconnaissance at wireless technology sites; mining and energy sites such as quarries or solar farms; film and TV; precision agriculture; surveying; and resort and golf course marketing. They also include real estate and construction sites.

Measure, a 32 Advisors Company, offers drone-as-a-service to public and private entities, charging on a unit cost basis. The firm is focused on agriculture, mining, energy, infrastructure, insurance and public safety, and has established offices in DC, New York and San Francisco as well as Sydney, Dakar and Warsaw.

In an interview, Measure CEO and Co-Founder Brandon Torres Declet says, “There is tremendous hype for drones. People think they are very cool. We are trying to develop the business case.”

Among the areas ripe for economic case studies is real estate.

“There is clearly an application in the real estate space,” says Declet. “We’re talking to a number of large property and casualty insurance companies about using drones to accelerate the claims process, for instance to fly over a damaged roof. And they can potentially use it for underwriting.”

USCREA Thom Bogle
Thom Bogle
Apogee Advisors

The company was founded in summer 2014 after he, Measure President Justin Oberman (co-founder of the TSA) and Measure Chairman and former UBS Americas Chairman and CEO Robert Wolf had discussed the emerging commercial drone market and its domination by manufacturers, which number well over 1,000.

“There was a proliferation of hardware, but not a lot of people talking about how we use the hardware to gain value. We quickly realized after high-level conversations that most companies weren’t entirely comfortable with owning and operating their own drones. Drone-as-a-service is a turnkey solution for enterprises that want to take advantage of the technology but don’t want to do it themselves.”

Measure has partnered with the American Farm Bureau Federation — and with companies such as Pepsi, ADM and Monsanto — to develop an ROI calculator that allows farmers to plug in various indicators. Test flights were due to take place in June in Winnipeg, Manitoba, with ag and food processing giant Richardson International and in North Carolina with Measure’s ag drone manufacturer partner PrecisionHawk.

Declet says the killer app is infrastructure inspections, which take forever to do by foot, road or helicopter, with the added cost of that helicopter ranging from $2,000 to $3,000 per hour. “You can get a drone to do it for a fraction of that,” he says. “Most won’t run more than a couple hundred dollars an hour.”

The real estate possibilities aren’t limited to exteriors.

“We’re working with a real estate development company now in New York that wants to use drones to inspect building facades and interiors of buildings,” he says.

Declet salutes the energy and focus the six federally designated UAS test sites are displaying, from pipeline inspection efforts in the Mid-Atlantic to firefighting testing with Lockheed Martin in New York. North Dakota continues its leadership, punctuated most recently by the grand opening of Grand Sky, which calls itself “America’s first Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) business and aviation park,” through an Enhanced Use Lease at Grand Forks Air Force Base.

“The real breakthroughs aren’t going to happen at the test sites, but in the private sector,” says Declet. “There is a lot of money being poured into R&D.”

Stoking that investment are promising signs from the FAA, going from a complete ban to hundreds of operators now flying.

“It’s a 180-degree turn from 12 months ago,” says Declet. “They are moving as quickly as a US government agency can move.”

Declet expects the final Small UAS Rule within the next 18 months, as regulators and innovators work to solve issues related to operating beyond visual line of sight, air traffic control and sense-and-avoid technology.

“ABI Research predicts the commercial market for small UAVs will grow from an estimated $652 million in 2014 to more than $5.1 billion by 2019, becoming twice as large as the military/civil defense market.”
— Computer World, April 2015

“Those are problems we are very close to solving,” says Declet.

Measure is not alone in seeking to steer gee-whiz gadgets to professional and profitable ends.

“Drones are not about the drones but rather what data they are able to collect, how that data is processed and how it’s useful to the consumer,” says Jeff Black, senior business consultant for Pittsburgh-incubated Identified Technologies. But in the next breath he’s as wide-eyed as the next guy.

“Almost on a daily basis there’s something exciting happening in this space,” he says.

The company’s self-piloting mapping drones automate site monitoring with end-to-end data scanning, capture, access, and data analytics solutions for firms in energy, mining, waste management and construction. One customer said outdated topo maps led to earthwork budgets that were 20-percent off, and the services from Identified Technologies would have prevented that error from being absorbed by his company.

Identified, which leases its systems to clients, says its Pittsburgh location puts it in the heart of a $1.2-billion market in just Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia, expanding to a $20-billion market of more than 200,000 job sites nationwide. One niche is tracking methane along pipelines in shale gas country, a task currently accomplished on foot with handheld laser scanners.

New and Varied Deliverables

The company’s Carnegie-Mellon roots show, as 12 of its 15 employees are engineers. And it got a leg up through the city’s AlphaLab Gear incubator. A new round of funding this spring gives his firm a chance to expand marketing and hire more developers, as the apps move beyond aerial imagery. Inquiries have come from far afield, including a marijuana farmer wanting to protect his assets in Colorado and a shipping company that ships around the horn of Africa and wants to protect its assets from piracy.

“The software has developed to where now the deliverables are so much more comprehensive than just pictures,” Black explains, including volumetric measurements of mining stockpiles and landfills. The technology will also find application for long-term construction projects such as airports. Black says Identified Technologies’ niche is fixed-asset, longer-term projects, with billing ranging from $3,000 to $9,000 a month, depending on data requirements.

Construction is a big part of the company’s flight path. Black notes a recent meeting with a construction firm with more than 5,000 sites globally.

“They want the data, they don’t want the drones,” he says. “We couldn’t send out pilots to all 5,000 sites. So we had to get to this autonomous solution.”

The next challenge is developing batteries that last a couple hours instead of 10 minutes. As drone apps continue to queue on the FAA runway and drones evolve from GPS-based navigation to sense-and-avoid systems, Black sees them being used more frequently in dangerous situations such as underground mine integrity or burning buildings. But he also sees them becoming more ubiquitous in real estate.

“Within the year, as the FAA progresses, I would venture to guess you’d see most project managers having one of these systems in the back of their work trucks,” he says.

Adam Bruns
Editor in Chief of Site Selection magazine

Adam Bruns

Adam Bruns is editor in chief and head of publications for Site Selection, and before that has served as managing editor beginning in February 2002. In the course of reporting hundreds of stories for Site Selection, Adam has visited companies and communities around the globe. A St. Louis native who grew up in the Kansas City suburbs, Adam is a 1986 alumnus of Knox College, and resided in Chicago; Midcoast Maine; Savannah, Georgia; and Lexington, Kentucky, before settling in the Greater Atlanta community of Peachtree Corners, where he lives with his wife and daughter.


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