With drone technology having advanced to the point of offering an attractive alternative to human labour in industries ranging from defence to wedding photography, property management markets around the globe are bracing for impact.
But between government crackdowns and hidden costs, property management companies wishing to replace their human employees with robots have their work cut out for them. Let’s investigate the pros and cons of the drone use in this report.
What are drones?
The term “drone” is a catchall buzzword for most types of aircraft that can be piloted remotely. Drones are broadly categorized* on the basis of their standard usage, control methods and physical characteristics.
Once entirely within the domain of the defence industry, drones have cropped up in recent years as popular and affordable tools for personal, commercial and public use. They have been used to film viral videos, conduct agricultural surveillance, deliver everything from household goods to emergency supplies, perform facility inspections and for a boundless array of other purposes.
PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) analysed the potential benefits of increasing drone usage for commercial purposes across a range of industries. The table below contains a summary of the results.
Value of businesses and types of labour that could be replaced by drones, billions USD
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Among the key beneficiaries of drone use are: public agencies managing land cadastres and real estate agencies collecting private data with the aim of maintaining up-to-date records on property values, geographical information system (GIS) and remote sensing-software firms – and their clients – who are actively searching for and developing new methods and applications for gathering and processing accurate and multidimensional geospatial data, and anyone using web or mobile-based map applications.
Drones: the emerging darling of the property management industry
Drones carry a broad range of benefits that cater to the unique needs of property management companies and agencies.
They can capture high quality images and collect data in various visual formats, enabling industry actors to ensure the safety of their employees while also increasing profits by virtue of heightened efficiency and decreased labour costs.
Drones can be used to survey sites and monitor the status and progress of development and redevelopment projects. They can be used to collect data or for the inspection and assessment of risks associated with such projects during demolition, clean-up and construction processes. They can be deployed for maintenance inspections. Capable of taking high-resolution video and photos from challenging angles, drones can also be used for marketing purposes.
Drone technology has already begun to make its mark in some corners of the property management industry.
For example, companies involved in warehouse and supply-chain management must look after the security and integrity of their facilities and operations while maximising efficiency.
Companies employing drones for inventory management also enjoy time and cost savings with respect to stocktaking and related tasks; moreover, drone usage reduces health and safety risks to personnel working in warehouses and other such facilities.
PwC is laying the groundwork for employing an entire fleet of drones for various purposes ranging from construction monitoring to actuarial analysis and beyond.
Companies working in the agricultural, forestry and extractive industries can make ample use of drones for data collection, surveying, mapping and analytical purposes. Among the earliest non-military applications of drone technology was Japan’s widespread deployment of the Yamaha R-50 (now RMAX) crop-dusting helicopter drones, the initial R&D for which began as early as 1983 and the application of which took flight in 1991. Alterations to the remote control system in the mid-1990s allowed for rapid training and usage. Today, Yamaha RMAX has a 77% market share in Japan and sprays about 40% of Japan’s rice crop; about 7,500 such drones service hundreds of thousands of hectares worldwide.
Since then, drone technology has developed rapidly with respect to the research, monitoring and analysis of land and natural resources.
Meanwhile, countless other areas of the property management industry are ripe for development with respect to drone technology.
Consider for instance major pieces of infrastructure: cell and radio towers, roads, bridges, dams, power grids, wind turbines, solar panels, etc. Firms and public bodies that are responsible for the routine inspections of such objects could replace human inspectors and data collectors with drones, thereby slashing labour costs.
In the past, property inspectors were required to clamber up radio and TV towers or hang precariously from the undersides of bridges. Drones can now be used as a seamless alternative to human inspectors in most such cases.
In addition to protecting human safety, drones could prove to be an incredible bargain for property management companies in terms of both time and money.
For American and European departments and ministries of transportation, time-cost savings could ultimately prove a major boon in facilitating the inspections of between tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands of bridges each year. A Cushman & Wakefield report states that drones could slice inspection labour costs in half.
But while personal and commercial drones have been broadly haled as the harbingers of a new era of data collection, monitoring, inspection and analysis, this infant industry faces no shortage of obstacles and limitations.
One key limitation is that of the creation of new costs for companies and agencies seeking to replace human labour with drone technology.
While inspectors may no longer have to do the grunt work involved in physically observing properties and infrastructural objects, someone still has to view and analyse the drone footage.
Likewise, drones have not yet advanced to the point of being a viable replacement for humans with respect to the performance of safety and stress tests, chemical tests, repairs and installations, and a broad range of other property management activities.
Flying in increasingly regulated skies
With the popularity of drones surging, governments around the globe have moved swiftly to impose regulations on the emerging industry.
These efforts have been punctuated by several high-profile events, including the accidental crash of a drone into a British Airways jet en route from Geneva to London this past April. Fortunately, this particular incident did not have an adverse impact on the security of the passenger plane. It did, however, set policymakers scrambling to regulate drone usage.
The summer months of 2016 saw increased drone regulation by the U.S. government.
In June 2016, recognising that the drone industry could usher in some USD 82 billion in revenues and create more than 100,000 jobs over the course of the next decade, the Department of Transportation’s Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) finalised the United States’ first set of federal operational rules with respect to commercial drone usage. The stated aim of these rules was to spur further industry growth while also establishing restraints geared toward promoting safe drone usage and minimising risks to other aircraft and people on the ground.
Among other things, the FAA rules stipulate that drones used for commercial purposes can fly only during daylight hours and require drone pilots either to obtain remote piloting certifications or to pilot drones under the direct supervision of a certified drone pilot.
Regulatory issues that aren’t covered by the FAA rules – such as those pertaining to privacy, intellectual property and general data-collection ethics – fall under the jurisdictions of state-level policymakers.
Authorities around the globe have also moved to regulate this blossoming industry, according to The Occupier Edge, a report issued by Cushman & Wakefield.
The UK’s Civil Aviation Authority requires drone pilots to obtain licences, and imposes strict rules with respect to flying in and near population zones.
The European Aviation Safety Agency is in the process of developing EU-wide regulations. Meanwhile, each member state has its own body of rules regarding the use of drones.
Japan bars drone flight over roads or urban areas, though it does not require operators to obtain licences.
Weighing the costs and benefits of drone usage in the property management industry
Logistical and regulatory limitations aside, the property management industry has a great deal to gain from the increased use of drone technology.
Companies and agencies using drone technology can offset the costs associated with drone usage.
They can use drones to quickly and cheaply shoot high-resolution photographs and film footage for use in marketing campaigns that in the past would have been costly and inordinately difficult.
Properties can now be taken to market at a relatively high speed, and more extensive video and photo documentation provide for enhanced advertising efforts.
Drones make it possible for property management companies and agencies to increase transparency, enabling public and private stakeholders to actively monitor the status and progress of property development and redevelopment projects. This, in turn, could improve the effectiveness, efficiency and legitimacy of public development projects, as well as of initiatives directed by Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs).
Above all, drones can save lives by removing the need for civil servants and private contractors to expose themselves to high-risk inspections and other dangerous situations.
But before rushing to replace all of their human employees with robots, each property management company or agency would do well to weigh the specific costs and benefits of drone usage with respect to their own capacities and limitations, and the impact such limitations could have on their business, their clients and any other stakeholders.
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*The designations of the types of drones include but are not limited to the following: unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAV, or combat drone), unmanned-aircraft vehicle system (UAVS), remotely piloted aerial vehicle (RPAV), remotely piloted aircraft system (RPAS), radio-controlled aircraft, rotorcraft, multicopter and multirotor (with the “multi-“ category subdivided based on the number of rotors [e.g. quadcopter or quadrotor]). These terms also include model aircraft, which are typically not connoted by the term “drones” and are separately regulated.