Drones move from trendy to business tool as companies find new uses for them

Nov. 8, 2018

By Rob Swenson, for SiouxFalls.Business

Once a month, Concrete Materials flies a drone over stockpiles of rock, sand or gravel in the Sioux Falls area to measure the company’s inventory of construction supplies. Photographs taken with a camera on the unmanned aircraft system are converted to computer-generated 3-D renderings and combined with density data to determine how many tons are in each pile.

Concrete Materials has been using a drone to measure inventory for about three years. Before that, employees would have to walk around about 20 scattered piles of construction materials and estimate product volumes. Using a drone has the added benefit of providing information at an accuracy rate within 3 percent, said Jayson Drake, IT manager for Concrete Materials.

The company’s DJI Phantom also can be used to inspect mines to reduce risk to employees, Drake said. But measuring stockpiles is its primarily use.

“It’s been a great tool for us. It’s a time-saver and money-saver,” Drake said. “It’s a tremendous way to use technology to benefit the company.”

Concrete Materials was acquired recently by MDU Resources of North Dakota and will become part of Knife River Corp., a subsidiary that supplies construction materials. Construction businesses are among the most common users of drones, a technology that has enjoyed a lot of national buzz the past few years.

Although drone use in the Sioux Falls area has settled into a lower-key phase of growth, commercial drone use continues to create news nationally.

Uber Technologies Inc., for example, recently gained attention after reports that the company wants to deploy a fleet of food-delivery drones within the next few years. Amazon also has talked ambitiously about using drones to deliver products.

Meanwhile, Minneapolis-based Xcel Energy, which serves Sioux Falls, announced recently that under a waiver from the Federal Aviation Administration, it has become the first U.S. utility to operate drones beyond standard, line-of-sight flight requirements. The drones were used to inspect transmission lines near Denver.

Locally, the use of drones by businesses is increasing at a less dramatic pace but use continues to slowly expand, according to Tom Simmons and Mike Klarenbeek, who are unmanned aircraft specialists at Aerial Horizons.

Simmons and Klarenbeek are local pioneers in commercial drone use. They have been in business for more than two years. Their shop sells aircraft, flight services and training. Serving the public safety sector has become a major focus of their efforts.

“I’ve done a lot of things in my life, but this is the most fun I’ve ever had,” said Simmons, who used to work as a commercial real estate broker. “Every day is an adventure.”

Factors such as budget concerns, flight regulations and company traditions are among the concerns that some businesses have to overcome to try using drones, Simmons said. “Like any new technology, it has to prove itself,” he said.

The owners of Aerial Horizons apparently are confident in the technology’s future. Aerial Horizons was acquired in July by Frontier Precision, a company based in Bismarck, N.D., that has branches in nine states. Frontier provides services in areas such as surveying, mapping, engineering and construction. Aerial Horizons will serve as the company’s commercial drone services division.

“We’re going to be expanding the products and services we’re offering in Sioux Falls,” Simmons said.

As part of its expansion, Aerial Horizons expects to move in mid- to late November from its leased building at 1801 S. Walts Ave. to a bigger building near 41st Street and West Avenue. The new location is in the process of being purchased.

Some businesses and agencies prefer to contract for drone services through companies such as Aerial Horizons rather than maintain their own aircraft and staff of licensed pilots.

Journey Construction occasionally hires out for drone services, said Jay Rasmussen, vice president of Journey Group Cos. Sometimes the need for drones is for marketing purposes such as producing photographs or video, and sometimes it’s for operational work such as surveying or site reviews.

Options for drone services have been increasing, Rasmussen and others said.

Among the newest businesses trying to get established in the field in Sioux Falls is DroneWise LLC, which was started last spring by Nathan Hofflander, a computer science teacher and flight club adviser at Roosevelt High School. He uses drones in his classroom teaching.

For his side business, he has two other licensed drone pilots to call on to work on projects.

Hofflander has done commercial work in Montana, where his family visits, as well as in the Sioux Falls area. He has done projects for real estate, roofing and agricultural businesses. High-end real estate is his target market. He envisions outsourcing the interior photo work and providing a full range of imaging services.

“I think eventually we’ll see a lot of businesses starting their own drone departments,” Hofflander said. “More and more people are seeing the benefits of using drones.”

Marketing businesses in Sioux Falls such as Click Rain are among the companies that already have incorporated drones into their operations. The marketing technology agency primarily uses drones to shoot videos for the company’s clients, said Jesse Brauning, a video production strategist.

Click Rain doesn’t really hire itself out as a provider of drone services, Brauning said. Using drones is mostly a service for customers. Sometimes, for example, the best way for a client to show off a property is from the air, he said.

“Having drones is one more tool in our toolbox. It provides us perspectives we wouldn’t have otherwise,” Brauning said.

He agrees that drone use has largely passed through the “trendy new thing” phase of development and is settling into a niche.

“I would say the big boom, the virality of it, did come and go, probably three or four years ago. Now what I’m seeing is people who need them have one or two and bring them out when they’re needed,” Brauning said.

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Drones move from trendy to business tool as companies find new uses for them

“I think eventually we’ll see a lot of businesses starting their own drone departments.” While that might be the future, plenty of businesses are finding ways in the present to take advantage of drone technology. Here’s a look.

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