The top reason people are using drones in 2023 (it’s not photography)

If you asked the general public for the top ways people used drones in 2023, they might say photography or delivery. But it turns out, that’s hardly the case. The top reason people are using drones in 2023 is for mapping and surveying.

That’s according to the 2023 Global Drone Industry Survey, which was released in August 2023 by Drone Industry Insights (DII), based on online survey responses from 1,113 drone industry participants across 85 countries. (You can download the full white paper from DII here).

The survey found that the rate of people using drones in 2023 for mapping  and surveying projects claimed a 37% share among Business-Internal-Service (BIS) companies. It also claimed a 33% share among Drone Service Providers (DSPs).

“This underscores the precision and efficiency of drones in capturing geospatial data, benefiting industries such as construction, mining, and agriculture,” according to DII’s report.

Graphic courtesy of Drone Industry Insights

DII’s breakdown separates BIS companies (which are companies that use drones for  internal operations and do not provide services to external clients) versus DSPs (which provide drone services to other businesses (e.g. a drone company using drones to collect data on behalf of a large energy or construction company). 

But whether considered a BIS or a DSP, a plurality of drone companies are using drones to gather data — rather than to take pictures or deliver things. That’s not to say photography is a small market, by any means. In fact, the use of drones for photography and filming accounted for 31% of BIS use cases and 27% of DSP use cases.

Just last year, using drones for photography and filming was in fact the top application for drones, according to the 2022 version of DII’s survey.

According to DII’s analysis, the shift “suggests a growing inclination among drone operators to undertake more specialized and professional tasks.”

Among the most notable drop-offs in rate of use cases this year is inspections, with just 16% of BIS companies and 25% of DSPs primarily using drones for inspections. Just two years ago, a massive 49% of BIS companies and 35% of DSPs primarily were using drones for inspections, as was documented in DII’s Drone Industry Barometer 2021. That’s not to say there are fewer drone companies using drones for inspections (after all, the commercial drone market is growing), but rather that an increasingly high rate of companies are now using drones for mapping and surveying.

Why are businesses using drones in 2023?

Most tasks conducted by drones replicate tasks that had previously been done by a human, albeit mandating more work when executed by a human. Drones eliminate many challenges, which were illuminated by DII’s survey. That survey asked respondents to rate on a 1-5 scale (from not important to very important) about the four core reasons to adopt drone technology.

Graphic courtesy of Drone Industry Insights

The top rated reasons why companies use drones in terms of which got the most votes for “very important” were:

  • improving work safety (45%)
  • saving time (42%)
  • improving quality (41%)

While many tout the cost-saving benefits, it seems as though businesses don’t see that as a paramount to other reasons. “Saving time,” which was the other of the four options, only received 28% of the vote in terms of “very important.”

For what it’s worth, when combining everyone who rated reasons to some degree of important, you could argue that saving time is a key reason — since almost all operators (96%) consider this factor important, quite important or very important. And hey, time is very much money.

Why 2023 has been especially good for mapping and surveying

The Sony Airpeak S1 drone

Much of the progress around drones used for mapping and surveying has been simply due to improvements in terms of hardware.

For example, 2023 was a big year for the Sony Airpeak S1, built by Sony initially to carry its Alpha series of cameras. But while Sony initially envisioned its drone as appealing to high-level cinematographers, the drone has piqued the interests of the industrial side, so much that in April 2023 Sony launched some critical updates to its drone with the enterprise sector in mind. Most notably was the April 2023 addition of an RTK GNSS system for the Airpeak S1, given its drone the high-precision positioning capabilities that are critical for mapping missions. RTK, short for Real Time Kinematic, allows drones to achieve centimeter-level accuracy, which mapping applications demand since the drone cannot afford to be off by an inch or two in its waypoint.

A screengrab of AirData’s mission planning software.

Later in 2023, the Sony Airpeak S1 furthered its stance as a mapping drone powerhouse when Sony announced a partnership with AirData UAV, which builds drone data analytics and UAV fleet management software to support mission planning.

We also saw some unique hardware developments in 2023, such as the Bathydrone. That product is a combination of two words: Drone and Bathymetry, which is the science of underwater surveying and mapping. True to its name, the Bathydrone was designed to survey underwater.

How to get into drone mapping

If mapping is a big (and growing) area for drones, it’s almost certainly where the money’s at. So how does one get into the mapping side of drones?

On the low commitment end, you might enroll in Drone Launch Academy’s online mapping course for just $400. Dubbed “Drone Mapping And Modeling Fundamentals,” it teaches you how to collect and process data using easy-to-fly (and easy-to acquire) drones like a DJI Mavic 2 Pro or a DJI Phantom 4 Pro V2.0

From there, you’ll need to purchase drone mapping and modeling software. While some of these softwares can be expensive, many offer free versions with limited capabilities.

And of course, before you can fly drones commercially, you must also hold a Remote Pilot Certificate with a small UAS rating. In order to get that, you will need to pass an in-person written exam, which many people refer to as the “Part 107 test.” Most people learn the information they need to pass that test by enrolling in a Part 107 online test prep course.

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