This article was originally published in the Portland Business Journal in slightly different form, as part of Skyward’s partnership with the Technology Association of Oregon.

As a former helicopter pilot in the U.S. Army and then for Life Flight based out of the Eugene Fire Department, nothing gets me more excited than aviation. And right now, there’s a lot to be excited about.

Here in the U.S., I’m confident that 2016 will go down in aviation and business history as the year drones became tools, not toys. The aerial robots have arrived—and they’re hard at work in ways that you may find surprising. And no, Amazon’s touted package delivery program isn’t among them (at least not yet).

Doing Business in the Sky

Nearly half a million recreational drone pilots have registered with the FAA, but what I find more interesting are the 5,000+ businesses that have been authorized to fly commercially in the U.S. These businesses, which range from startups to major corporations, are using aerial robots to do dull, dirty, and dangerous jobs, as well as to access critical information from the aerial perspective, which may have been out of reach to all but the largest corporations until very recently.  

I consider myself lucky because I have a front-row seat to all this innovation. The company I co-founded, Skyward, is an operations management platform for companies that use drones. I’m continually blown away by the work our customers are doing, in Oregon and around the world.

Drones Power Smarter Farming

OmniFox Aerial provide commercial drone operations for agriculture in Eastern Oregon
The OmniFox Aerial Team

Take farming, an industry as old as civilization. For several decades, farmers and agricultural researchers depended on airplanes to map and model crops, which was prohibitively expensive for most people. Here in Oregon, OmniFox Aerial is taking agricultural mapping and modeling to new heights and powering smarter, more efficient ways of growing food.

Safer, Faster Tower Inspections

When it comes to inspecting vertical structures—think cell towers and wind turbines—drones can do the job quickly. More importantly, they’ve made these essential jobs much safer for the humans involved.

Talon Aerolytics, a Georgia-based company that employs 90% veterans, uses drones to inspect thousands of cellular towers throughout the United States. They’ve achieved a pace that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago, reducing the total inspection time of a single tower from months to days.

A Reforestation Revolution

We Northwesterners love our forests. If you’ve ever worked on a planting crew, you know it involves backbreaking work and dozens of crew members, often in remote locations—an expensive process that hasn’t changed since the 1940s. But DroneSeed, also based in the Northwest, is using aerial robots to make reforesting ten times cheaper and exponentially more efficient.

Multiservice Drones

AirVu, Commercial Drone Operators in the Cayman Islands, provide a variety of drone services.
Image courtesy of AirVu

Some of the most experienced drone companies have avoided specializing. Instead, they’re serving customers with wide-ranging needs. AirVu, CloudD8TA, and DroneView Technologies all offer a diversity of services. This is not an understatement. We’re talking luxury real estate videography one day, an industrial inspection the next, and on-call assistance to firefighters and other first responders. Measure is pioneering the concept of “drones as a service” for companies that want to use drones, but don’t want to spin up their own in-house drone operation.

We’re also seeing existing businesses integrate drones into their business models to serve customers more efficiently. LIFT Technologies, a division of the construction giant Clayco, uses drones to inspect construction sites, wind turbines, and other applications. Keystone Aerial has been providing enterprise-grade professional imaging services for years using traditional airplanes, and they’re now employing drones in the fleet as well.

Oregon, Home of the Silicon Skies

In 2012, when my cofounders and I created Skyward, Oregon was the obvious choice for our HQ. Along with OmniFox Aerial and DroneSeed, Portland-based R&H Construction, one of the best-known commercial general contractors in the Northwest, is using drones in many creative ways. These include documenting project progress, site investigation, and a variety of marketing uses, including social media and proposals.

This isn’t a coincidence.

Oregon is uniquely positioned at the confluence of aviation and computer hardware—which is what an aerial robot is. Helicopter companies Erickson, Columbia Helicopters, and Helicopter Transport Services are all based in the Portland Metro Area. On the hardware side, we have Intel, whose CEO, Brian Krzanich, sits on the FAA’s Commercial Drone Alliance.  

To me, aerial robotics offer the greatest promise of both industries, so it makes sense that this climate would attract this new generation of drone pioneers.

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