Hardhats and AI: Startup Navigates 3D Aerial Images for Inspections

Childhood buddies from back in South Africa, Nicholas Pilkington, Jono Millin and Mike Winn went off together to a nearby college, teamed up on a handful of startups and kept a pact: work on drones once a week.

That dedication is paying off. Their drone startup, based in San Francisco, is picking up interest worldwide and has landed $35 million in Series D funding.

It all catalyzed in 2014, when the friends were accepted into the AngelPad accelerator program in Silicon Valley. They founded DroneDeploy there, enabling contractors to capture photos, maps, videos and high-fidelity panoramic images for remote inspections of job sites.

“We had this a-ha moment: Almost any industry can benefit from aerial imagery, so we set out to build the best drone software out there and make it easy for everyone,” said Pilkington, co-founder and CTO at DroneDeploy.

DroneDeploy’s AI software platform — it’s the navigational brains and eyes — is operating in more than 200 countries and handling more than 1 million flights a year.

Nailing Down Applications

DroneDeploy’s software has been adopted in construction, agriculture, forestry, search and rescue, inspection, conservation and mining.

In construction, DroneDeploy is used by one-quarter of the world’s 400 largest building contractors and six of the top 10 oil and gas companies, according to the company.

DroneDeploy was one of three startups that recently presented at an NVIDIA Inception Connect event held by Japanese insurer Sompo Holdings. For good reason: Startups are helping insurance and reinsurance firms become more competitive by analyzing portfolio risks with AI.

The NVIDIA Inception program nurtures startups with access to GPU guidance, Deep Learning Institute courses, networking and marketing opportunities.

Navigating Drone Software

DroneDeploy offers features like fast setup of autonomous flights, photogrammetry to take physical measurements and APIs for drone data.

In addition to supporting industry-leading drones and hardware, DroneDeploy operates an app ecosystem for partners to build apps using its drone data platform. John Deere, for example, offers an app for customers to upload aerial drone maps of their fields to their John Deere account so that they can plan flights based on the field data.

Split-second photogrammetry and 360-degree images provided by DroneDeploy’s algorithms running on NVIDIA GPUs in the cloud help provide pioneering mapping and visibility.

AI on Safety, Cost and Time

Drones used in high places instead of people can aid in safety. The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration last year reported that 22 people were killed in roofing-related accidents in the U.S.

Inspecting roofs and solar panels with drone technology can improve that safety record. It can also save on cost: The traditional alternative to having people on rooftops to perform these inspections is using helicopters.

Customers of the DroneDeploy platform can follow a quickly created map to carry out a sequence of inspections with guidance from cameras fed into image recognition algorithms.

Using drones, customers can speed up inspections by 80 percent, according to the company.  

“In areas like oil, gas and energy, it’s about zero-downtime inspections of facilities for operations and safety, which is a huge value driver for these customers,” said Pilkington.

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