Intel Corp. drones played starring roles at the 2018 Winter Olympics, the music and arts festival Coachella and danced above the Bellagio Hotel’s fountains in Las Vegas.
But while those stunts, involving hundreds of Shooting Star drones that create a light show in a modern twist on fireworks, are great PR, what’s going on behind the scenes is much more valuable to Intel. New software the company is rolling out for more utilitarian unmanned aerial vehicles may play a more lasting role in its attempts to spread the reach of its chips.
Chief executive officer Brian Krzanich is fashioning Intel as a ‘data-centric’ company to stress its determination to rely less on a personal computer market that hasn’t grown for six years. Intel’s leader said he’s determined that Intel’s technology will be central to whatever new market emerges for data processing.
The latest effort is Intel’s Falcon 8+ aircraft, designed for less-glamorous roles at oil refineries, over farmers’ fields and on building sites. Software packaged with the drone can help businesses map out pre-planned flights using simple overlays on satellite imagery. That advantage can, for instance, allow a company to see how construction is developing or crops are faring over time. Intel will also soon unveil a new suite of software that would enable drone-gathered data to be stored, processed and used by a whole range of industries.
For Intel, that data is the key. The Falcon 8+ is armed with either a high-end digital camera or array of sensors, and generates a massive amount of information very quickly. A 15-minute flight taking high-resolution pictures -- possibly combined with thermal-image information -- can generate more than 10 gigabytes of data. Taking that and turning it into something useful, such as a three-dimensional map, can take a high-end computer a couple of days of work. That’s the kind of new industry that Intel -- the world’s largest maker of computer processors with a growing sideline in memory chips -- wants to see flourish.
The Falcon 8+ uses eight rotors mounted on a ‘Y-shaped carbon-fiber frame. Its unusual shape gives it the ability to do tricky work, like viewing the underside of bridges -- a task Intel says other drones struggle to do. For $30,000 to $40,000, depending on options, purchasers also get hot-swappable batteries and a controller that looks like it was wrenched straight out of a light-aircraft’s cockpit.
Even if a pilot switches off one or more of the Falcon’s rotors or adds weight to its frame, the drone will show off its onboard smarts by immediately righting itself to fly level. Using its sensor package, Falcon can spot obstacles, record where they are in its memory and then stubbornly refuse to fly into them even when told to do so.
The data transformation that’s possible with the drone is the most intriguing aspect of the device, said Anil Nanduri, who heads up Intel’s drone efforts. “It’s done manually today with humans in the loop. If you really want to get cheaper, more efficient and faster you use automation and computing. The drone is a tool to capture this data.”
To support his goal, Nanduri’s group is introducing a new software and service package that will allow data generated by Intel’s drones to be rapidly processed into usable reports and three-dimensional models.
Drones are already big business. They’re used in industries from agriculture to architecture, construction and engineering as well as emergency services and even deliveries. Last year the industry totaled about $2.2 billion in sales worldwide. By 2025 total revenue will increase to $51 billion, according to ABI Research. Commercial-use drone shipments will top 1 million units by 2027, up from 67,000 last year.
Intel’s progress will be determined by how successful it is at luring away customers from market leader SZ DJI Technology Co., whose drones are increasingly being paired with custom software offered by a number of startups for commercial use, according to ABI researcher Rian Whitton. One of the few companies offering something similar to Intel -- a custom drone, flight planning and data processing software -- is Menlo Park, California-based Kespry Inc.
For Intel to carve out a slice of that and provoke the kind of data generation that will create more work for the server and storage chips it sells, its software will have to deliver the kind of ease of use and practicality the company is promising.
The key will be in providing tangible results faster and cheaper than the work is done currently. Intel highlights oil refinery inspection as an example. Checking a flare stack, which is used to burn off unusable gases, requires a shut down so that it will cool enough for someone to climb up and look for cracks. A drone can be used without that expensive halt in production and can see more, via thermal imaging, than a human can.
Programming a precise flight path also makes drones capable of repeating the exact same data gathering trips to allow for comparisons later, to see how quickly a pipe on the roof of a building is rusting, for example, or how quickly crops are growing.
© 2018 Bloomberg L.P