On a mild yet windy day on the Colorado plains last week, China-based drone manufacturer DJI (Dà-Jiang Innovations Science and Technology Co.) hosted an event to show off the potential benefits of its technology to industries including construction, inspection and emergency response.
The event took place in an unexpected location: the sprawling flatlands of Elbert County Fairgrounds in Kiowa — located approximately 50 miles northeast of Colorado Springs — where DJI representatives and other organizers had ample space, no flight restrictions and structures on which to demonstrate the capabilities of their new line of aircraft.
“It’s difficult to find places that fit all of those criteria,” said Adam Lisberg, DJI’s corporate communication director for North America. “So that’s why we’re here!”
During the event, DJI employees spoke about and demonstrated how drone technology can be used as a safer and more efficient means to perform tasks related to inspections, emergency response, research and surveying. Pilots from DJI corporate — as well as one from the DJI Colorado retail store in nearby Lone Tree — flew mock operations near a cellphone tower and a large industrial building to illustrate drone capabilities.
Although Lisberg said he would have preferred to host the event closer to Denver, its remote placement didn’t detract dozens of attendees from making the drive — or the flight — to attend one leg of a three-part U.S. roadshow in which the tech company previewed its new Matrice 200 series of aircraft. The company’s new line is designed with industry application in mind, and was created for use in a wide variety of operations: to carry payloads and glean information in search and rescue missions, to survey for new construction and other land uses, and to inspect wind turbines, power lines or the undersides of bridges.
“This was created with your needs in mind — with the help of your feedback,” Matt Isenbarger, enterprise sales manager for DJI in North America, told the crowd.
Isenbarger, a former U.S. Air Force Academy cadet who works out of DJI’s California corporate office, said that the company began focusing on the “enterprise market” five years ago due to feedback from a variety of industries looking to use drones in commercial applications.
In response, DJI began building the new product line with an array of customizable features, such as special safety and positioning sensors, advanced imaging systems and a new battery system that gives the drones more airtime. The Matrices are also heavily weatherproofed for extreme climates and include state-of-the-art safety and redundancy systems. But features that were of the most interest to the audience included the Matrice 200’s dual gimbals and top camera mount, which allow users to more effectively perform inspections for hard-to-reach places such as the undersides of bridges.
“These are tools that we are really excited about,” said David Siddle, senior account manager for Centennial-based CompassDrone.
Although drones remain most popular among the hobbyist and creative markets, including photographers and videographers, they are beginning to see commercial use in Colorado by companies specializing in inspection services, as well as municipal first responders such as the Boulder Fire Department.
Michael Rinow, owner/president of Colorado-based Inspection Specialties, said that his company began working with drones about a year ago after Loren Tangeman, a project manager for the company, took an interest and became a hobbyist pilot.
Since then, Tangeman and Rinow said that the company has been slowly integrating the technology’s use into their day-to-day operations.
“We’re still growing,” Tangeman said. “I think that, eventually, it will really pick up. But right now there isn’t as much demand for it as you might think.”
Rinow said that although his company works extensively in the Colorado Springs market — with work on hospital sites and city projects in Fountain — the drones currently offer the most benefit on the plains, where Inspection Specialties often works with large wind turbines in eastern Colorado.
“We’re still trying to determine how efficient drones are for various projects,” Rinow said. “We specialize in visual inspections, which are usually within arm’s reach … but some places are difficult to access.”
Rinow said that most of the time there is no significant impact made on manpower or finances, but it does make the company’s work much more efficient and safer for workers who would traditionally be putting themselves in risky situations.
“It definitely impacts time and safety,” he said. “It allows us to get in places that might otherwise be hard to access.”
Rinow said that the drones cut a three- or four-hour wind turbine inspection down to about 15 minutes, and keep climbers from having to risk their safety. Although some projects would require Rinow and his company to obtain special permissions to use the drones, he said most projects are rural and don’t require such permissions.
“We just flew [around] a bridge in Blackhawk and did some inspections with a drone — mapping it and doing a lot of different stuff — and it was lucrative,” Rinow said. “But for right now, it’s not enough of a deliverable product for us to sell. Right now it’s mostly just [research and development] — playing around with these things and seeing how they eventually might be able to help us. I think that will definitely happen.”
Tangeman said that he thinks the industrial drone market is ready to soar, thanks in part to a set of new comprehensive regulations the Federal Aviation Administration issued last year for “routine non-recreational use of small unmanned aircraft systems,” according to the FAA’s website.
The regulations were created to minimize the risks drones pose to other aircraft, as well as people and property, by requiring that non-recreational users pass an Aeronautical Knowledge Test and apply for an Airman Certificate via the FAA.