​Why working with Intel is helping Delair's drones fly into new markets

French company Delair is shifting deeper into managing drones and the data they produce.

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Since Delair first launched in 2011, it has grown from a small drone startup into a global unmanned aircraft systems and asset-management company, with headquarters in Toulouse, France, and offices in Belgium, Singapore, and the US.

In June 2018, Delair was named one of the World Economic Forum's Technology Pioneers, a title given to a group of companies expected to have a significant impact on business and society.

It has also partnered with Intel on the Intel Insight Platform, a marketplace-style, cloud-based service where customers can store and analyze drone data, and for which it acquired funding from Intel Capital in September 2018.

The company also announced the acquisition of key assets from US drone company Airware as part of its expansion.

Founded by Michaël de Lagarde, Benjamin Michel, Benjamin Benharrosh, and Bastien Mancini, Delair was initially created to collect data in remote locations for the oil industry.

Having developed a drone measurement tool to fly over long distances, in 2012, the company's DT18 became the first unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAV, certified for beyond line of sight (BVLOS) in France.

CEO Michaël de Lagarde says they discovered two things during this time, which changed Delair's direction. One was that the drone could be used for many other tasks, such as inspecting power lines and railroads, which led to expansion into more vertical industries, including agriculture, railways, and oil and gas.

The other discovery was that the UAVs were ineffective on their own.

"Every flight will collect thousands of pictures, and there's absolutely no way you can browse through those large datasets with your bare eye," he tells ZDNet.

"You need to come up with automated data-processing solutions to extract the useful data out of the masses of data you collect."

SEE: The new commute: How driverless cars, hyperloop, and drones will change our travel plans (TechRepublic cover story) | download the PDF version

By 2013 Delair was looking at software solutions and worked with energy giants Enedis, EDF, and RTE on ways to process and extract information.

"Now we think those solutions are ready, mature, and we want to scale them up to make products," says Lagarde, adding that is one of the reasons they were able to start building the Intel Insight platform with Intel.

"The aim is to standardize those end-to-end solutions and broadcast them all over the world to the industrial customers we target."

One other development catalyzed Delair's vision for global reach and distribution: the 2016 acquisition of one of their competitors, Belgium-based Gatewing, from Trimble.

Suddenly Delair was a small commercial drone company with distribution in over 70 countries. "It was part of the deal that Trimble would introduce us to their distribution network," explains Lagarde.

As Gatewing was the first drone company addressing the geospatial market, Delair, which was more focused on agriculture and surveillance at the time, also seized the opportunity to expand in this new field.

Mike Blades, research director, North America, for business consulting firm Frost & Sullivan, says the acquisition of Trimble's drone business and a continuing partnership with that company, placed Delair "among the top companies that provide drone mapping and surveying, especially to enterprise customers that need RTK and PPK [positioning technology] sub-centimeter accuracy".

That year the company grew from 46 to 106 employees and increased revenue 242 percent to $7m. Two years later in 2018, 180 people are employed by Delair and the company has $9.8m in revenue.

"With their experience, technology offerings, and partnerships, especially with Intel, Delair is strategically positioned to be one of the winners in the commercial UAV market," Blades says.

Market competition includes Hexagon with its Aibot X6 and Leica Geosystems, Parrot/SenseFly and 3DR, as well as companies that make drone-agnostic mapping and surveying systems like Propeller and Aerotas. In terms of software, DroneDeploy, in partnership with Softbank, is probably the biggest competitor, says Blades.

Blades sees Delair as operating at the top of the market. "They have many years of drone manufacturing expertise, along with mapping and surveying technologies [via the Trimble purchase]," he says.

"Their software development for control of drones and data processing via the Intel Insight platform are really second to none."

From the UX11, with its bird-like take-off and landing, which can fly for an hour and cover 500 acres, to the DT18 AG, which will fly for two hours covering 20km, Delair has a diverse range of UAV products.

Yet Lagarde insists that Delair isn't a drone company. "Our business, if you wish, is not drones, it's asset management," he says. "Our customers don't care about UAVs, what they care about is their assets and they want to collect data to visualize their assets, so that's kind of the priority we have on that platform."

For example, by analyzing the data from a DT18 AG drone, an agricultural company can understand the health of every single plant in a field. Its MicaSense RedEdge Multispectral Camera creates an RGB composite with red, green and blue cameras to create vision like the human eye. It has five cameras in total, with red edge and near-infrared.

The UAVs operate with 4G connectivity, which broadens the way they can be used. Image-capture settings can be changed in real time to avoid the capture errors that historically would only be discovered afterwards.

Counting plants, bloom density, land improvements, crop traits, detecting chlorophyll levels to identify plant stress and where different levels of fertilizer should be used for the best yield results, agriculture companies can access high-level intelligence that will help them to manage their business.

Intel's president and general manager of the Drones Group, Anil Nanduri, says the tools available on the Intel Insight Platform help customers manage assets, reduce operational costs, and improve site management.

"Our goal is to help solve a major customer pain point, which is data management, specifically data captured by drones," he says.

The core value of the Intel Insight platform is what Lagarde describes as it being "asset-centric". Customers can, for example, create 2D and 3D models out of the data.

"It's a semantic approach to transform reality into a model. All the workflows are simplified so you can browse through that complicated data," says Lagarde, adding that using AI techniques means they're able to automate analysis.

delair-dt18-uav-for-agriculture-agriculture-forestries.jpg

By analyzing the data from a DT18 AG drone, an agricultural company can understand the health of every single plant in a field.

Image: Delair

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