During the past few years, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have whirled, swirled, and darted onto the enterprise radar. Businesses are now using drones for a growing array of tasks and across a wide swath of industries, including agriculture, insurance, engineering, real estate, oil and gas, construction, tourism, and motion pictures.
Not surprisingly, the technology increasingly intersects with marketing.
"The UAV industry will be massive, and marketing will be a very important part of the picture," said Tony Carmean, co-founder and CMO at Aerial Mob, a UAV cinematography firm that has worked with American Express, Apple, Audi, Chrysler, Nike, Warner Brothers, and others.
Although, for now, drone technology remains in the nascent stage--final Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rules and regulations are slated for early 2016--these flying machines are already taking off in a major way. The FAA has granted more than 2,020 exemptions, and the figure is shooting upward by hundreds per month. In the marketing arena, these devices are being used on a regular basis to provide new and interesting perspectives in commercials and promotional videos, to generate photos and video for corporate annual reports or sustainability websites, and to collect data that can be used to drive more effective marketing campaigns. Market research firm Radiant Insights predicts that the overall global commercial drone market will exceed $2 billion by 2022.
Simply put, drone technology promises to revolutionize marketing.
"The possibilities are limited only by people's imaginations. CMOs should be using or considering drones now," said John Tidwell, founder of DronesX, an online publication and community devoted to the UAV industry and different uses of the technology.
When used for film or video, "Drones offer a different perspective that captures people's attention,” he told CMO.com. "They allow marketers to be more creative and innovative by capturing angles and shots that weren't previously practical--often at a much lower cost." But as drones mature and the Internet of Things takes hold, the technology also beckons with the promise of capturing and using data in entirely new ways.
However, all the potential gains aren't without some pain. "It's not the Wild West of drones anymore, but it's important to make sure you're doing things in a legal way, working with an FAA-accredited company and have insurance and other protections in place," said Lia Reich, senior director of marketing at PrecisionHawk, a leading manufacturer of drone hardware and software.
She told CMO.com that a drone crash could lead to property damage or injuries, negative publicity, a dinged brand, and, ultimately, fines and lawsuits. If the drone is being used illegally, the ramifications could be even more severe.
Drones Take Flight
Although the military and CIA have used drones for well over a decade, commercial use of the technology has accelerated over the past few years. Commercial drones, which come in an array of shapes, sizes, weights, and designs, are ready for prime time.
"We are now at the point where it isn't necessary to be unduly concerned about the operational hurdles. The technology is ready for mainstream use. It's more important to think about how UAVs can be used to enhance a business or a marketing initiative," said Mariah Scott, chief operating officer for Skyward, an integrated solutions provider for UAVs.
Within the marketing arena, cinematography and videography have emerged as the epicenter of drone use. For example, Aerial Mob has used UAVs to film a BMW "Astronaut" commercial that offers an unusual perspective of a vehicle as it races across the desert while a rocket ship takes off in the distance, and an innovative "Art of Padron Tequila" commercial that creates a bee's eye view that leads viewers through the entire story of harvesting agave and distilling it so that it's available in a bottle. The firm has also shot marketing video for the Kentucky Derby and Petco Park. The latter showcases the stadium in a thoroughly intriguing and unconventional way by hovering above seats and over the field.
The end result is often spectacular. "It's possible to get shots that were extremely difficult or impossible to capture in the past," Aerial Mob’s Carmean told CMO.com.
In many cases, it's not about replacing full-sized aircraft and helicopters--though drones can sometimes do that, too. Rather, it's about complementing existing tools by getting dolly, jib, crane, and rolling car shots, and having the visual perspective change throughout a sequence. With a drone, virtually any angle or view is possible. What's more, in the past, these types of shots could take hours or days to set up. Now it's possible to map out a shoot and film a sequence quickly and smoothly. The net result isn't only better photos and video, but often images and footage at a significantly lower price point.
Yet the possibilities don't stop there. Tourist resorts are now filming and showcasing properties by having drones cruise above beaches, through trees, and over beach bungalows (Bartell Hotels in San Diego has used drones to capture the feeling of its properties); real-estate firms are marketing high-end commercial and residential properties using video captured by UAVs; music festivals and major sporting events are using drones to capture performances and action in new ways; and oil and gas companies are collecting images of projects that showcase environmental stewardship or good corporate citizenship. Still, others, are using drones to pull banners. and some are looking into using drones to skywrite marketing messages.
The next phase of the technology will push into data collection, Scott said. UAVs will handle everything from mapping and geospatial data to collecting package delivery information and data reads from connected sensors and devices. This, in turn, will feed into business analytics systems that allow an organization to operate more efficiently while tapping the data for marketing and promotion.
For example, an agricultural company may want to measure a reduction in pesticide or fertilizer use by using data collected by a drone and using it to determine optimal application. In a connected world, drones, tractors, and IT systems are all tied together, and machine-learning adapts things dynamically. In addition, the data might appear at a website or become part of a video that appears at the corporate website or on YouTube. Some sports teams are already using drones to collect data, including UCLA football.
Drones also introduce far more sophisticated geofencing capabilities. "Today, geofencing is relatively static. You're really stuck in one place," DronesX’s Tidwell told CMO.com. "If you insert UAVs into the equation, you have the advantage of moving from one location to another or adapting to movement far more effectively."
In fact, drones could serve as a more sophisticated system that builds on today's Bluetooth beacons. "In commercial and retail areas, you can start to interact with smartphones in a more sophisticated way, including detecting how many phones are in use and how traffic flows," he added. This data could be pushed out to shop owners who could send out promotions or coupons in a more precise and targeted way.
The most point to think about, said Oren Schauble, vice president of marketing at drone manufacturer 3D Robotics, is that drones can either enhance an existing message or help fashion an entirely new message. "It's is an extremely compelling content creation tool,” he told CMO.com. “It changes the perspective on everything."
Schauble noted that the technology can be extremely flexible. 3D Robotics, for example, offers an open software development kit (SDK) that allows users to equip UAVs with different types of cameras, sensors and other accessories. "You can plug in hardware and custom cameras to raise creativity to a new level," he said.
Upward And Onward
Navigating this new world of drones requires CMOs to start with the question: "How can the use of drones, whether the result is video or data, help my brand?" Skyward’s Scott said. "One thing that's extremely important in today's market is to be seen as cutting edge and innovative. Today, visual storytelling is at the center of communicating how a company or brand is unique."
To be sure, showing off a product, service, or performance with new and different perspectives can help achieve that goal. The novelty of different camera angles and the ability to spin around an object or person can capture grab a viewer's attention and generate clicks online. Already, drones are in widespread use in Hollywood.
FAA regulations dictate the types of aerial vehicles that can be used, how they can be used, and where they can be used. In most cases, they cannot be flown over crowds of people. Scott pointed out that "huge safety considerations exist," and it's critical for firms to abide by all government guidelines. In 2014, an Australian triathlete was injured by a falling drone. In September 2015, an 11-month-old girl was injured when a privately owned drone crashed near her stroller in Pasadena, Calif. In fact, news stories chronical an ever-growing number of problems--from power line damage to near collisions with commercial aircraft, though most problems have occurred with hobbyists. But the FAA has proposed a fine of $1.9 million for one Chicago-based drone firm, SkyPan International Inc., for allegedly flying 65 unauthorized commercial flights over New York City and Chicago.
Ultimately, mapping out a strategy and putting drones in the air require CMOs to focus on a number of key issues: how to use the drone to achieve desired business results, what type of UAV works best in a particular situation, and how to equip or rig the drone with instruments and devices, depending on the desired results. "Almost any technology can be adapted for use on drone, as long as it can fit the weight requirements of the UAV," Schauble said.
At the same time, it's critical to find a good partner that can help navigate the UAV space, since most firms do not have the necessary technical or practical expertise. PrecisionHawk’s Reich said that it's not only paramount to find drone operators or production firms that have a strong grasp of the technology and the right equipment and tools to do the job, but also a thorough understanding of the business and legal framework. In fact, some law firms now have UAV experts on staff.
In the end, "You don't want to have anything reflect poorly on your company," she noted.
Make no mistake: Drones will transform almost every industry and business over the next decade and beyond. Marketing is at the center of this burgeoning technology revolution. Said Reich: "UAVs make virtually any shot possible and introduces new ways to collect and use data. Over the next few years, drone use will become widespread, similar to the way we now use mobile phones. As a result, it's important for business leaders, including CMOs, to monitor the technology and look for new and creative ways to put UAVs to use."
See what the Twitterverse is saying about drones: