the potential of drones in strategic innovation

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Could drone technology enable your organisation’s strategic innovation?

July 9, 2018


The business world is changing fast and in unpredictable ways. For this reason, strategic innovation – which refers to developing radically new business models– drives the success of most companies and is vital to adapting to this ever-changing reality. Perhaps surprisingly, one way we can revisit traditional business models is by exploring the strategic innovation potential of drones.

Drones are defined as any unmanned aerial systems (UAS), and despite often being thought of as a modern-day invention, they are not new and have been around since the First World War in the form of military drones. Drones offer huge untapped potential, with an increasing number of companies putting them to work, from tech giants and news organisations to manufacturers and utilities.

Thanks to them, companies can not only design innovative value propositions (referring to “what is offered to whom”), but also radically modify the way they operate (“how they organise their internal and external value chain”). However, not every market offers equal opportunities for growth.

Real-world application

Focusing on airborne drones, the improvements in the software and management continues to increase rapidly, making them easier to use and more autonomous in many functions, such as collision avoidance, data collection and pre-programmed flight routing, for example. This, combined with decreased costs and increased functions and features, sets up the possibility for new value propositions.

Consider the typical farming requirement of spraying a field. Drones provide a cheaper and more accurate method of spray application (in comparison to using helicopters and crop spray aircrafts). Farming applications are easy to understand, as is photography and videography. But what about industrial and other use cases?

From transport to warning systems

Take transport as an example. Deliveries are being trialled and in some instances used to deliver medicines in remote locations. Transport of people is being developed in Dubai and other regions and could be operational in under five years. The US military is also working on drones to evacuate wounded soldiers out of the battle zone.

Apart from the ability to place or move a remotely piloted vehicle on a predetermined course, there is also the increased level of granularity of data that is being obtained. Perhaps the most important innovation is in the software, which can now create 3D images, count things (cattle, plants, warehouse stock (RFID)), recognise plant diseases, estimate ore quantities, spot sharks and deploy flotation devices in bathing areas, etc.

Another application being trialled is firefighting, where a drone carries a hose (higher than existing ladders) which is directed onto a fire. The power for the drone can also be supplied via a cable attached to the hose, reducing the battery weight and increasing the flying time.

There have also been false starts where drones have been seen as the ultimate solution. However, the limitations in airtime, the noise or visibility and weather dependencies can reduce effectiveness. An example is rare species protection: drones were trialled in South Africa as the ultimate solution for rhino protection and, whilst useful as a deterrent, have been superseded or supplemented by more appropriate technology (i.e. the Internet of Things).

Not included in the business applications is the entertainment aspect drones can provide. Drone racing has taken off, with different classes of drones competing for big prize money. There are even drone fights being staged for entertainment.

Are drones really a viable option?

In many countries, the regulations around drones can be seen as a stumbling block. However, in most cases, there are accredited pilot training courses and there are defined processes to register commercial drones and obtain operational certificates when needed.

Overall, drone-enabled strategic innovation continues rapidly, with new versions able to land on water and film underwater, and more recently a drone can even operate both in the air and underwater. Whilst not the right tool for every problem, drones do offer niche opportunities to create efficiencies, reduce costs and even change business models and are worthy of consideration for your organisation’s strategic innovation.


Lloyd Chisholm is an independent consultant, based in South Africa, working on Gartner assignments.
Dr Elisabeth Lefranc is the founder of Management Innovation Learning, a consulting firm specialised in Stakeholder Experience Management and Digital Transformation.

Bertrand Moingeon is a professor of Strategic Management at HEC Paris and director of the HEC Europe Institute. With a Ph.D. in Sociology, he is a consultant on strategic innovation and change management, and has written several books on these subjects. 

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