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Drones vs Satellites

Ruth Oni

July 23, 2021

In recent times, drones have proven to be a reliable alternative when it comes to gathering information that would otherwise be provided by satellites in a faster and cheaper way. Typically, it’s really not a question of “either/or” when it comes to deciding whether it’s better to utilize drone or satellite data, because the platforms are gathering information in very different ways, at totally different scales. These distinctions have created completely different value propositions for each approach.

Ultimately, whether it makes sense to use one or the other or both is a question of the tasks that need to be performed and the specific data that needs to be obtained. There are instances when a drone just won’t do the job as well as a satellite, but there are also plenty of instances when it would be unnecessary to utilize a drone if satellite data is available. These distinctions have allowed experts to come up with some rules of thumb around where and when it makes sense to use one over, or in addition to, the other.

Satellites are most effective When A “macro” view of the terrain is needed while Drones are when a “micro” take of the land is apropos and scaling up doesn’t matter. Many drone advocates have talked about the issue the technology creates at scale, which is especially evident in agriculture. Someone who has 100 acres of a certain crop won’t necessarily be able to use a drone in the same way as someone who has 1,000 acres, even if it’s the exact same crop in the exact same climate. While others are confident that the technology will eventually be able to easily and effectively scale, it’s clearly not going to be a fit for everyone.

Satellites are also the reasonable choice when a large amount of data must be gathered quickly. However, satellites scale up well on farm surveying but don’t offer the kind of fine details that can be obtained with drones.

“With a satellite, the world is essentially your oyster. You can get data over large areas and also within controlled airspace. The disadvantage there may be the economics or the quality of the data itself,” according to Ian Smith, Host of Commercial Drones FM podcast, and Business Development Lead at DroneDeploy.

it makes sense to choose drones because regulations have opened up a new value proposition. Changes in drone tech, and the laws governing it, are expected to impact whether someone wants to use a drone or a satellite to do the job. And you can choose both in opportunities where a merging of these technologies are to the benefit of the consumer and the companies alike.

In the satellite vs. drone debate, using the drone to do more spot-checking, rather than gathering a huge glob of data, is probably the ideal use. Unfortunately, there are not many companies that make the use of satellite and drone imagery, together, economical or easy. In agriculture, for instance, it’s all about which is going to be more effective during a specific growing season— satellite imagery or drone imagery? The big win that’s coming is making use of the historical data from past growing seasons and using that to model predictive analytics. That kind of predictive analysis is key because the biggest improvements in remote sensing from satellites today surround the frequency in which data is being gathered. Companies like Planet are scanning the globe every day with their constellation of satellites, with various types of sensors. All of this data is going to become incredibly useful for trend analysis, prediction, and anomaly detection at a massive scale. The availability of this information will enable informed and powerful decisions. A wise opportunity to do so presents itself.

On the other hand, companies like Airbus Aerial are trying to merge their fleets of satellites with drone data to provide their clients with a holistic approach, tailored to their needs. This is a big opportunity and if it can be done effectively then there are big wins on the horizon for plenty of companies who are investigating these types of aerial data.

The role drones will play in aerial data acquisition ecosystems is something that’s currently being discussed, but it’s clear that certain problems are always going to require particular solutions. It’s all about the specific use case, but these technological developments have helped create powerful options and alternatives.

Every industry and company has a different set of goals that they need to accomplish—it takes a thoughtful examination of those goals and then the pairing of the best respective solution in order to make the most efficient decision in choosing data derived from a drone or a satellite.

The ability to use new tools and more specific data as necessary has gotten professionals to think about what kind of info they need for a given project in a totally new manner. Easy access to these tools and approaches has changed the value propositions for using one solution or another, but that change has also spurred efforts to consider where and how these approaches complement one another. One thing is clear—satellites will continue to impact drone technology innovations and vice versa.

It’s exciting to think about what it will mean to see a solution that can combine drone data with satellite imagery in a powerful way. Even after that sort of capability is developed, there will still undoubtedly be cases where it makes sense to use one approach over the other. Hopefully, though, more seamless integration of drone data with satellite data will help operators understand that their approach should focus on how these solutions can complement one another.

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