The drones are officially taking over. Not content to cede the market for autonomous vehicles to Amazon and Google, Sony announced today that it is launching a joint venture to design and build drones for enterprise clients.
The new company, which will be called Aerosense, will focus on enterprise solutions using autonomous unmanned aerial vehicles for image capture combined with cloud-based data processing, according to a blog post by Sony Mobile.
The project is being led by Sony Mobile Communications, Sony’s mobile phone and device subsidiary, in collaboration with ZMP, another Japanese company focused on automotive and robotic design. Aerosense will be incorporated next month with 200 million yen ($1.6 million). Sony said it will be taking a controlling stake in the venture, with a 50.005 percent share.
Aerosense will leverage Sony’s camera, sensing, telecommunications network, and robotics technologies in combination with ZMP’s automated driving and robotics technologies. The new company will be tasked with developing drone platforms that meet the needs of enterprise clients, including measuring, surveying, observing, and inspecting. Sony said the new company aims to roll out these services for enterprise customers beginning in 2016.
“Sony Mobile is proactively engaging in new business creation initiatives, with a particular focus on the Internet of Things (IoT) sector,” the company said in its blog post. “This joint venture represents a part of this push into IoT, as Sony strives to provide its customers with additional value by developing and managing total package cloud solutions.”
Neither Sony nor ZMP has ever worked extensively in drone vehicles. ZMP has focused primarily on robotics, in particular automated driving technology. Nevertheless, the same technology behind the company’s autonomous driving solutions could be put to use in Aerosense’s flying drones. Like Sony and ZMP, Aerosense will be headquartered in Japan.
Money in the Cloud
Sony didn't specify exactly what sort of solutions enterprises are hoping for from unmanned aerial vehicles, other than saying the drones will meet customers' needs for measurement and observation.
Meanwhile, earlier this year online retailer Amazon announced that it was working on a drone vehicle capable of delivering products directly to customers, and has already received FAA approval to launch test flights. Google also started working on its own drone delivery system last year.
We spoke with Dan Kara, practice director of robotics, automation, and intelligent systems at ABI Research, about Sony's new venture. Kara told us enterprise UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) applications represent the largest potential market for drone makers.
Companies in the infrastructure, mining, agriculture, and oil and gas industries are investing heavily in automation to improve their operating margins, he said. For Sony, the biggest appeal is likely to be in providing the cloud data services enterprises will need to analyze and manipulate the terabytes of data the drones will be providing.
“The money isn’t in the airframes,” Kara said. “That’s a race to the bottom. These systems are becoming less expensive. The money is in the data side.” Commercial data demands are likely to skyrocket as drones start producing massive amounts of new types of data, including streaming video, thermal, 3D mapping, and LIDAR (light detection and ranging) imagery. “These new capabilities give them insights into their business they couldn’t get before,” Kara said.