Transitioning from defence contracts to commercial sales for unmanned air systems opens the door to a wide variety of new business models.

“In the commercial space, we’re not selling hours of Puma flight time,” says Steve Gitlin, AeroVironment vice-president, speaking at a Drone TechCon panel on 5 March. “We’re selling miles of pipeline analysis,” he adds

Companies such as AeroVironment, Prioria and – to a lesser extent – Aeryon are in the midst of refocusing on a commercial market for UAS that is expected to grow rapidly over the next five years.

By 2020, annual commercial UAS sales are projected to rise above $11.5 billion and for the first time exceed revenues from military contracts, says Frost & Sullivan analyst Michael Blades.

As a result, several longtime providers of systems and servies to militaries are seeking to adapt their business models to a commercial market with lower barriers to entry and a still-evolving understanding of customer expectations and regulatory limits.

In Alaska, AeroVironment has been flying the Puma for several commercial customers, monitoring pipelines and watching for polar bears.

That experience has produced different metrics than traditional aviation markets focused on cost per flight hour, he says.

Instead, a business case for the precision agriculture market could focus on the potential return on investment, Gitlin says.

“Dollars per flight hour becomes irrelevant,” he says. “Instead the question is, ‘what percentage yield improvement can you deliver for my farm.’”