The popularity of unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, is skyrocketing. But it’s not because drones are fun to use. It is because their commercial uses are growing across a multitude of industries.

It is estimated that 3 million drones will be shipped worldwide in 2017, which is 39 percent more than the total in 2016. The $6 billion global 2017 market is expected to grow to $11.2 billion by 2020.

While “personal” drones for entertainment and hobbyist use constitute a significant percentage of the sales, the development of software and advanced vehicles are adapting drones for use in a variety of fields, including many of Kern County’s most critical industries, such as agriculture, energy production, transportation, land-use development and marketing.

And that is why Troy Hightower, a Bakersfield computer consultant, has included drone aerial photography and site surveys in his company’s list of services, which also includes geographic information systems, 3-D visualization, remote sensing and simulation, energy management systems, and land-use and transportation modeling.

Hightower, the owner of TDH Associates International, has turned to the Small Business Development Center at California State University, Bakersfield, for business and marketing advice. The center’s consultants are helping Hightower embrace the new and quickly evolving UAV technology to better meet the needs of his company’s clients.

With the use of drones — in conjunction with thermal imaging — in farming still evolving, the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International predicts agriculture eventually will constitute a significant percentage of commercial demand for unmanned aerials vehicles, Hightower noted.

“As resources, such as cultivated land, water and labor, continue to decrease and the regulation of agricultural activities, such as chemical application, continue to increase, farming is becoming a ‘precision’ industry,” Hightower said. “Drones may be able to provide ‘precision’ in the most cost-effective and efficient way.

“With drones, farmers do not have to walk every inch of their fields; they can better monitor crop health and soil conditions from the air with sensitive aerial imaging; they can more easily track herds; they can monitor fields for crop patterns and efficient water use.

“But commercial drone systems that can perform ‘precision farming’ functions can be expensive to purchase. And regulations that require drone operators to be trained and licensed by the FAA often prompt farmers to hire contractors, such as TDH Associations International, to more cost effectively perform these high-tech strategies.”

Hightower brings to TDH Associates International years of computer and GIS experience in private enterprise, as well as in the public sector. He has developed a unique drone and GIS system, which he calls REGIS, that not only takes aerial photographs, but provides such information as coordinates that help customers identify the location of photographed sites.

Before joining the Kern Council of Governments as a regional planner in 2006, he served as the GIS coordinator for California State University, Bakersfield. During this time, he also developed TDH Associates International as a part-time consulting business.

A licensed pilot who holds advanced degrees, Hightower retired from Kern COG in 2015 to bring his consulting business full time.

“As these new technologies are being developed, this is a very exciting time to apply them to an increasingly wide range of industries,” Hightower said.

SBDC consultants are helping Hightower transition his part-time business, which he established in 1986, into a full-time business. Consultants are advising Hightower in developing a business strategy, as well as a marketing plan.

TDH Associates International faces multiple challenges associated with keeping abreast of rapidly developing technologies, equipment and regulations. But the opportunities for both Hightower and his clients appear to be unlimited.

The Small Business Development Center at CSUB is one of five service centers within the University of California, Merced SBDC Regional Network, which is a partnership between the university and the U.S. Small Business Administration.

The center at CSUB assists entrepreneurs and small-business owners in Kern, Inyo and Mono counties by providing free one-on-one consulting, small-business training and research. For more information, go to csub.edu/sbdc.

– Kelly Bearden is the director of the Small Business Development Center at Cal State Bakersfield.

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