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Drones and Parking A Match Made in Heaven

August 15, 2019

Chelsea Webster

The parking industry has been investing heavily in technology over the past decade. Improvements include License Plate Recognition cameras, parking guidance systems, LED lighting, multi-space pay stations, online portals, apps, and updating internal systems to harness all sorts of new possibilities. All of these come with a pretty substantial price tag.


Drones are available day or night, can eliminate putting people at risk on site, and give you unbiased photographic evidence. 


Not only have these investments meant a significant financial expense, they’ve come at a human cost, too. Training new staff and maintaining employee engagement has been tough, and we’ve seen a lot of turnover as a result. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, either. With turnover comes the next generation of young, fresh, ambitious parking professionals. Organizations need this demographic just as much as the seasoned parking veterans. A possible solution: Drones.


The Backstory 


Here is a brief overview of two key marketing concepts:


Product Life Cycle: The newer a product or technology is, the more expensive it is to make and to buy (on a per unit cost basis); as you increase sales, costs can be spread out over a larger number of customers and products, thus prices decline over time. TLDR: Wait to buy the iPhone 10 until the 11 is announced and save yourself $800. 


Technology Adoption Curve: People are essentially cautious and don’t want to go first. New products gain traction slowly, but once they do take off, competitors and imitators pop up left, right, and center. See the chart below for details on the phases of adoption. 


Let’s apply these concepts to parking and to drones. We’re in a place now where the availability and variety of technology for parking management is good – but still expensive. More and more institutions, municipalities, airports, etc., are adopting the curve, but it’s still in the early majority. Drones are a bit further along in their lifecycle and, not only has drone technology advanced, but they have also come down in price, thus saturating the market. Kids are asking for drones for their birthdays and Larry the Drone Guy is buying multiples. 


Drones are the next tech primed to hit the parking management industry. They are cheaper than almost any other tech you can buy ($2,000 will get you a nice one), they gather oodles of data, and anyone can easily learn to use them. Plus, they’re growing as a tool and as an industry – with a compound annual growth rate of 19 percent in the five years leading up to 2020. 


Drones also offer staff engagement. People love them. They’re giddy getting to buy them and learn to fly them. Drones get people’s creative juices flowing. It’s exciting, non-threatening, and entertaining. New pay machines and backend system upgrades aren’t giving you that kind of payoff, no matter how useful they are. 


The Use Cases


So now that we’re on the same page about drones being an important up-and-coming tool that the parking industry can access and benefit from, let’s look at how we can put the drones to work. 


Safety


Regular site inspections are good practice in the parking industry, looking for any hazards (ice, construction debris, fencing disrepair, potholes, etc.). This is ideally preventative, but sometimes when issues are reported after the fact, we need to do an inspection. 


With drones, getting to remote, dark, dangerous, or hard to access areas is easy. You fly in a camera and get pictures or a live feed of the site and can act based on that footage. Drones are available day or night, can eliminate putting people at risk on site, and give you unbiased photographic evidence. 


Other tools like infrared sensors or heat mapping cameras can be paired with drones to be used in the case of crimes, natural disasters, Amber Alerts, or other emergency situations to help locate people. 


Finally, drones can also be used to scare off birds and as a general animal deterrent. This keeps your properties safer for anyone using them. Drones can spot birds and animals as they approach and take actions like emitting a high-pitched noise – thus scaring off the animal and keeping your lot cleaner (less bird poop? Yes, please!) and safer. 


Enforcement


Yes, you can fly a drone around a parking lot and capture pictures of every license plate. If you also have License Plate Recognition (LPR) technology, you can upload the photos and determine which plates have paid and which ones haven’t. If you can do post-processing, you then mail out tickets. If not, you can decide if it’s worth dispatching an enforcement officer to issue tickets. For example, one ticket may not warrant staff time, whereas 20 tickets may. 


You can also use drones for other enforcement functions such as:


1- Locating property, such as a stolen vehicle. As a drone circles your parking facility, it scans the license plates and can make real time comparisons to stolen vehicle reports. If any matches occur, the drone sends you a real time alert. 


2- Crowd surveillance. If you’re hosting an event at a garage and want to ensure things go smoothly, use a drone to do regular (or constant) flyovers. If you have a facility that is prone to break ins, have your drone do regular patrols to monitor the activity in the area. 


3- Construction monitoring. New construction projects usually mean big dollars and lengthy time frames. Drones allow parking managers to monitor progress, check up on contractors and vendors, create visuals such as still photos, time-lapse or hyper-lapse photography, or capture specific moments on video. 


Occupancy & Usage Data


Drones are a great tool in surface lots or covered garages. If you own the property, a sign explaining drone monitoring typically gives you plenty of leeway to film at your discretion (you should look into the regulations in your state as there may be exceptions). 


Occupancy data is easy to collect by creating a pre-set route for your drone to fly and scheduling the intervals that best suit your project and accuracy needs. As the drone follows its route, you can either precisely count (or roughly estimate, your choice) the number of vehicles in the lot. This data can be seen as a specific moment in time, or as a pattern over time. 


Car counts at specific times or intervals are also possible thanks to aerial imaging. Having a drone fly over a lot and take a bird’s eye view picture will let you count the cars in real time (or later, if you prefer). 


I’m sure everyone can think of uses for this kind of data – but one universal example would be to take a picture every hour over several weeks, using the images to determine lot usage rates, proof if new facilities warrant being built or old ones being redeveloped. 


Using drones at entrances and exits to parking lots, you can note any backlogs, hardware malfunctions (like a broken gate), let the public know immediately about available spaces, or even see accidents and know when to redirect vehicles out of the area. 


Marketing Materials 


If you have ever wanted to sell parking, you know it’s not nearly as ‘sexy’ as… well… pretty much anything else. 


One key challenge can be solved with the help of drones is obtaining eye catching visuals. It’s hard to find quality stock images of parking lots, and even harder to take them yourself on your phone. With drones, you can take pictures at any angle, distance, or height. Get an aerial view of a lot to show how well it’s lit at night. Get a shot from half a block away to show how full the new structure is. Get an image showing the new car wash station/rock chip repair tent/tire change service in action without interrupting the process. 


What do you do with all this beautiful, high quality new imagery? A few use cases that come to mind are pictures for social media, attracting prospective students or clients, promoting something unique about a lot, creating print materials like brochures, adding original graphics to your website, or even creating video content. Whatever your goal is, the drone really can take a picture that says 1,000 words. 


Next month we will review some case studies on how drones are being used today in parking applications.


Chelsea Webster is a marketing specialist for the Calgary Parking Authority. She can be reached at Chelsea.Webster@calgaryparking.com



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