The parking industry as a whole has been investing heavily in technology over the past decade. Licence 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 which come with a pretty substantial price tag.
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. (Here’s a little sneak peek: drones can help with this challenge!)
Part 1: The Backstory
To make sure you’re following my train of thought, I want to give you a brief overview of two key marketing concepts (apologies to those who are already well versed in these):
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 or visit the end notes for some links to excellent explanations[i].
Technology Adoption Curve
What’s the point of going into these charts? I want to 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 really 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 life cycle and not only has the 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[ii] is buying multiples.
Drones are the next tech primed to hit the parking management industry. Drones are cheaper than almost any other tech you can buy ($2000 will get you a nice one), they gather oodles of data, and pretty much 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% in the five years leading up to 2020[iii].
Drones are already good – but they’re also going to get better. 5G networks are coming soon to most major cities across North America (and have already arrived in dozens of them[iv]) which will make operating drones smoother and easier. They will be more responsive to controls and won’t lose network or signal connections, allowing them to fly further and even be operated remotely (or autonomously).
One more thing drones are offering parking professionals (and this may be the most important thing) – 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 (again, just ask Larry the Drone Guy). New pay machines and back-end system upgrades aren’t giving you that kind of payoff, no matter how useful they are.
Part 2: 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 exactly how we can put the drones to work.
Use Case 1: 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. For example, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has been using them since 2018 and has been able to identify more safety risks because of them[v].
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[vi] – thus scaring off the animal and keeping your lot cleaner (less bird poop? Yes please!) and safer.
Use Case 2: Enforcement
Yes, you can fly a drone around a parking lot and capture pictures of every license plate. If you also have Licence 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 read a case study on this coming up in part 4, as this is exactly what the Calgary Parking Authority (CPA) did.*
You can also use drones for other enforcement functions like:
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. Appropriate steps like contacting police can be then be initiated.
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.
Construction monitoring. New construction projects (i.e. new lots) usually mean big dollars and lengthy time frames. Drones allow parking professionals to monitor progress, check up on contractors and vendors, create visuals like still photos, time-lapse or hyper-lapse photography, or capture specific moments on video[vii].
Use Case 3: 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 (note that 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. Knowing this enables you to determine information on peak times and occupancy rates without setting foot in the lot.
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). Or, if you have image analysis software, let it do the counting for you!
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[viii] or old ones being redeveloped[ix].
Real time data is another practical application for drones. By using drones at entrances and exits to parking lots, you can note any backlogs, hardware malfunctions (like a stuck gate), let the public know immediately about available spaces, or even see accidents and know when to redirect vehicles out of the area. The United States Federal Highway Administration is doing some pretty cool monitoring and alerting around traffic jams and road conditions too[x].
Use Case 4: 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 picture 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 1000 words.