PwC launches specialist UK drone unit with eye to the future

PwC has launched a UK drones team as it eyes increasing demand from investors, local authorities and companies for real-time data that can be more easily obtained by unmanned flight systems than by humans.

The Big Four accounting firm, which established a drone technology centre in Poland three years ago, has hired a former Royal Air Force engineer, Elaine Whyte, to lead its UK operation.

The Polish team has worked with more than 20 companies in more than 10 countries, including a project to help a European government respond to a flooding crisis.

Ms Whyte, who spent 20 years in the RAF as a safety and airworthiness engineer, said she expected drone technology to become ubiquitous in the business world.

“It was only 10 years ago that the iPhone was released and it took four years for it to become absolutely essential to our lives,” she said. “How soon will drones become part of business as usual? I think this will happen within a decade.”

Preventative maintenance can save a lot of money. This can improve the productivity of many industries

Elaine Whyte, head of PwC’s UK drones team
Although there are strict regulations in most of Europe that ban drones from flying beyond the line of sight, Ms Whyte believes companies in many sectors can still take advantage of the technology. PwC estimates the market for services and manual work that could be done by drones to be worth more than $127bn globally.

Drones could help energy companies spot trees that might fell a power line, for example, or to measure the size of a crack in a wind turbine blade to determine whether it needs repairing or replacing, says the former engineer.

This could cut costs by enabling companies to identify problems in advance. “Preventative maintenance can save a lot of money. This can improve the productivity of many industries,” Ms Whyte said.

She added that investors could use drones to monitor the development of infrastructure or real estate projects; while governments could use them to identify safe places for helicopters to land following a natural disaster.

The UK team has taken on 12 clients, largely focused on infrastructure and real estate projects.

PwC does not own or run the drones used by its customers, although its specialists provide advice on how drones could be useful and whether projects meet regulatory requirements around air space and data privacy.

Rival Big Four firms EY, KPMG and Deloitte have also started experimenting with drone technology. EY said last year it was exploring how to use drones to help its auditors carry out inventory checks.

KPMG began using drones two years ago for projects such as helping Australian farmers to count livestock and check the health and size of crops. In Nigeria the firm has used them to inspect levels in oil storage units.

Meanwhile, Deloitte has worked with Energia to use drones to improve inspections of the Irish gas and electricity supplier’s wind farms.

Fiona Czerniawska, director at Source Global Research, a consultancy, said PwC was “at the leading edge” of drone technology but could lose this advantage if it continues to rely on third parties to fly the drones.

“PwC’s competitors could think about offering a more holistic service. Maybe that opportunity will be taken up by technology firms. [PwC] could easily be leapfrogged by someone who sees the wider opportunity,” she said.