PwC released a report in 2018 called Skies without limits, which focused on how drones will impact the UK economy. For example, by 2030 drones could add £42bn to the UK’s economy, saving it £16bn in improved productivity, with 76,000 drones in the air supported by a workforce of 628,000
What does this have to do with accountants? A great deal. One of the reasons PwC produced this report is that the company, as well as the other Big Four firms, are already using drones, and they expect their own adoption and that of their clients’ to increase rapidly.
Drones provide data, a lot of it, and quickly. For Joanne Murray, PwC’s UK drones assurance lead, this means a new way to collect data during audits. ‘I'm an external auditor by background and if you'd asked me even two years ago would I be working with drones in PwC, I wouldn't have dreamt it. It's a big change in direction for a lot of us accountants, but if you take a step back you could say that drones are an extension of the way auditors are already working – it's all about gathering data. Using aerial data is revolutionary, but it doesn’t actually change the nature of what we're doing and the insight we need to gather.’
A big part of an auditor’s job is data collection and evaluation, which can be very manual. ‘Drones can get to hard to reach places and capture huge volumes of data in very short periods of time, which compared with manual methods – for example, going out to a construction site in a different country – it's hoped drone usage is driving real efficiencies in the way we're delivering our audits,’ says Murray.
Murray expects a greater roll out of drone usage across PwC’s business units, especially with more benefits to be found in external audit: 'The obvious one is the inventory count, assessing the volume and number, as well as verifying assets. Some of our clients have assets in remote locations and it would be tricky logistically to get an audit team member there.’
Asset impairment is another area for external audit in which Murray would like to see drones deployed: ‘This is a risky area in the financial statement audit; if you can have drone captured data produce a digital twin – a 3D representation of an asset – so anybody in the world can inspect it remotely, that would be a real benefit for the audit team to get deep insight into some of those assets.’
Big Four firms also recognise that their clients are going to be disrupted by this technology and they want to be able to advise them on how best to put in place the systems that can exploit such data. This is having a major impact on consulting and advisory units.
For many of PwC’s clients the advantages in using drones are to inspect assets, particularly if they are dispersed or large in size – such as oil rigs or real estate.
'Using a drone to collect insight into the condition of assets is faster, cheaper, safer and more accurate than traditional methods,’ says Elaine Whyte, PwC’s UK drone lead, whose 20 years spent in the Royal Air Force as an engineer also places her well to advise clients of the complexities, the health and safety aspects and regulatory requirements when operating in the aerial environment.
For accountants interested in ‘getting into’ working with drones, the likelihood is that drones will come to you in the future, as their use becomes more widespread. While it will remain vital that accountants will need to have a good awareness of new technologies and how they are disrupting services and industries, companies like PwC are trying to bring the technology into its business units, so it becomes embedded in business-as-usual, says Murray.
‘When you consider other technologies such as AI or robotics, the aim isn't to have technology sitting separately as an aside with specialists working on it, but to spread it out. Part of our role is to upskill our whole business on the benefits of this technology – we see it as our responsibility to bring everybody up to speed.’
Neil Johnson, writer