InterDrone: How did you get into the commercial drone space?
I grew up as a geek who loved any kind of cool tech (as did my dad and brother – we were a trio of geeks who loved to get all the cool new tech right when it came out) from R/C cars and planes to the first-ever palm pilot my junior year of high school, and the first-ever PalmOS phone (Samsung is300), etc. In 2006, I had a company that created marketing solutions and architectural photography for custom home builders and architects. We would occasionally hire helicopters to get aerial photos of large estates, but we weren”T satisfied with the results, so I was looking for a better way to get a high-end camera in the air but not so far away from the subject.
After looking at several different options, I learned that it was possible to build an R/C helicopter and rig it up to carry a Canon 5D camera; so I figured that would be a great excuse to build a $25k toy helicopter. Honestly, I think that’s the same way many people got into the industry in the early days – we just wanted to be outside playing with really cool toys. Then one thing led to another, we started shooting more video content than still photos, we desired stabilized video (aka “Better data?), and went on a quest to build a gimbal system that worked, which is where I linked up with Frank Wang at DJI. The rest is a very colorful history.
What are your thoughts on its development so far? (Whether it be technologically, legally, or use cases.)
It’s promising to see how quickly it has progressed in the last 3 years compared to the decade before that. It shows me that this wave is truly coming. I think we’ve got a long, long way to go and there are many hardware, software, and other innovations that still need to happen to really get the technology to the place where it can deliver significant value to a wide array of verticals, but we are well on the path and that’s good news! Because of the broken cost model that comes with having autonomous robots babysat by expensive Human Resources, only the highest ROI use cases can really take advantage of the technology today. But eventually, when full autonomy and BVLOS is safely integrated into our ecosystem, the use cases will vary wildly all the way down to breakfast taco delivery. It’s going to be fun watching it all progress!
What do you envision the commercial drone space to look like a year from now? 5?
I envision it looking pretty similar one year from now, but hopefully, with several more BVLOS waivers and successful pilot programs in place. But I think in 5 years things will have progressed significantly. One thing that always surprises me is how infrequently I see drones “Flying around doing work.” Really, the only city where I regularly see drones doing work is Los Angeles, where there’s a drone on every single production set in the city.
I think this is because “Content creation? was one of the first verticals to start playing with this technology well over a decade ago (drones were winning Oscars in 1996). Hollywood started adopting the technology early because 1) it was extremely valuable – drones were able to get shots and tell stories in ways that no other production equipment could, and budgets to tell these stories were sometimes over $100M 2) the use case is very simple in that the raw data that’s being collected is exactly the value that the customer is desiring, so they were able to adopt drone tech back when it was just a “Flying camera? that was manually piloted around, and 3) production companies were willing to turn a blind eye to exactly what was allowed (or not) by the FAA.
By contrast, when you look at AEC, Mining, Ag, Critical Infrastructure, First Responders, etc; all of those use cases are much more complex in that they require first capturing the raw data, then completing any one of 100 different possible complex workflows (which are getting better by the day), to extract the actual value – e.g. how much dirt is in the pile? Was the foundation poured exactly in the right place? How much aggregate have we sold? Can we reduce our inputs of pesticides? Because of this added complexity, these use cases of commercial drones have only really been around for the last 3-5 years. Give all these other high-value use cases an additional 5-7 years to catch up to Hollywood’s adoption of the tech, and I think you”Ll see drones flying around doing work in all corners of the world. Every construction site will have a drone; every farm, every mine, every ship yard, every squad car, every firetruck, etc.
If you had one “wish list” item to have in/happen to the industry today, what would it be?
Easy. UTM and BVLOS advancement across hardware, software, platforms, firmware, etc. But besides the obvious, I wish there was a standardized interface between drone and payload that would allow camera companies to make gimbaled payloads that fit the interface, and drone manufactures to adopt the same interface. This would give customers more choices of quality stabilized payloads for all kinds of applications. Developing the drone hardware, flight controller, wireless data link, and stabilized payload is A LOT to do for any one company; being able to split the workload out a little would be beneficial to the whole industry.
You’ll be speaking at InterDrone this year. What is your topic? And aside from teaching all the attendees, what else are you most looking forward to at the show?
I”D love to focus my talk on the process of creating value in the market through hardware, software, platform, or analytics products. That process of identifying opportunities for improvement in the way humans do things, then figuring out a way to combine existing and emerging technologies in creative ways to develop an offering to that customer which provides sufficient return on their investment such that the market adopts the technology and rewards the creators of said new offering. It’s super simple, but extremely difficult to execute under pressure.
And I”M excited to see the industry collaborate and come together for the greater good of the technology and the human race; knowing that there will be plenty of profits to go around for everyone over the next decade. Seeing people choose to focus less on competing with other companies and more on collaborating in creative ways to bring more value to their customers. That’s exciting to me!