Chris Haines is the Director of Business Operations at Hangar, and has a background in professional services at 3DR and with various contractors for unmanned systems.
You’ve been in the drone industry for quite some time. What are some technologies or processes that exist today that you never would have thought would exist when you first got started?
I entered into the industry in the late 2000’s. At that time sUAS were used for two purposes, 1) to look at something, or 2) to deliver something. At that time, unmanned systems ran $100k on the cheap side, and mainly only old retirees bothered with RC aircraft.
Since then, I have watched decades-old national defense contractors, who had a stranglehold on the industry, get swept aside by a Chinese drone startup. DJI disrupted the industry by developing a solution that was as good or better than existing systems, but a tenth of the price. The radical commoditization of this technology has been paradigm-shattering. To this day, I marvel at the novel drone use cases that I am now presented with on a weekly basis. This technology has so much more potential than I could have possibly fathomed when joining the industry, and it appears that we are still just scratching the surface
You’ve built custom drone hardware from scratch for commercial clients. What were some of the most interesting projects you’ve done in that arena?
I am blessed to have worked on a number of exciting projects each with great teammates. Below are a few standouts that combined massive engineering efforts and nearly impossible timelines.
Google Fiber Copter for GoogleX
3D Robotics had a professional services division before the consolidation of the team and its eventual focus on the Solo platform. My team and I worked on a number of great projects for companies like BNSF Rail, Liberty Mutual Insurance, and Keiwit. The most exciting project by far was one brought to us by GoogleX. The request was for a multi-rotor that could autonomously secure a clamp to telephone poles to efficiently run Google Fiber throughout cities. It was one of the most challenging engineering problems I had seen to date, be we had an exceptional team and successfully demoed phase one of the contract prior to the migration of the team to the consumer side of the business.
Through the SBIR (Small Business Innovation Research) Program, the government releases what are essentially product requirement documents for their immediate needs. Prior to working for 3DR, I spent a number of years at a Department of Defense contractor where we rapidly fielded unmanned systems in response to SBIRs. Our niche was tube-launched vehicles, and we designed and built vehicles that launched from land, sea, and air. The most interesting was a jet-turbine-powered system. Once it was launched, its spring-loaded wings would scissor out, and it would take off traveling up to 200 kts.
Autonomous Retrofitting of Manned Aircraft
Drug smugglers along the US/Mexico border are surprisingly innovative, and I was surprised to learn that they had begun using ultralight-class manned aircraft to fly across the border and deliver their payloads to a pre-coordinated GPS coordinate and then fly back. These aircraft can carry hundreds of pounds and fly many miles into the US. They are quiet and not often spotted. Even when they were found, our answer was to scramble a military helicopter to do their best to identify a drop zone, then follow the pilot right back to the border where they were forced to halt pursuit. The government wanted a solution that could bring down an ultralight without harming the operator, which is no small feat. Two engineering teams were contracted to develop non-lethal solutions to the problem, but the government needed to test the solutions to ensure their effectiveness and safety. My team was contracted to take a number of ultralight aircraft and convert them into unmanned vehicles so that the various solutions could be shot, dropped, and fired at the aircraft in a real life scenario. We crammed actuators, drivers and an autopilot into each aircraft and successfully flew the vehicles across the dry lake beds of Edwards AFB in Southern California/
You’ve had the complex job of managing worldwide drone flights by teams of people, what are some tips for big companies starting their first drone programs?
Aerial insights combined with the other pieces of the digital transformation will continue impact industry in a big way. McKinsey analysts project that our customer’s bottom line will drop by nearly 45% as the efficiencies of autonomy, superior communication, and advanced analytics are implemented effectivly. Companies who embrace these technologies will have a distinct advantage over their competitors as are able to bid much more aggressively while preserving or increasing margin. Integrating a UAS program is not an undertaking to be underestimated. There are a number of operational risks and pitfalls associated with starting an internal program, but the benefits carry far more weight. Ensuring that you are adhering to an ever-changing regulatory landscape, maintaining safe and relevant hardware, proper training and certification of operators, company insurance requirements, building out robust standard operating procedures to ensure safe and successful operations in the field, Countless technology integrations, and possibly most important, forging behavioral changes within the organization, are all required to be successful. Here are a few tips to get you closer to success.
Identify your zealot
You must find a program lead who is passionate about transforming your organization with aerial data. It will take a lot of work, but with the right person leading the charge, your odds of success increase drastically. Folks like Grant Hagen at Beck Group or Oliver Smith of Skanska UAS, are perfect examples of a great program leaders who have the vision and wherewithal to succeed in development of a drone program.
There are many opportunities to subcontract aerial data acquisition to an industry leading drone services provider while you work on getting the internal program established. This will get aerial data flowing into your systems sooner rather than later and it removes majority of the liability and complexity of getting started. It is important to select a single provider that can service the entire geo footprint of your service area. It is time consuming and overly complicated to work with smaller regional groups. Hangar works with a number of great national service providers who are integrated into our platform and we can make recommendations to get you up and running.
Find the right partner
It may be your first time building out a drone program, but there are plenty of others who have consulted and built out world class operations. They will be able to facilitate the process of SOP generation and technology allocation and integration. Note: Make sure you check references as there are more drone “Experts” on LinkedIn today then there are drones. At Hangar, we have developed boiler plate standard operating procedures and have aggregated a best in class ecosystem of technology and services partners who can work together to enable your teams with the right aerial data to make an impact on your bottom line.
Introduce your business to the data
All the effort in building out a world class drone program will be for naught if the business is not properly leveraging the data. It is not enough for a VDC specialist to leverage the data periodically. Realizing the full benefits requires that stakeholders across the business have access to and to regularly use aerial data in their daily workflow. Take the time to educate employees on and off the site on the many efficiencies that can be gained in internal and external communication. A picture is worth a thousands words, and a picture that settles a dispute on a large project, can be worth millions of dollars.
What technology are you most excited to get integrated in drone hardware?
I am most excited to see LTE connectivity, and precision navigation chipsets embedded into commercial drone platforms. My current company specializes in precision autonomous capture and has designed our technology to eventually run at the edge. Until these two pieces of technology are in place, along with some regulatory hurdles, we are forced to endure the 1:1 ratio of operator to vehicle and the horsepower of autonomous robotics is severely restricted.
You have a defense background, what technology developments do you feel would be very beneficial to help spread adoption of small drones in defense?
Cyber hardening. Defense companies can not make a drone for less than $50,000 and it is generally sub-par when compared to a DJI Mavic or a Phantom. Every soldier should have a Mavic, but to get there, we must find a way to cyber harden DJI drones so that the US can put their full faith and trust in them.
What software or tool doesn’t exist today in the drone world but would be invaluable or very exciting to you?
I believe that this is best answered in the context of what would our customers find invaluable. The most talked about, but least delivered upon request from customers, are actionable insights from the aerial data that they receive today. Many companies preach this, but I have seen very little progress. Most just throw around buzz words like AI, machine learning, and deep neural nets. But you can not effectively leverage these technologies without massive amounts of data. That is what we are focused on at Hangar today, ensuring that data is captured with increasing velocity to ultimately be leveraged to generate real insight for our customers.
I would also like to see indoor reality capture solved in context of AEC. There are several innovative companies out there trying to solve it, and I am looking forward to presenting a solution to our customers.
What are some of your favorite pieces of drone industry hardware and software?
I am a huge fan of the DJI Mavic and I am excited to see the next generation in a few months. It is so well engineered and is light-years ahead of solutions produced even two years ago. Frank Wang and DJI continue to innovate at neck-breaking speed. I am also looking forward to Adam Bry and Skydio’s release of their new drone. Their team is stacked with brilliant people, and they are well backed with venture money. It will be interesting to see if they can find a good fit in the consumer market. As far as software, I am impressed with what Cape has done to date; we successfully had an operator in Singapore operate a drone from our headquarters in Austin TX. Very impressive.
What companies are you most excited about in the industry going into the next two years?
I really like what Dronebase is doing on the drone services side. They have done an excellent job owning the operational layer from the bottom up. I am impressed with their leadership team as well.
We flew a Solo prototype with a SolidEnergy Lithium-Metal Battery and saw double and triple flight times. I’m excited to see them bring their technology to market.
Droneinsurance.com I am really impressed with the solution that is being put together by the group at Acend.io. They offer data-driven flexible premiums with a strong underwriter. They will be able to remove a large barrier to entry for many operators who choose to fly uninsured today.
Measure is known as the most professional drone service company out there. They do an excellent job of providing a full solution of hardware, training, and drone program management for companies who want to build out their own drone program. They will be a key factor in getting the AEC industry across the chasm.
A startup out of Phoenix AZ, SpektreWorks has a phenomenal team and is developing promising technology to enable the Ardupilot ecosystem with cutting-edge hardware. In addition to their work in the open source community, they build end-to-end VTOL long-endurance systems and are master payload integrators.
Precision Navigation will be paramount for all autonomous vehicles. Swift provides solutions today and is a promising player as the industry takes off.
Airmap In order for drones to own the skies, someone has to build the highways. Airmap appears to be way ahead in the roll out of UTM.
What industries do you think have the most potential in the long term to utilize drone data? What about in the short term?
I think the analysis clearly shows the construction sector, specifically our national infrastructure projects, as having the largest opportunity for improvement. This will be an ongoing long-term process, as construction is one of the least digitized Industries when compared to agriculture, mining, and insurance.
In the short term insurance takes the cake. It is impressive how quickly the insurance industry has taken to leveraging drones to keep adjusters off roofs and allowing them to assess many times more claims per day than using standard inspection means.
What regulatory hurdles do you feel stand in the way of the future of widespread commercial drone use?
Forcing a 1:1 relationship of drone to human severely handicaps the capabilities of a fully autonomous solution. Specifically requiring a PIC and maintaining VLOS needs to be addressed. There should be drones perched throughout our cities waiting to be called upon. The technology is nearly there, we just need to work towards more inclusive regulations.