You were one of the first Chief Drone Officers in the world… How did Firmatek come to the conclusion they needed a C-Level position around drone technology?
As a leader in the 3D Mapping space, Firmatek recognized that the disruption being caused by the rapid development of drone technology would require C-level leadership that would enable our clients to successfully migrate, adopt, and implement this technology at scale.
Secondly, Firmatek is evolving its business towards data analytics services which are being accelerated by remote sensing technology such as drones. As such, they were looking for someone with a strong enterprise client background and experience in growing subscription-based professional services in high-tech domains.
What does your job consist of day-to-day?
Funny, my family and kids ask me the same thing and think its pretty cool that I get to “play with drones for work.” Yep, I truly love what I do! However, while I do “play” with a lot of cool stuff, it’s not about the drone. My responsibility is largely about de-emphasizing the drone, reducing it to a mundane data collection device, so that we can spend more time with our customers on data analytics. I spend a lot of time thinking about bringing value to our clients and solving their business problems with the best tools and knowledgeable people available in a consistent, repeatable manner. My goal is to offer our clients a value-based choice of practical options that meet their long-term needs and requirements.
Of course it is very satisfying to hear how we’ve delighted a client or solved a problem, and to listen to their feedback about how new value can be derived from aerial data in unexpected ways.
What are some of the challenges of your position?
One of the unexpected challenges is the amount of education and effort it takes to correct some of the misinformation about drone technology that persists in the industry. All too often Firmatek finds itself “cleaning up” bad data, and fixing problems created by a third party. It takes time to do things the right way and ultimately restore trust and confidence.
What technology or partners do you rely on in gathering aerial data for clients?
Firmatek is different than others; we are currently not building out a network of drone pilots. We strongly believe in enabling our clients to collect their own data whenever and wherever possible by giving them a drone. Our clients prefer to capture their own mapping data, but have Firmatek process all the data so they don’t have to. They appreciate the freedom of capturing photos and videos as they please.
Currently, the DJI Phantom 4 Pro (P4P) is our “go-to” drone. It’s easy to use, inexpensive, and has a very good camera. After some initial set-up and a little bit of practice, it’s close to “one button” operation. Our aim is to make the data collection process as simple, repeatable, and boring as possible.
Of course, if a client prefers and complete end-to-end solution, all of our regional Geospatial Field Technicians are equipped with a drone that can get the job done. We do fly and collect data for more complex mission-types, using a variety of drones, payloads, and software for data analysis. The eBee Plus/RTK fixed-wing drone is very effective for large area sites.
What are some concepts or trends you see coming as the future of drones and robotics in surveying?
Clearly the surveying industry has been disrupted. In a broader context, that disruption extends beyond surveying to the digitization of the physical world around us (above and below ground and underwater) utilizing a variety of autonomous and robotic data collection tools. Drones offer a unique aerial perspective that lends itself to effective and safe data capture for roads, bridges, utilities and other infrastructure.
If you could have any new technology integrated into drone hardware you could dream up that would radically improve gathering aerial data for Firmatek, what would it be?
Technology that automatically and seamlessly geo-references all of the data “on the fly” would be an immediate and welcome improvement. Also, on-board processing and AI would radically reduce the amount of data that needs to be moved across the Internet from the drone to cloud-based processing. Bits and pieces of these technologies exist, but they are either not fully integrated, unreliable, or cost prohibitive.
On the software end, what are some innovations you would love to see brought to market?
The autonomous “flying robot problem” has largely been solved with many incremental improvements fulfilling the promise of 1-button operation. The opportunity for software innovation is the transformation of data-> information-> actionable insights. I imagine quantum leap improvements in data visualization, object recognition, change detection, and AI-based common libraries of plug&play algorithms performing mission specific tasks.
You’ve been in this industry for a long time. What most surprises you about where drones are today that you never would have expected back in the initial garage at 3D Robotics?
I am still surprised by the overwhelming market dominance of a single drone company so early in the overall lifecycle of the technology. While this has driven prices down, a few other strong players would be good for healthy competition and innovation in this space. On the flip side I am equally surprised by introduction of new drones in the market by start-ups and established companies alike.
What tips do you recommend for team members of companies just entering into the drone and aerial data industry and building their first programs?
My recommendation is to focus on customer needs/requirements, client relationships, and actionable data that drives value. It’s not about the drone! If you get that right you’re off to a good start. Secondly, growing organically, starting from zero, can be a long and difficult process of evangelizing to a risk-averse market. Consider building accretive value, where 1+1=3, by partnering with companies who have an established client base, yet are open to implementing innovative technologies.
I’m a big fan of offering a value choice: two or three options that meet the needs of early adopters, mainstream, and laggards alike. For example, Firmatek offers a “hybrid solution” of LiDAR combined with drones. That provides clients a “bridging” strategy allowing them to gradually migrate from old to new.
What is Firmatek offering to the market, and what are the differentiators from other offerings in the survey space?
Firmatek has a reputation for delivering supreme confidence in the data. As such Firmatek has become a trusted advisor to many clients in the markets that we support. We speak their language, solve their problems, will not let them fail.
As industry leaders we offer a “hybrid” solution, including familiar LiDAR scanning and new drones, allowing customers to gradually understand and trust a new technology in their environment. Firmatek will tailor a solution that meets a client’s needs and requirements. We place the drones in the hands of our clients, allowing them the flexibility and freedom to collect data on-demand. Firmatek then processes and analyzes all of the data so that our clients don’t have to.