UPS is testing drone delivery of urgent packages to remote areas. Chipotle is testing drone delivery of burritos on a college campus. How do these remote-controlled flying robots figure into your future, personal or business? With new FAA rules opening the skies to drones in a big way, Tom Martin talked with Chris Stiles, president of Unmanned Services, a Lexington-based company providing drone services to all kinds of commercial and civil industries. His partner in the business is Mickey Marotta.
Click here to hear the audio version of the interview: http://www.kentucky.com/news/business/article45076461.html
Q: How did you get started in the drone business?
A: I joined the army back in 2004 and was in military intelligence. I did two tours in Iraq doing aerial surveillance in support of ground soldiers. Back when I started, there were only a couple dozen of us in the field. Now, there are thousands of drone pilots in the military. So, just over that time, it’s exploded.
Q: How did you wind up in Lexington partnered with Mickey Marotta?
A: Mickey and I are both prior military. He was navy. I was army. We both did drones while we were in. We got out and we did government contracting for a couple of years, bounced between different companies. And then we ended up together with a company out of Mississippi and that was for a contract to go down to Central America to do counter-drug operations. We were looking for go-fast boats coming from Colombia. We were on that contract and we realized, “Hey, maybe we can do things a little bit better.” And so, we started out of Pennsylvania at first. And then in 2013 when Congress authorized the FAA to start rolling out rules for UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle), we saw that commercial aerospace was going start opening up. So, in 2013, we came down here to Kentucky. He had family here and we knew agriculture was going to be big for commercial drones.
Q: Your website lists industries that you serve including mapping, cartography, construction, telecommunications, academia and I noticed equine in the lineup. How can drones be used in the horse industry?
A: You would be surprised. We do a lot of real estate videos for the horse farms. That’s an obvious one. But we also do aerial videos of the horses running. It’s just much more dynamic from that viewpoint. It increases their sales odds.
Q: I take it you’re talking about thoroughbreds? That particular breed is known to be very sensitive. Is there anything in particular you have to do not to disturb the horse?
A: Well, it’s surprising. About half the time a horse doesn’t pay any attention to the drone and the other half time it might just run off a little bit from it, but we’ve never had an instance where they seemed to freak out or become overly perturbed by the drone’s presence. And we’ve even been able to corral and move the horses in certain directions as well as other livestock like cows.
Q: So, a farm owner could use a drone to actually move stock?
A: Absolutely. Cows especially. Some of these farmers have a lot of livestock and hundreds of acres and it’s much easier to use a drone from their porch rather than trying to get out there to move ‘em around.
Q: Let’s look at some of those other services. Which among them would you say are your typical clients?
A: We do have a lot in real estate and media because that’s where there has been an early adoption with drones; real estate especially. We tend to do a lot of the horse farms here locally. And media production for commercials. Another big one is for construction - mapping and surveying services. Those have been big hits. We’re starting to get a lot of interest from power utilities: power line inspections, substation inspections, thermal stuff.
Q: Tell us about your fleet of drones.
A: We have just over a dozen drones. Most are multipurpose. Some of the smaller cheaper ones that are commercially off the shelf we use for a lot of the filming for real estate or media. They have really high quality cameras for their size. And they’re easy to fly and to use. We have a couple that are programmed for doing the mapping, aerial pictures. And then we have a couple for thermal inspections of buildings, roofs, and power lines. They’re specially outfitted with thermal cameras. And we have fixed-wing aircraft that we can use for longer endurance.
Q: Federal Aviation Administration rules dictate no flights beyond line of sight. Is that correct?
A: Yes, for both private and commercial users. Beyond line of sight is just as far as the pilot or their visual observer can see with their unaided eyes unless they’re wearing glasses.
Q: And also prohibited over people; at night; above 400 feet in the air; or faster than 100 mph. Are those criteria correct?
A: All those criteria are correct. The 400 feet is very important because you want that separation from manned aircraft - they’re flying 500 feet and above. And then of course, the FAA doesn’t want them falling on top of large crowds of people. So, they also restrict flying over people.
Q: The FAA expects some 600,000 drones to be used commercially within a year. Only about 20,000 are currently registered for commercial use. What’s expected to produce this 30-fold increase in just a matter of months is a new rule that went into effect in late August that makes it easier to become a commercial drone operator. Tell us about that new rule and how it affects your business. Do you anticipate this leading to some competitive pressure that you’ve not faced until now?
A: Yes and no. We’ve had that competitive pressure because of illegal operators. We had to follow the rules and they didn’t. A lot of people just see it as the latest and greatest cool thing that you can get into and make some money and they don’t know the first thing about drones or how to fly and get really great quality products out of ‘em such as mapping and geospatial. So, a lot of it will be very niche-specific things that people offer. We’re full service so we can do pretty much anything that you need a drone to fly for.
Q: Chipotle and Alphabet, the holding company setup by the Google folks, are partnering to experiment with the use of drones to deliver burritos on the Virginia Tech campus: hovering drones lowering Chipotle orders prepared on a nearby food truck on winches directly to students’ doors or windows. This appears to be mostly about a race between Google and Amazon to test drone service with real customers. Where do you see this going?
A: I see full service deliveries in the next 10 years. Right now, the technology is premature. And FAA still hasn’t figured out all the regulation and equipment safety factors to enable “beyond line of sight” flying. There are other factors you have to deal with when doing delivery in urban environments around a lot of people; flying between buildings; condensed airspace when you have not just Amazon or Google but also 7-Eleven, Wal-Mart, UPS, and everybody else doing delivery. We’re an in-demand society. I think we’ll get to a point where you won’t go to the corner store anymore for your gallon of milk at 2 in the morning. You’ll just push a button to order on your phone and 5 minutes later it’s at your doorstep with the drone.
Q: What’s the most interesting application of a drone that you’ve experienced?
A: Flying a 360-degree VR rig with 6 GoPro cameras on the drone over some horse farms. It’s been the most interesting.
Q: By “VR” you mean virtual reality?
A: Virtual reality. 6 GoPros - one forward, one facing rear, both left and right, one facing down, and one up - are mounted on this drone and you fly it and then you stitch the videos together and when you view it it’s like you’re flying through the air - you have a full 360 degrees you can see. That was a really, really cool, dynamic project, flying over Kentucky horse farms. That’s the most beautiful landscape you can ask for.
Tom Martin’s Q&A appears every two weeks in the Herald-Leader’s Business Monday section. This is an edited version of the interview. To listen to the interview, find the podcast on Kentucky.com. The interview also will air on WEKU-88.9 FM on Mondays at 7:35 a.m. during Morning Edition and at 5:45 p.m. during All Things Considered.