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Everyone knows that drones are cool, but did you also know that drone technology is being used across industries to make work easier, safer, and more efficient? Nicholas Pilkington (LinkedIn, Twitter) is one of the people helping make that possible thanks to his company, Drone Deploy. Using Drone Deploy, anyone can send out a drone to map an area and then receive detailed imagery and data that can help with oversight, problem-solving, and even disaster relief. Currently, Drone Deploy is used on around 600,000 job sites around the world in more than 180 different countries and has mapped more than 60 million acres of ground.
On this episode of IT Visionaries, Nick talks about how he got into the drone business, the ways he thinks the industry will continue to grow, and what he’s doing to use drone technology to give back to the world.
Best advice: “Don’t expect it to be easy, but you do need to find a way to enjoy that journey instead of holding out for some sort of outcome.”
The hardest part of being a CTO: “A lot of your time is spent on technical strategy, which is about the future and it’s really hard to know in the present if you’re making good decisions about the future.”
How Nicholas got into the drone business — (2:00)
Growing up in South Africa, Nicholas saw first hand the problem that poachers were having on wildlife, and he was passionate about coming up with a way to stop them. He and his co-founders came up with the idea of using drones to patrol the borders of Kruger National Park, the largest preserve in South Africa. Unfortunately though, at this time in 2013, flying drones and getting good, usable photographs was extremely challenging. That inspired Nicholas and his co-founders to start Drone Deploy and create software that would make the entire process easier for drone users everywhere.
Making the drones fly easily wasn’t enough of a sell, though. They needed to take the technology a step or two further. They added automatic photography into their offerings and from there, they developed a way to use the data from the photographs to create topographical insights and data that would be useful for many industries.
“Drones – although they were super cool – were actually just science experiments. It was really, really hard to get something done repeatably and reliably. That was the jumping off point for Drone Deploy.”
“We realized soon after that, that it’s not just about policing rhino poaching. If we thought about it, we felt that almost any industry in the world could, in some way, benefit from an aerial point of view. And if we could make that easier, more convenient, less expensive, that’d be a really useful, powerful piece of technology to bring to the world. And that’s what we focused on; How do we make these things simple? How do we make them reliable? How do we make them repeatable? How do we turn a drone into something like a kettle or a toaster where there’s one button on it? You push that button and you know what’s going to happen and that’s going to happen every single time.”
“The miracle of flight is amazing. But in and of itself, it’s not that useful. It doesn’t give anyone anything.”
Early adoption — (8:30)
For Drone Deploy, the first stage of adoption came from the farming industry. The company had found a way to let farmers draw a map around their property and have a drone fly over it and get imagery every single day of the land. With this imagery, farmers saved hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars because they no longer had to go on their trucks and inspect everything manually, or, alternatively, hire a plane or do satellite imagery to get an aerial view of their farms. But starting in agriculture was a risk, too, and Nicholas explains that they had to be careful in how they went about pitching their technology to farmers.
As for other industries, both present and in the future, Nick says taking a similar approach is the way to go. You have to be able to communicate what drones can do and why using them will make life easier.
“There’s a risk being a Silicon Valley company going out to the Midwest and saying, ‘Hey, buy this technology. We know more about farming than you.’ Because that’s not true. Everyone there has been farming the same farm for 10, 20, 30, a hundred years. You can’t go there and tell them how to farm. So we really had to listen. We really had to engage and understand what are the problems that are time-consuming, tedious, expensive, error-prone and for which of those problems is our drone the best solution? You don’t want to just pitch drones as the solution to everything because they’re not. And a lot of the time our customer doesn’t really mind where that imagery comes from. They just want to answer questions like, show me where my crops are under stress, show me where I need to make decisions.”
“A lot of this is about communicating the convenience of what drones can do.”
“I do feel there is a lot of responsibility on companies like Drone Deploy to communicate what can be done with drones and how to succeed with them, as well as building the technology and trust around making them convenient, reliable, full solutions that can really solve hard business problems automatically.”
Current Drone Deploy use cases — (18:30)
Currently, the industries using Drone Deploy the most are construction, agriculture, and energy, all of which have historically been the least tech-forward industries in the world, according to Nick. It’s helpful that you do not need to be a drone expert or even know how to fly a drone to utilize Drone Deploy’s services. This makes it easier for construction managers to use Drone Deploy to monitor their job sites easily and efficiently without needing to learn a whole host of new technologies or make too many changes to daily workflow.
The future of drones in the workplace — (22:00)
Nick foresees a future in which drones become ubiquitous on job sites around the world. They will be developed in such a way that you don’t even need to think about them — they will be completely autonomous in their flight paths, data collection, and even charging after their flight.
“Our feeling is that if the hardware commoditization continues – that drones get more capable, fly further, become cheaper and we, on the software side, make drones easy to use and convenient full solutions – then the drone is going to be something that’s a tool on every job site. It’s the thing that’s in the cupboard on every construction site or it’s a thing that sits in a box and every morning takes off on its own and performs a visual inspection, comes back lands, and recharges itself.”
People’s worries when it comes to drone technology — (24:00)
Privacy and security are always top of mind when it comes to drone usage. Drones offer huge incentives and opportunities to be used for good, but Nick is conscious that there is another side to that coin. Nick believes having strong regulations in place for the technology will help address that problem while also helping build trust in the technology.
Part of what Drone Deploy offers is assistance to drone users to create flight paths that do not infringe on any restricted air space or invade the privacy or private property of others.
“With any type of new technology that comes out, there’s the other side that asks, ‘What is the dark side of this? How are we thinking about making sure we use this for good?’ And I think a lot of the regulation is going to help with that. We’ve seen the regulations become more progressive in terms of drones and I think that’s been really exciting because it’s pushed the technology forward. It started to build a lot of trust about what drones can do and how they can be used for solving new problems.”
“We need to have these discussions about how to use drones properly, how to use them correctly, how to enforce the fact that they are used properly. And Drone Deploy helps with a lot of those things. Like we will prevent people flying in unregulated air space and help organizations rollout drone programs effectively where the operators can’t make those mistakes. They can’t take off in the wrong place, they can’t fly over the wrong area. And we can limit all those things. And we do. And I think that’s something that’s also driven a lot of this adoption, especially with big companies, that they can have the trust that the software is looking after them. It’s not letting them make mistakes even accidentally.”
Drone Deploy’s Flylanthropy Program — (28:00)
Nick believes that there are ways to do good with his company and with his technology, so finding a way to give back through Drone Deploy was important to him. Flylanthropy was a way for Drone Deploy to give back with educational programs, conservation use cases, and community support. Nick patterned his give-back program after Salesforce’s 1-1-1 philosophy, which dictates that you give one percent of time, one percent of the company, and one percent of product to nonprofits.
One of the ways they were able to give back was to offer their technology to emergency services during the Camp Fire in California last year. Planes couldn’t fly in the smoke and there was no way to survey the area because of the smoke coverage. By deploying a force of drones using Drone Deploy’s platform, those working the fire were able to get more accurate information about damage, whether there were any people in the area, and information about containment. This experience showed Nick a whole new area for his company to give back and was the impetus for him to create flyanthropy.org, which is still in its early stages but will be the home to all sorts of give-back activities for Drone Deploy.
“We realize that there are a lot of opportunities to do good with this technology. And do good not just with the technology and what we’re building, but with the data that we’re collecting and with the people who are giving time to Drone Deploy just by virtue of working here. We wanted to formalize a way to give back because that’s obviously something that was quite close to our hearts.”
“Drone deploy was used for coordinating about 16 task forces flying underneath the smoke canopy to actually survey the area and see where they’re at, see what buildings had been destroyed, see where people were. It was the biggest sort of drone task force that’s ever been deployed in one go. And we realized after that point like there is a huge amount we can do in terms of disaster response and making data accessible.”
The future of Drone Deploy and data collection — (33:45)
While the drone industry continues to grow, the amount of data being collected from the drones is expanding exponentially as well. Nick says that the way to keep moving forward will be to constantly be in tune with how you can use the data being collected to truly help your customers. In order to do that, he believes A.I. and machine learning will play a huge role because sifting through that amount of data is tedious and time-consuming.
“We’re uniquely positioned as a drone company. We are the largest drone software company in the world. We’ve got the most data and now we want to leverage that to even more exciting and more compelling products for our customers.”
“Our machine learning vision is to understand every pixel. Because if we understand every pixel, we can take the things that our customers are trying to do in Drone Deploy already, that a difficult time consuming, tedious, expensive, and we can automate them.”