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Students vs. Startups Episode 46: How to become a commercial drone pilot

Students vs. Startups Episode 46: How to become a commercial drone pilot


Featuring Drone Airspace Management

Read Time: 15 minutes

Welcome to Episode 46 of Students vs. Startups. This week, moderator John Gilroy talks with the Founder of Drone Airspace Management (DAM)Avery Brown, and the Director of Platform, Wachira Reed. DAM collaborates and supports pre-seed through enterprise level organizations to transform their ideas into successful, high growth businesses to pioneer the UAS (unmanned aerial system) commercial industry. Listen below to hear how Drone Airspace Management is helping drones to fly freely!

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John Gilroy: Welcome to Students vs. Startups: showdown in the Potomac. My name is John Gilroy, I'll be your moderator today. Let's have a big round of applause for show number 46. FCC hasn't canceled us, the Interwebs hasn't canceled us, so we're still doing this. If you've listened to this podcast before you know what we do. We're in the offices of Eastern Foundry , we kind of took over a conference room. We have a little table here. One side of the table, we have a startup. One side of this table, we have students. We have a little 26-minute discussion and we all walk out of here fast friends. Hopefully, a little bit more knowledgeable about startups at the end of this conversation.

What I'm going to do is introduce the students and the startup and we'll jump right in here. Our first student is Ricardo Real. Ricardo, tell us about your background please.

Ricardo Real: Hi, my name is Ricardo. I recently graduated from Georgetown and I've been working on a startup recently, directing the Latin America efforts for the startup. We connect B2B technology services firms with potential clients.

John Gilroy: So, you have a Master's degree in Technology Management from the Georgetown School of Continuing Studies.

Ricardo Real: Correct.

John Gilroy: And, you're a startup, too.

Ricardo Real: Yes.

John Gilroy: So, next time, you're on the other side of the table.

Ricardo Real: We can do that.

John Gilroy: That wouldn't be bad. Ikenna, your background please.

Ikenna Nwankpa: My name is Ikenna Nwankpa. I'm also a recent graduate from Georgetown's Technology Management program, and I work in community development, helping design the systems that organizations use to apply for grant funding.

John Gilroy: Oh, great, great. And, our startup today is a company called Drone Airspace Management and the guest we have here is Avery Brown. Avery, could you tell us about your background and how you got hooked up with this company please?

Avery Brown: Okay. I'm actually the founder of the company, so that's kind of how I got hooked up.

John Gilroy: A regular startup.

Avery Brown: It helps when you come up with the idea. I'm old. Do you want my whole background?

John Gilroy: No, no. Gimme 30 seconds.

Avery Brown: I can give you the abridged version.

John Gilroy: No felony convictions.

Avery Brown: There you go. That's right. Lawyer by trade, which probably, I don't know if that's a good startup place to be in your reactive world. Used to do lobbying ... Actually, I was an administrative judge before that. I served the Capitol Hill Judiciary Committee. What else have I done? Hints of ...

IMG_2353.JPG Founder of Drone Airspace Management (DAM)Avery Brown

John Gilroy: So a wide background?

Avery Brown: Yeah.

John Gilroy: Good good good.

Avery Brown: Yes, really broad.

John Gilroy: So when did you start this company and what precipitated the company?

Avery Brown: Okay, we started ... We're only about a year ago as of October. We came off of a consulting role, we used to consult with the FAA, the main thing being crowdsource, a lot of retiring talent that could advise to the FAA. While doing that we saw this drone, there was these pilots and air traffic controllers kept saying, "Are you looking at the drone space?" And we're like, "What are you talking about? We just started this." And they kept bugging us until one Sunday you're sitting around and say, "Alright, what is all this stuff they sent me?" And then you start looking and your eyes just blew up. You're like, "Wow. Digital data age coming in and it's nascent stage." Pivoted out of everything we were doing and moved and said, "What quality do we have?" We knew the national airspace where the commercial flights fly, how that was organized, figured you'd need that talent in the next phase down, and we started working from there. We started off with one model and now we've sort of iterated into an education technology company that trains people in using drone technology.

John Gilroy: So what business problem do you solve? Simple.

Avery Brown: We actually solve the skills gap. The skills gap in training: what the employer's looking for versus what the educator is providing. We use that using drone technology because a lot of these are digital related skills, and this is a great modem to get there and an interesting avenue into the data world.

John Gilroy: Ricardo, I got a hundred questions I'm gonna let you have that one.

Ricardo Real: Sure. So, which educational institutions are you partnering with to deliver this solution?

Avery Brown: We came out in sort of a unique way. I worked at the Department of Labor for years also, so there was a lot of workforce training and education background I have. Just a lot of past experience. Being on Capitol Hill you kind of understood what some missions for some of the grant agencies were, and they were in workforce training and education. And what we saw in areas like rural America was this gap between ... They're still betting on coal maybe moving forward and growing, but they weren't teaching the skills that were going to be relevant to the digital community. So we address that space and use our drone technology to now start teaching those skills.

John Gilroy: So, Ikenna, the FAA says there's gonna be seven million drones out there by 2020 and that's an incredible number, isn't it? So how are those people gonna get trained and then learn how to fly them, the commercial folks?

Ikenna Nwankpa: Yeah, I would like to know the answer to that question as well.

IMG_2350.JPG Ikenna Nwankpa

Avery Brown: We tend to focus on the commercial space. We right now have one regulation. It's called Part 107, and it would be probably the equivalent of you getting a driver's license, but probably never have driven a car. You know, you could pass it basically on some intellect and ... But it doesn't tell you anything about being able to pilot this thing. So we actually went to employers and said, "What are you looking for, if you're gonna do a cell phone inspection or something, a power grid, or something like that," and drone technology is wonderful for that, "To automate a lot of it and make in smarter, increase efficiency, how would you find the talent for that?" And they're like, "We don't know." There is no real standard. And so we said, "We're gonna fill that gap. We're gonna create that professional standard using drone technology." And once they come out of our program, they can look at that skilled labor pool and say, "Those are the kind of people I can let around something very sensitive."

John Gilroy: Ricardo.

Ricardo Real: Very interesting. And have you identified any competitors in this space that are doing somewhat, if the same, work?

Avery Brown: Not the exact prose. There's a lot of different training schools, it's a disparate sort of market in that way. Has anybody sort of looked at it from the employer's standpoint down? I'm sure they would claim that, some of the education institutions, and what we call MOOCs, the massive online companies, are all in the ed learning space, but we believe we have a clear differential because we can actually tag ours to jobs. We'll bring an employer there and attest to this type of training and saying, "This is the skill set we need." And they will identify that directly. So I'm sure there are in very disparate forms, but we're gonna deliver it on a platform and hopefully sort of do a blended online and offline programming.

John Gilroy: Ikenna.

Ikenna Nwankpa: So how do you all leverage what kind of partnerships that look ideal to you? In other words, how do you look at this guy and say, "I want to stand next to them and work with this group?"

Wachira Reed: From the industry side?

Ikenna Nwankpa: Yes.

Avery Brown: We tend to like energy infrastructure. One, it doesn't move, it doesn't go overseas. And also, if you're looking sort of in a rural community to revitalize it, they need to be able to tie it to the resources around them. But they have to have something relevant for them, they're not teaching anything that the facility's going to need because they don't know the skills, they're not talking to them. There's a gap there, and we're filling that gap. So we like energy infrastructure, which can mean anything from utilities, cell towers, wifi, other inspections. We're going to 5G, it's gonna proliferate the number of towers by 10, 15, 100 times. So, as you get to the IOT, we like ... Power lines! That's another great one. Power line inspections. A lot of these schools have power line programs, but they don't know how to use the drone as a tool.

John Gilroy: Ricardo, this wasn't even conceived of seven years ago, was it? This whole new world!

Ricardo Real: You mentioned a web platform. Can you talk to us a little bit more about that? What does it include? Do you have educational videos on this platform? Or what does the platform help you accomplish?

Avery Brown: We're in that early stage. Right now we're delivering it offline. We'll probably use an existing platform like Blackboard, because the value's not really in the platform for us. It is that content though, the learning content. So, we're getting that mix now, that product market fit where it's blended enough. Enough of it's online to drive cost. And then enough of it's offline that we can sort of utilize the schools and some of that just as training ground.

John Gilroy: So there's a company in downtown DC called Measure, and they offer themselves as, "Drone as a Service." So it's like you don't have to buy a drone, you can rent one, and then you gotta find a pilot and a commercial usage. So do you pair with companies like that?

Wachira Reed: We were just talking to them.

Avery Brown: It is. And Measure does a lot of work for a large power company called AES that's global, and they're doing the drone work for it. So we're like, "Well, Measure, we want to talk to you about looking at our labor pool. Like a farm team, we're gonna train them up to a certain level, you'll add whatever you do from there."

IMG_2345.JPG Founder of Drone Airspace Management (DAM)Avery Brown

John Gilroy: Ikenna.

Ikenna Nwankpa: You alluded earlier to some of your challenges initially. What would you say your biggest challenge is right now?

Avery Brown: Because our model's sort of unique in the sense we're running grant projects and then we're sort of building out our particular platform and ... It's getting that product market fit, understanding what's really going to penetrate the market at the right pricing. You kind of want that magic where everyone says, "I want that." You know? And they kind of pass it on innately and you hit that sweet spot and there's a lot of positioning ... And also being true to the value we're bringing, which is the skill level. That's at the heart of what we do.

John Gilroy: Ricardo.

Ricardo Real: What kind of marketing plan do you have?

Avery Brown: Right now? None. Well, you know, we get a lot of marketing because of the grant projects. So we've had a White House release early, we've been to SXW. I mean, we get picked up when we do a great project with some great partners, and the media tends to pick it up from there, because we're also doing good as we're doing well. We're in the areas turning them to more digital related skill sets. So we get some media coverage and pick up from that. The marketing is one school will say, "Hey, you see what they're doing? Did you read about in ..." More that word of mouth. But we're kind of a little in stealth mode right now, but we'll come back out soon.

John Gilroy: Avery, I went to Google Trends and typed in, "Drone" from the last ... Since 2004 and straight up, a lot of interest. It's fascinating. I mean, I think I'd even like to even learn. I don't the know about you, Ricardo, but it sounds like a real fascinating topic.

Ricardo Real: It is a fascinating topic. And there are so many applications, not only in the energy market, but so many others. I'm interested in learning a little bit more about what other sorts of applications, aside from the energy infrastructure, you have in mind to tackle.

IMG_2356.JPG Ricardo Real

Avery Brown: Yeah, we'd be happy to talk about that. You know, what really blows our mind is really getting into the broader- I think robotics meets sensors meets data. Even just in a drone, a drone is just a flying computer with some sensors on it that collects massive amounts of data. Petabytes of data, that's a huge amount of data. And then what do you do with it? The business wants you to get something intelligent out of it so, you've got the algorithms, and all of the other ... It's just so early in a massive stage of everything. Just, automation and a new sense of everything. We get excited all the time.

John Gilroy: Ikenna, about 100 years the Wright brothers started doing these crazy things and no one really knew how to regulate them. You saw a plane in the air, how do you identify it? They had to come up with rules. There's a lot of parallels here with ... No one really has any rules and trying to figure it out.

Ikenna Nwankpa: Yeah, I'm curious about the type of focus, work ethic, and kind of just mentality that you have to have in this type of space. How would you describe that?

Avery Brown: I wonder every day. It does require ... There's a lot of discipline and there's a lot of noise and setting your priorities. There's the strategy, then there's setting that day-to-day priority and there's a lot of sleepless nights, there's a lot of crazy ... Not always worn batteries. Once you rev up your brain like this and the excitement of where you're going, it's hard to turn it off. Even that's noise to you and it's good to be around other startups. You need to talk it through sometimes and then have advisory things to reach out to. The more you can do that, and you'll have your own internal conflicts, too. Believe me, there's a lot of battles you fight to keep yourself from doing things, but you move through them.

John Gilroy: Ricardo, please.

Ricardo Real: Yeah, how do you get funded in the beginning? How did this all start?

Avery Brown: Three F's: friends, family, and fools. That was sort of initially. But because we had a varied background and we sort of crowdsourced the people, it was our illustrious Grand Project and what we called Drone Commander also here, his father worked for the FAA and we developed a consulting company early. That's how we really understood the space. We worked with a lot of air traffic controllers and pilots and a lot of FAA technical folks. So we were generating there. The pivot just allowed us to move a lot of that in. And like I said, there's some three F support.

John Gilroy: Ikenna, if you went out and spent $300 on a little drone, and went down to the White House and tried to fly it, you'd be in big trouble, wouldn't ya?

Ikenna Nwankpa: Absolutely.

Avery Brown: We'll see you on the news at least.

John Gilroy: Another question for Avery, please.

Ikenna Nwankpa: How can other organizations find you guys to collaborate and work with you guys to kind of create these emerging opportunities?

Avery Brown: Our website is www.droneairsp.com and I should give you his email because he'll take it.

Wachira Reed: How you guys doing? This is Wachira with Joint Airspace Management. You can contact me at wachira.reed@droneairsp.com.

IMG_2362.JPG Director of Platform of  Drone Airspace Management (DAM), Wachira Reed, and Founder,  Avery Brown

John Gilroy: Okay.

Wachira Reed: Teamwork!

John Gilroy: There's a plug. Ricardo. After that shameless plug, you gotta give an aggressive question.

Ricardo Real: Yeah. The most aggressive of all the questions, how have recent political-

John Gilroy: Talking about the White House!

Ricardo Real: -changes impacted your company?

Avery Brown: You know I used to lobby, so this is right down my alley. You'd be surprised. They're in an anti-reg stance right now. We actually are crying for more regs. But they're proscriptive-type regs. Regs that allow us to do more. We want to fly at night, we can fly over people, the technology is there, they're looking for the track-record on safety. We think we can provide it. We would love them to say, "Hey, go ahead and fly over people, fly at night, fly autonomously." We'd love it.

John Gilroy: Ikenna, brave new world. There's no rules. People are just figuring out the rules now. I think it'd be hard to project out future sales in this kind of fluctuating situation, I don't know, environment, huh?

Ikenna Nwankpa: Yeah. How would you guys, giving us enough detail, how would you guys describe your business model? How did you come about developing your business model?

Avery Brown: Kind of in a wacky way. You sort of look at what you do well. When we moved from consulting, we said, "What value can we provide?" We understood the airspace and how it was organized, and said, "They're gonna have to do that here, we can provide expertise there, but what else?" And I worked on a startup but it was in government contracting, a little different. You're like, "Well what would startups want?" We really started out with a subscription-type model saying, "Well we can actually connect you and technology companies together and bring it in a process where we can actually test out your product." Well that really wasn't how the grant worked, it really had more of workforce flow, so we switched it. We sort of said, "Oh well this ... I was in the labor department and did a lot of our workforce training so I said, "Let's look at that skills gap issue, and that's going to proliferate through the entire industry forever. Everybody's gonna have to make this shift. It's gonna be everywhere."

IMG_2344.JPG Founder of  Drone Airspace Management (DAM),   Avery Brown

John Gilroy: Avery, I'm trying to draw a parallel here. So let's say ... Truck drivers. They're all licensed and tested and carefully controlled. In three or four years there could be a million commercial uses and they can't find people to fly them, and there's gonna have to be some testing, some accreditation, some certification. This is like the early days of the Wright brothers trying to figure out what's a valid test? What's not? Who's a good pilot? Who's not a pilot? Just generating the, what's called, content of the course material, in academia is called a rubric, a rubric is hard to start with, isn't it?

Avery Brown: It is. And like you said, it moves fast. I mean, the technology in our area moves fast. We call what we create a learning loop. That's why we have to stay in touch with the industry to understand, "What is it that you actually need?" We take it and translate that into the learning modules and have the schools update. We're updating that training so it's relevant to them. Because the drones will move quickly like any other robotic technology. The price goes down, certain things are better for certain applications, they keep developing. That gap is gonna go on. But for the truck drivers to move into the space, they're gonna have to learn new skills. It'll be there. But that gap has to be filled and you have to do it quickly these days because technology moves.

John Gilroy: Ikenna.

Ikenna Nwankpa: This is a question for both of you guys. What kind of unique advantage do you guys think your experience gives you to be the leader in this industry?

John Gilroy: That's a good question.

Wachira Reed: I think we're crazier than the others.

John Gilroy: Put that on your resume, huh?

Avery Brown: You know, we talk about this all the time, and this is constantly what you're doing. Really, you could ask how many people are really doing what you're doing using drone technology. They're teaching with it, but they're not teaching professional level skills that a job actually wants. That learning loop that we have is very powerful in that we are creating a standard. This is what the industry wants, and we're gonna tell you how to deliver it and show you and bring your school up to that expertise level so that they can actually train these students that way. It is partly coming early into the space, it's partly with a weirdly creative model using grant projects to sort of build up the capacity of how we're doing what we're doing, and it gives us the school partnerships and the other industry people all at the same time. We hope that's enough. You just move like Hell to ... You move fast if you can.

John Gilroy: Ricardo, please.

Ricardo Real: Where do you see yourself in five years?

Avery Brown: Look, it's hard to project. There's some strategy that reaches you out one to two, three years and then it's execution, but the iterations happen so quickly, so we could be into something a little different but near where we are right now. So obviously we hope for growth and scaling and things like that once we hit that sweet spot, but we'll see. Hopefully I'm not a sob story.

John Gilroy: Ikenna.

IMG_2360.JPG Ikenna Nwankpa

Ikenna Nwankpa: How easy is it to train someone to operate a drone proficiently?

Avery Brown: It can happen faster than you think. It's like anything else, quickly you see how you adopt. Gamers and people like them, they're fast.

John Gilroy: Finally. My son has a skill!

Avery Brown: Yeah, exactly! You'd be surprised. We talked to one of the ... Pilots that flew the ...

Wachira Reed: Black Hawk.

Avery Brown: Black Hawk class, they were like, "Oh please, we suck at flying drones. Because we're used to being in the cockpit." The remote aspect is adopted by gamers and people like that. Other kids are even ... Manual and work with cars ... What do they call it? Like, mechatronic types. You'd be surprised how fast. So to get up to that proficiency if you're dedicated we can do ... We have a fast-track program that works like 12 weeks?

Wachira Reed: 10-12 weeks.

Avery Brown: 10-12 weeks. But typically we would say ... I would say about two semesters. Or you could do it in one, it depends on how hard you're trying. But we like to, in a regular educational system ... You asked about schooling, we tend to like community colleges because there's a lot more training in them, and technical colleges right now. That's who we're targeting.

John Gilroy: So, Ricardo. International application here? What do you think?

Ricardo Real: Could you give us a concrete example of one community college that you introduced your curriculum to and how many people were affected or what were some of the results of this training?

Avery Brown: We have one in southwest Virginia, which is in Wise, Virginia. They've trained about 100 people. What we're doing is taking their level now and advancing it to an industry professional level. We have 100 who have come through an initial piece, now this next set we'll see how many come out. We're in two other states also, just starting some training. So we'll see. There's none that have come all the way through, but we'll see how many come out of that first 100 that we've done.

John Gilroy: Ikenna, final question please.

Ikenna Nwankpa: So if I'm interested in becoming a drone operator and I live in one of these rural ares, how much does that cost me to obtain this training?

Avery Brown: That's a little bit part of the school. In our grant we're delivering it to the school and training their trainers. They tend to keep the cost relative to their curriculum pricing, or even lower. Sometimes they want to heavily get these people, particularly retired miners and things like that in, so they'll subsidize parts of it. So whatever their existing curriculum cost is, they'll give that or lower.

John Gilroy: Well we are running out of time here. If you're listening to this podcast and wanted more information, what website should they visit, please?

Avery Brown: Drone Commander.

Wachira Reed: Www.droneairsp.com and you can follow us on Twitter @droneairsp.

John Gilroy: Wonderful, wonderful. If you’d like show notes, links or transcript, you can visit theoakmontgroupllc.com.

I’d like to thank our sponsor, The Radiant Group. If you are interested in getting involved in geo-spacial projects, contact The Radiant Group.

We are hosted by Eastern Foundry, a community of government contractors who are bringing innovative solutions to the government marketplace. For more information, go to Eastern-Foundry.com.

If you would like to participate as a student or a startup, contact me, JohnGilroy@theoakmontgroupllc.com, and thanks for listening to Students vs. Startups showdown in the Potomac.