This article was originally published as “Drone Maker Sees Business Opportunity In Keeping Workers And Warfighters Safe” at Forbes.com.
For intrepid wildlife biologists stomping around in the bush, it’s not an animal mauling or an attacking microbe that most often spells doom.
Statistically speaking, it’s the aircraft they use to enter remote areas that does them in. In fact, one study found that two-thirds of wildlife biologists who were killed in the 20th century while working had met their end via aviation accidents.
That figure surprised Thomas Rambo while he was in the middle of pursuing a master’s degree at the University of Florida in Gainesville. It turns out that mishaps are a life-threatening danger to everyone who relies on aircraft for their work, from natural resource managers to power line maintenance crews.
Unlike most who encounter that upsetting fact, Rambo, an aerospace engineer, was in a position to do something about it.
In 2010, Rambo was building drones in the university’s Micro Air Vehicles lab when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers came calling. They wanted to know if they could use drone-mounted cameras to go deep into the Everglades and monitor invasive species. Such an advance, they reasoned, would save money on fuel and personnel costs while also keeping people from possible harm in dangerous places, like the far reaches of the Everglades or above remote high-voltage power lines.
So Rambo teamed up with fellow aerospace engineer Thomas Reed and John Perry, a graduate student in geomatics, the field of study concerned with measuring and analyzing data about the Earth’s surface.
Within a year, they had built a drone prototype. It weighed around 17 pounds, had a nine-foot wingspan and could cruise at 30 miles per hour for 90 minutes at a time. All the while, it could snap pictures of the ground below with a single-lens reflex (SLR) camera or other instruments loaded inside its belly.
“Reed built the drones, I made them fly and John built the camera payloads and software to collect data,” Rambo said. “We wanted to take people out of the sky when they didn’t need to be there. We also saw a business opportunity for drones to do things like wildlife studies and infrastructure inspection.”
The three approached the University of Florida’s technology licensing office and enrolled in an entrepreneurship certificate program offered by the engineering college. While other students created business plans for mock corporations, Rambo, Reed and Perry developed one for a commercial drone manufacturing operation that would soon be born.
They named their company Altavian and launched it in 2011 to offer an improved version of their prototype, which they called the Nova. The three founders remained the only employees for the first year as they got off the ground.
Their big break came the next year.
“Army leadership heard what we were doing with the Corps and wanted us to start producing for them,” Rambo said. “That’s the owner of one of the world’s largest drone fleets.”
Entering A Growth Phase
Customers started presenting unique data sets they developed with the help of the Nova, which became Altavian’s best marketing to new clients. They began hiring to scale up operations. New computer, electrical and mechanical engineers came on board. They hired pilots and machinists. Now the company employs 43 people, and more are being sought.
They found their niche offering commercial workhorse drones, which now include fixed-wing and octocopter models. The drones could produce extremely accurate data and integrate with medium- and enterprise-size business and government operations. Each unit sells for $20,000 to $60,000, depending on the sensors the customer needs.
The commercial unmanned aerial vehicle market is growing thanks to news about Amazon and other retailers who will use them to deliver products. Of course, that’s only the high-visibility, consumer-facing part of a larger market that will use drones in everything from infrastructure and crop inspection to emergency services and construction. Analysts expect more than 800,000 units to be sold annually by 2021, and Goldman Sachs predicted a $100 billion market opportunity for drones through 2020.
From a quiet street lined with oaks dripping Spanish moss in the northeast of this college town, Altavian is angling to grow its piece of this rapidly expanding pie. Rambo said the company is now generating tens of millions of dollars in drone sales.
In the back of one of the two squat one-story buildings they work from is the center of manufacturing. The gray cement floor of a large garage is packed with lathes, milling machines, fabrication tables and a vacuum former, a device that shapes plastics by stretching them over premade molds. Here, employees assemble parts made of materials like Kevlar, carbon fiber and fiberglass, with electronics produced in the adjacent room.
The space is barely large enough to service Altavian’s couple of dozen customers, so with growth in the cards, the company will soon move to a newer, bigger facility across town.
Big Data, Big Problem
Early on, the company realized that its customers were often less interested in the raw photos and videos coming from drone overflights. Instead, they wanted advanced data products. One commercial client might need a three-dimensional model of a construction site that could run a simulation of a flood. Another would be interested in a productivity analysis of agricultural fields. A government agency may demand thematic maps that highlight where waterways are being choked by invasive water hyacinth.
“On a full battery, a single drone flight comes back with up to 15 gigabytes of raw data on its memory card,” said Ryan MacNeille, Altavian’s data operations manager. “But those are just images, and they’re not really useful to most customers.”
MacNeille says processing each flight’s 12,000 raw images can easily produce hundreds of gigabytes. And that’s just one flight in projects that often require a number of days.
“It’s a big issue for us in terms of transmitting and processing data in places that don’t have access to fast internet,” said MacNeille, pointing to the rural farmer who doesn’t have a computer with sufficient processing power or a connection beyond a cellphone.
To deal with this problem, Altavian customizes its product workflow for each customer. Sometimes, the team ships hard drives for the customer to load on the drone data and ship it back. Other times, it temporarily leases time and space at a processing center near the customer. For transferring these massive data sets, Altavian is always looking for higher upload and download speeds on both its end and the customer’s.
Since it started operations, Altavian has been working with Cox Business to create and manage a network, as well as a connection out to the broader internet that meets its bandwidth needs.
Meeting a host of networking and technology challenges is critical to unlocking the full potential of a brand-new industry that is full of opportunities.
“There’s a lot of growth to come, a lot more money to be made supplanting and aiding traditional work with manned aviation,” Thomas Rambo said. “Why put someone in harm’s way when you can do it with a drone?”