The word ‘drones’ carries a negative connotation in the minds of many. Unpleasant images of aerial bombings and privacy invasions often pop up whenever drone technology is discussed. Yet the industry is growing rapidly and bringing to the forefront a range of business opportunities.
Robert Wolf – former President and Chief Operating Officer of UBS Investment Bank and three-time President Obama appointee – knew of the negative stereotypes of drones when cofounding his company, Measure, in 2015. Many advised him to use a softer term, such as unmanned aerial vehicle, but he felt the emerging innovative uses of drones would put them in a new light and alter public opinion.
Almost three years and 2,000 flights later, Measure, based in D.C., is one of the fastest growing drone service providers in the country.
The company’s tagline is “We don’t make drones. We make drones work.” That’s to say, the company has dedicated a significant amount of time and energy establishing new ways drones can streamline efficiency in commercial and industrial sectors.
Wolf defined the story of his company and the future of drones at the Smart Cities NYC conference in early May. After a shaky and admittedly humbling 18 months, Wolf’s company has pivoted to redefine its markets multiple times. In the beginning, they focused on precision agriculture and post-disaster recovery, but found the former tied to commoditization of pricing and the latter to be too reliant on government approval.
Then, they shifted their focus to solutions in media, cell tower repair and bridge inspection. But the process of replacing camera crews or field workers doesn’t happen overnight, so they widened their gaze to other industry sectors, which are now bringing the company to cash flow positive.
They are devoting their technology to four areas: power, media, vertical infrastructure and architecture/engineering/construction (AEC). Within those sectors, Wolf is extremely excited about the problems that drones can solve. Examples include detecting methane gas over a reservoir, flying over the safari to find anti-wildlife poachers, and recovering disaster victims in places that helicopters can’t reach, to name a few.
These solutions, however, take time.
“What we thought was a solution a day ago is different today,” said Wolf. “Each and every day, we’re figuring out how to monetize [drone solutions] so that they become more mainstream, but there’s no one-size-fits-all.”
The solutions, Wolf posits, is primarily coming via partnering with Fortune 250 companies to provide safer and more efficient operational methodologies. Measure has taken steps to ensure its success and longevity, and part of that was having more money on hand than they need, which they achieved through their sizeable fundraising that totaled $20 million in Series A and B.
“If Fortune 250 companies are going to take you under their hood and have you be the fabric of their solution, then they want to know you’re going to be around,” said Wolf. “We have a lot of cash of hand, and that’ll give us a runway to invest in our clients, whether that’s proof of concepts, best pilots or our engineering.”
Regulations are going to decide the scope and speed of the implementation of drones into daily life. Flying a drone – whether you’re a professional pilot or an amateur hobbyist – is regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). According to Wolf, regulations were quite onerous until fall of last year, when they loosened up a bit to reflect the growing interest and need of drones.
Still, rural areas will see regular drone usage before cities do, for a few different reasons. First, it’s currently illegal to fly a drone within five miles of an airport. Since many cities have an airport, that drastically cuts down the amount of available airspace.
Second, privacy is an issue for many.
“In cities, you have tall residencies, and people don’t want something spying on them,” said Wolf.
Lastly, anything aerial post-9/11 still sends shivers down many spines. Simply put, people feel uncomfortable with things flying over their heads.
Despite the possibility for drones to streamline sometimes hazardous work such as bridge inspections, the mainstream public isn’t quite ready to accept the technology with open arms. While drones may seem like a mark of the future, Wolf is quick to say that cities won’t be living in the Jetsons’ era quite yet.
To usher in the new era, Wolf believes the answer lies in the education system. During his appointments under Obama, he and the president worked on defining and promoting crucial skillsets for America’s future. With so many job opportunities created through the drone industry – pilots, software engineers, business developers, etc. – it’s crucial to make sure that students, as well as the current labor force, continues to study technological development and engineering.
“We need to make sure that institutions are training kids for real jobs,” said Wolf. “It can’t come only from the best engineering schools; we need to make sure we have schools of all types and sizes training kids the best way.”
With the younger generation already so familiar with emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence, robotics and virtual reality, they’re best equipped to push drones forward.
“When I think about driverless cars, I think about the risk. When they think about driverless cars, they think about the reward,” said Wolf.
In its third year, Measure plans for continued expansion that includes franchises. With a seasoned core of military-veterans-turned-drone-pilots and key talent drawn to the company from across the country, their expectation is to have a leading role in this high growth industry that will help define much of the country’s technology future.