Small Drone Operators, Big-Time Jobs: LIFT’s Network in Action

Guest Post by Rebecca Wilson, Skyward

skyward screen shotOver the past several months, hundreds of drone service providers have reached out to us for advice on marketing and gaining new customers. In fact, more than a third of drone entrepreneurs told us that marketing is their biggest business challenge. We decided to tackle this issue head on. First, Erin Olsen, our marketing director, published an article on the basics and best practices of marketing.

Next, our product and engineering teams created two beautiful flight badges, so pilots and businesses can demonstrate their expertise by showing their aggregated flight hours on their websites.

We also started asking our most active customers what they’ve done to acquire so many jobs, many of them for major corporations.

A few weeks ago, I sat down with LIFT Technologies COO Andrew Dennison to get some expert advice for small operators.

As a division of the construction and engineering giant Clayco, LIFT has the energy of a startup but understands what it takes to work with corporations—things like insurance, documented processes, and a huge portfolio of work. LIFT drone pilots fly many of the jobs you would expect for a business so closely tied to the construction industry: surveying and industrial inspections.

But they also have developed a network of high-quality smaller drone operators who can respond quickly to job requests all over the U.S. and Canada.

LIFT_Operators“Our tagline is America’s Droneliner, and that’s really what we aspire to be,” Andrew told me.  “We are the company that manages drone operators like an airline manages pilots. We make sure they follow the airspace regulations, that they are qualified, and that they maintain consistent procedures.”

The focus on consistency, compliance, and solid procedures has enabled LIFT to acquire contracts with major TV networks and other corporations.

That means that members of LIFT’s network have access to high-profile, well-paying jobs that they wouldn’t have access to on their own. This might be the most inexpensive and straightforward way for a small business to get more jobs, and it requires no advertising, marketing budget, or networking events.

Take Cloud9Drones, also a Skyward customer. Cloud9 is a small aerial data business with a diverse portfolio based in Austin and a member of LIFT’s network of operators. Last month, when torrential rains created deadly floods in Texas, a TV network reached out to LIFT for help covering the tragedy. LIFT in turn reached out to Cloud9, an operator they know and trust.

LIFT and Cloud9 worked together to find safe flight locations that didn’t interfere with emergency responders and didn’t endanger the operators.

The next day, Cloud9’s footage appeared on a nationally broadcasted morning talk show—a huge coup for a small business!

A similar situation occurred in May, when national news outlets wanted footage of the gigantic prairie fire that devastated Fort McMurray, Alberta. Footage was obtained safely, legally, and without hindering fire-fighting efforts.

LIFT's drone operator network was able to safely acquire footage of the Fort McMurray Fire

Major broadcasters and other corporations rely on LIFT because they trust their operations and logistics experience, and they know they’ll follow the rules. And LIFT’s network, which extends throughout the U.S. and Canada, enables them to deploy flight crews quickly, sometimes with less than 24 hours notice.

Airspace regulations don’t always jive with the 24-hour news cycle. LIFT files a NOTAM before every flight, as required by current U.S. law (that requirement will go away when Part 107 takes effect in August).

“Sometimes we have to slow down the shooting process,” said Andrew. “We file a NOTAM as soon as a client calls us. We’re not always able to get a NOTAM for a shoot that’s happening this afternoon, but we can get it by tomorrow afternoon.”

This focus on regulations may be frustrating to an individual producer with a deadline—but it’s precisely why major corporations hire LIFT in the first place. Some small operators might be willing to skirt a regulation, but that’s just not a risk that a high-visibility major corporation can afford to take.

“We have standards to fly for LIFT that most small operators don’t have,” said Andrew. “These are the same standards that our corporate clients have. We have a high-coverage insurance policy, we have meticulous maintenance records, and we log the details of every flight. These are the kinds of things that major corporations want to see. When our network of operators flies for us, they use these procedures.”

For more on LIFT’s operational procedures, check out this article.

LIFT also has high standards for the businesses in their network. “For every small operator we work with, we have a consistent vetting process,” said Andrew.

Here’s what they look for:

  • Insurance: General liability, aircraft liability, and worker’s compensation (These are the same standards that Clayco requires for all of their subcontractors, whether they’re drone pilots or electricians or plumbers working on a major construction site.)
  • Pilot qualifications: At least 50 hours of manned flight time and 30 hours of unmanned flight time. “These aren’t the cheapest pilots, but they’re the safest because they know how to communicate within our national airspace,” Andrew said.
  • Maintenance records: Everyone handles maintenance records differently, but LIFT wants to see good records for aircraft and batteries.
  • Portfolio: This helps LIFT gauge an operator’s level and area of expertise—for example, filming for broadcast news, inspecting a wind turbine, or delivering volumetrics data on a sugar beet harvest.
  • Equipment portfolio: Which models of aircraft do you have experience flying?
  • Professionalism and trustworthiness: “We check references to see if the operator understands how to run a business and provide good service,” Andrew said.

Often small operators fall short of just a few of these qualifications, but it’s not a deal-breaker. “In that case, we say, ‘You’re almost there! Come back in a few months when you have more flight hours, for example, and let’s try again,’” said Andrew. Once LIFT accepts an operator into their network they teach them out to become a LIFT-certified operator, which includes following specific processes and procedures.

“We require pre-mission, preflight, post-flight, and post-mission checklists for all of the different types of flights we do,” Andrew said. “So we have one set of checklists for broadcasting, which is different than the checklists for a construction site or the checklists for real estate photography.”

If you have a small drone services business, or if you’re a sole proprietor, chances are you fly for many diverse clients, including bigger companies such as LIFT. We wanted to make it easy for individual pilots and larger businesses to collaborate and share jobs.

Bigger companies can create a separate organization within Skyward to manage their freelance and contract pilots. This way, an individual operator won’t have visibility into the totality of the company’s drone operations—just the jobs specific to that contractor.

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And for individual pilots, we created the personal flight hours badge, which aggregates all of the flight hours an individual pilot logs in Skyward across every organization they fly for, including historical flight hours. This is great for freelancers or contractors who may be a member of several different organizations. As long as you use the same email address across organizations, your personal flight hours badge will keep updating. The badge is available to everyone with a Skyward Basic subscription (it’s free).

Photographs in this post are courtesy of LIFT Technologies.

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