What it Takes to Succeed in Drones

Mark Bathrick, of the US Department of the Interior, should know what it takes to succeed in commercial drone business.  He runs a department that is one of the United States’ leaders in use and integration of UAV technology.  His department runs a project managing over 500 million acres and using more than 1,200 aircraft to do it – including hundreds of drones.  The drones perform more than 25 different applications to manage US lands, including avalanche control, monitoring of illegal dumping, and surveying.  In addition, he is an advisor for startups – and has had the opportunity to critique a number of new drone businesses.

As a keynote speaker at the Commercial UAV Expo in Las Vegas this morning, he shared the four competencies he says are essential to success in the commercial drone industry: aviation, privacy, security, and culture.

“Part 107 gave the foundation for commercial UAV business,” said Bathrick.  “The number of unmanned aircraft registered in the United States exceeds the number of manned aircraft registered in the United States by 90%.”  But despite the early stage of the industry, Bathrick says that competition is already ramping up.  “There are over 500 drone manufacturers in the space… and hundreds more in related technologies…We’ve already seen a winnowing of companies as capital and customers get more tight.”

The Four Key Competencies:

  1. Aviation.  While drone technology companies may understand their technology and the business problem that they solve, they have to also understand that aviation businesses are different than those on the ground.   “Aviation is unforgiving,” says Bathrick, pointing out that mistakes can be costly: “Drones are closer to people and infrastructure with less airspace for recovery.”   Companies need to have systems and processes in place for managing the safety and regulatory environments.
  2. Privacy.  Bathrick says that privacy issues are more important for drones than they are for manned aircraft because the public is more anxious about drones that they can see.  Commercial drone businesses need to craft policies that involve “positive, proactive communication and planning.”  Best practices include “proactive communication, public transparency, thoughtful data collection, responsible data storage and sharing, continuous improvement for data security, and being current and compliant with privacy laws.”  It can get complicated, as Bathrick points out that you need to have plans for all of the data that you capture, even accidentally:“Privacy isn’t just about what you meant to capture… you can capture data outside of the objective.”
  3. Security.  Drones have special security vulnerabilities, because they are often transportable.  Companies need to be aware of that and have adequate inventory and control policies in place to ensure that their drones don’t end up being used inappropriately.  Other security vulnerabilities include: Navigation (GPS jamming, blocking, spoofing); Control (Electromagnetic Interference (EMI), Hacking); Payload (Live stream interception) and Data (Storage, processing, and distribution.)  The last can be especially important, Bathrick says: “Customers want to understand where that data is going.”
  4. Organizational Culture.  Bathrick says that oganizational culture ties it all together.  “UAV company culture requires special attention,” he says. “If your culture is not prepared for the additional responsibilities and liabilities that come with having an aviation business – your company is not ready.”  In addition to a culture of attention to detail, safety, and security, Bathrick says that commercial drone companies need to be nimble, as changes of regulations and technology are incredibly rapid in the space. “You need to be able to flex and change quickly enough to stay with this.”

Bathrick is enthusiastic about where the commercial drone industry is going, and sees almost limitless possibilities.  “It’s an incredibly exciting time to be working in this space…. I can’t see an end to where we’re going to apply this technology.”

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