What inspired the creation of Sky-Futures?
One of my co-founders, Chris Blackford and I were working in the military in 2006-07 and it was in Iraq and Afghanistan that we used drones on the frontline. The technology was very good in the military and it was evolving very quickly. Before we went into a new hostile area we would get the drone to continuously fly around that area. We used very basic algorithms to pattern match, to see what was happening on the ground. We were actually looking for the absence of the normal – an anomaly, which helped. And it was the understanding of the power of this technology, especially in the context of the military, that led us to think what else we could do with this.
Alongside Nick Rogers, a commercial airline pilot, we set up the business in 2009. We took a fair amount of time to think about where commercially the best fit was. After looking at all sectors, we concluded that the oil and gas territory was the hardest to penetrate and had the most barriers to entry. As a first mover, we thought that to focus specifically on one sector and become a niche within that sector would prove our ability to operate commercially, safely and effectively and also enable us to create market-specific solutions to stay ahead.
When you started, were there other players in the market?
There was one another company that was delivering similar work in the oil and gas sector but very early on we took the view that providing just a service using drones would quickly be out of date. We are a drone enabled data company. That’s actually how we see ourselves. So the drone helps us get the data, but the data is what we really care about. Furthermore, in Q1 2016 we are bringing out a range of new products which will really differentiate us from the market.
How has the commercial drone industry developed over the years?
As far as the drone market goes, you can look at the amount of people that now have a license to operate drones in the UK, it used to be only a handful when we started out back in 2009. We had one of the very first licenses to operate drones commercially and now there are hundreds of businesses and individuals using them for a variety of purposes- from BBC documentaries to estate agents taking pictures of houses. A lot of people are building drones, but I think the number of hardware companies will reduce in 2016, bringing the main players to the fore as they make more sophisticated and capable drones.
We actually have our own UAV training academy and we are the 3rd qualified entity to do this. We are certified by the Civil Aviation Authority and we can train outside individuals as well as our own staff to become pilots. Our own remote pilots go through a month long course, which is specific for oil and gas centred on a ground school and safe operating procedures. We realised that we could use our experience and high-quality CAA approved training to deliver high-value operational training to companies, specifically within the emergency response sector. It’s not an area where we would ever provide our own service, but what we can do is train other services where there is a high level of scrutiny on safety and operational procedures, which is similar to oil and gas.
What are the barriers to entry in the commercial drones industry?
The regulatory environment is not only difficult in the UK but also in the US. No one was allowed to operate commercially really until the beginning of 2015. We managed to get the 42nd exemption to operate in the US, which is super early and the only reason we were able to do that was because we had been really working hard for the previous 18 months to press the cause and let them know how we operated elsewhere.
We have actually advised, helped & shared a lot of our documentation and a lot of our processes with different aviation industries around the world. We have worked in 16 different countries, a lot of those countries don’t even necessarily have the legislation in place. We try to work closely with different authorities and regulators so they can understand what safe and excellent operations look like, and this enables us to deliver work commercially.
Other barriers include educating the clients as to what a good service looks like. This is something we overcome by understanding their needs, having safety centered operational procedures and delivering safe and efficient services.