Emergency Support with Drones, Aerial Thermography, and the Importance of Doing Hard Things: An Interview with Brendan Stewart, Co-Founder of AeroVista Innovations
BY Zacc Dukowitz10 November 2017
We’ve known Brendan Stewart of AeroVista Innovations for a while now. He’s the instructor for our partner course, Introduction to Aerial Thermography, and he’s also one of the most knowledgeable, interesting drone pilots we’ve ever come across.
We got to meet Brendan in person for the first time at InterDrone back in September, and he had so many insights about flying and the drone industry in general that we wanted to sit down and interview him so that we could share his expertise with the UAV Coach Community.
About Brendan Stewart
Brendan is the Co-Founder and President of Engineering at AeroVista Innovations, a premier provider of civil unmanned aviation solutions. He discovered his passion for aviation in 2008 after struggling in school and leaving the public education system to attend a more experiential learning environment. In his spare time, Brendan flies manned Light Sport aircraft and likes to take cross country trips to keep the “flying bug” alive. He also enjoys prototyping new aircraft and electronics, taking things apart and putting them back together and sharing his knowledge with those who share his passion for aviation.
About AeroVista Innovations
AeroVista Innovations is an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) training and consulting services firm that provides solutions for Public Safety & Enterprise clients. They offer flight services and media production; ground and flight school training; and aerial video production.
Brendan Stewart, Co-Founder and Chief Pilot of AeroVista Innovations
UAV Coach: Describe what AeroVista Innovations does in one short sentence.
Brendan Stewart: We provide the training and the consulting services to help both public and private agencies maximize the benefits drones have to offer.
UAV Coach: You’ve expanded operations at AeroVista in the recent months from providing aerial services into training public agencies. Can you describe that transition and how your company has grown and shifted focus?
Brendan Stewart: Two years ago we started AeroVista Innovations as a flight service company, and the challenge to us at that time was figuring out how to scale our operations.
We needed to find space and professional, proficient drone pilots, and this was back during the section 333 process when it was even harder to groom drone pilots to do work with flight service networks. To address this problem, we launched AeroVista Drone Academy and began training commercial drone pilots.
Two years ago drone pilots all came from the mass pilot community, and didn’t really know much about drones. When the FAA issued the Part 107 rules, we realized many of the challenges that we experienced in the flight services business are really similar across the market.
Everyone needs to train pilots, and to create and document standard operating procedures. We all need that ecosystem of support to make our drone operation successful. This need is at the root of why we pivoted to start providing trainings as well as aerial services.
UAV Coach: Tell us about your background. How did you first get involved in the drone industry?
Brendan Stewart: I’ve always been an aviation geek. I grew up flying model airplanes at my local AMA field. Back in 2009 when I was a sophomore in High School I built my first multi-rotor drone, a Gaui 330X.
It’s important to remember that about eight years ago you couldn’t buy a drone that didn’t come from a kit. You had to build it if you wanted to fly it. Premium add ons were things like GPS positioning, servo driven camera gimbals—I mean, it was stone age compared to where we are today.
I spent innumerable hours throughout those years, flying early FTV setups on both fixed wing and multi-driven platforms. Working on it, building, learning ways to become better pilots. That’s really one of the things that fascinated me was constantly iterating the technology and the procedures that we used to approach the technology to be more effective, and to fly longer and fly more successfully.
Around 2014 I started flying manned aircraft and at the end of 2014 I completed my sport pilot certificate. That’s kind of the lowest level of entry to fly manned aircraft, and I was really excited about that because the other thing that happened at the end of 2014 is that the section 333 process was released.
With my credentials in hand, I spent my first hours flying commercial drones under the section 333 process. Most of the demand, back in that time, was in the film industry, so I flew big heavy octocopters for a number of big name productions in Chicago. That was a very cool experience, and it taught me a lot about airmanship and the necessity for training. Nothing makes you sweat like being responsible for a $150,000 cinema camera.
After going through those experiences we started AeroVista Innovations in 2015, and the rest is history.
UAV Coach: You’re the instructor for the Aerial Thermography course we offer at UAV Coach, and you led the effort to create that course. How are drone pilots actually making money with thermography these days?
Brendan Stewart: The aerial thermography course took a huge amount of work to pull together—big shout out to the rest of the team at AVI for supporting the effort and the partnership with UAV Coach.
Thermo imaging is fascinating, and it’s one of the hottest market opportunities in the UAS industry right now (pun intended!).
Doing aerial thermography takes a lot of subject-matter expertise, and a lot of the inspections that deal with thermography can be pretty time consuming and challenging.
Public safety students use thermography routinely. Aerial thermography from drones and from manned aircraft has been instrumental in helping firefighters battle the wild fires going on right now in northern California, and also in helping search and rescue teams find missing people.
But just like any technology, there’s a continuum of difficulty. Some students are surprised to learn that roofing inspections, for instance, are one of the most challenging applications of aerial thermography. Why is that? Well, roofing is challenging because you really need subject-matter expertise in roofing specifically to be effective. Most roofs have to be inspected just after sunset to avoid the glare of the sun. Later than an hour or two after sunset and the roof is too cool. Also, some roofing materials won’t respond to thermal inspections.
UAV Coach: What are some of the most interesting applications you’ve seen for aerial thermography? Is there are anything unique or interesting about aerial thermography that you learned while creating the course?
Brendan Stewart: There’s one visual area of thermography that’s really interesting to me, and I don’t see a lot of drone pilots exploring it yet. It’s called optical gas imaging, or OGI.
OGI equipment is used in tracking minuscule changes in the temperature that are caused by expanding gases. As gas expands, it cools down, and that’s why we have a can of spray paint and the outside of the can feels cold.
OGI has been used in hand held solutions for quite a while, and to visualize fumes of noxious or explosive gases escaping from industrial hardware. So a lot of these options are in the petroleum industry. If you Google “optical gas imaging thermal”, you can see what the images and the data that’s being sent back by this equipment looks like.
My thinking is that, with the number of off-shore oil rigs and assets in the gulf, optical gas imaging sensors could be instrumental in detecting leaks after severe weather events. We just had a whole bunch of hurricanes roll through the gulf and there aren’t a lot of companies that are actually offering these solutions because they tend to be a little bit complicated and a little bit more expensive than your traditional thermal products.
UAV Coach: Recently during Hurricanes Harvey and Irma (not to mention Maria and José!) we saw a lot of commercial drone pilots who wanted to help, but couldn’t effectively coordinate with the FAA and local emergency management. Given that you do work in this area, what are your thoughts on how we can develop UAS implementation programs to connect those with the services to those in need during crisis periods like these?
Brendan Stewart: We’ve already seen a lot of commercial operators stepping up to the plate and put their priorities aside to respond to these emergencies.
That sentiment is incredibly commendable, but by definition emergencies are dangerous, chaotic, and busy. At the ground level you might have multiple chains of commands and hundreds or sometimes thousands of responders, all coordinating with one another to get the job done.
You’re also going to have a lot of helicopter traffic from medical evacuations, and those copters are allowed below 500 feet, so you’re probably going to be sharing the airspace with them at all times. Something as simple as communication on a public radio frequency where only one person can transmit at a time can be challenging. Public safety personnel, just like us in aviation, have their own SOPs, their own jargon, so simply understanding the strategy or objectives can be really challenging.
The best thing that you can do in the event of an emergency is to be as meticulously prepared as possible. The first step is to reach out to your local public safety departments prior to responding to an emergency and offer your services as a resource.
A lot of these departments and agencies don’t know much about drones. It’s important to talk to your departments, offer your services, and then train them to understand how to operate effectively and integrate your services into their operations.
Make sure you can address basic questions about structure. Who is the incident commander (basically the boss on scene)? What information do they need to make decisions about how to attack that emergency? How else do you coordinate effectively to provide that data with your drone? How are you going to communicate and coordinate with other drones and helicopters?
Once you answer all of those questions and really know how your local departments and local emergency responders respond and operate, you’re ready to go when requested. The last thing you want to do is fly during an emergency if you’re not integrated into the existing emergency response framework.
UAV Coach: What drone(s) do you fly and what camera(s) do you use?
Brendan Stewart: So my list used to be a lot longer back when I was flying in the flight services world, and when I was flying in commercial film production.
These days, because we focus mostly on training, our fleet isn’t as quite as attractive as it used to be. We have a few Phantoms, both 3 and 4. We also have a Mavic and a really well loved Inspire 1, which has helped over 150 new pilots earn their wings in the profession.
UAV Coach: What do you see at the biggest challenge to the adoption of drones, and general growth of the drone industry?
Brendan Stewart: I see a couple of challenges for growth. First, a reminder that we are still in the absolute infancy of what drones have to offer.
Drones have only been operating legally in commercial scenarios since 2014, so only for about three years. Since we’re in an emerging market, there’s still going to be skepticism and a public perception of risk. That’s why it’s paramount that all of us in the drone industry hold ourselves to the highest standards of training, proficiency, and safety to help demonstrate that a drone can be a viable solution to a myriad of problems.
Another challenge are those bad actors operating without certification and without proper training.
As a legal and proficient pilot, it’s nearly impossible to compete with the fly-by-night operations, which work without certification, documentation, or waivers. Most clients don’t yet understand how qualified a pilot’s expertise is.
If we want this industry to grow, it’s important that we educate our clients on how important it is to hire qualified pilots who are operating legally and safely.
UAV Coach: Given your background and expertise in commercial drone services, where do you see the drone industry headed for service providers? Will aerial cinematography still be the primary area of saturation, or are commercial applications going to end up on top? And what are your general predictions for the industry (what do you see way down the road, what you see for next year, new applications, etc.).
Brendan Stewart: I’m going to answer your question in three parts. I have some short term predictions, some predictions for a few years out, and a long term prediction for pilots and service providers.
First, let’s look at the short term. What’s happening right now in flight services? We’re already seeing some downward price pressure on simpler operations with a less quantifiable return on investment.
This happens for a few reasons. The first is pretty obvious: there’s more competition, with more pilots providing aerial services.
The second reason is that quantifiable ROIs are going to be significantly easier to sell and to sell at a higher price. For example, it’s easier for a construction company to spend a few thousand a month on flights when there are demonstrable savings for work being done on a big million dollar building.
But if you’re a realtor selling a home or a golf course, stepping up your marketing by $500 to $750 per flight could be a tougher pill to swallow. You can’t directly predict what your increase in business might be from the expense, so it feels like a bigger risk. We all know that advertising is crucial, but if there’s an indirect association with potential increases in revenue compared to the cost of the service, cross competition in the market place is driving prices down. It’s always easier to compare cost versus savings than it is to project potential revenue increases in the future.
My prediction for the next few years is that we’re going to see a big consolidation of the flight services sector.
We’re probably going to see less and less of the one to five pilot operations that dabble in a little bit of everything, and significant growth in the most specialized firms in different verticals.
A major motion picture will want to contract a firm that specializes in aerial cinematography for film, with extensive experience on a number of productions. A construction firm is going to gravitate toward hiring a company that specializes in mapping, with years of experience in construction and deriving insights and recommendations from the data gathered.
Many of these applications are going to require subject matter expertise to be effective, and it’s extremely difficult to maintain the expertise in every single vertical when your competitors are really focused on only one particular vertical, like construction, cinematography, or real estate.
My recommendation to drone pilots for how to survive and thrive in this growing industry is very simple: do hard things. Complicated and difficult applications have fewer competitors, and it’s harder for competitors to get into doing those things.
Difficult fields will also require someone with expertise even as technology moves toward automation and simple solutions.
Take critical infrastructure inspections, such as energy and petro chemicals. These are hard to automate because the variables are constantly changing, and those verticals are going to look at a well trained pilot with sound judgment as an essential mitigator of liability.
Other applications, like high end cinematography, essentially can’t be automated because each flight is going to be highly bespoke and the results are very subjective. You can’t make a robot that’s going to look at a shot with the same eye as a cinematographer.
Specialize in hard, complicated things and you’ll thrive. Don’t be afraid to dig in.
Check out this video created by AeroVista Innovations for the state of Iowa, which features the High Trestle Trail Bridge in Boone County, IA.