Custom Big Rigs for Top Secret Applications: An Interview with Max Tubman, Founder of BFD Systems
BY Zacc Dukowitz14 August 2017
A few weeks back we spent some time with Max Tubman, a drone pilot with years of experience, learning about the Dos and Don’ts of flying drones on movie sets (the material in that article was originally presented by Max at the New York City Drone Film Festival back in February, where he was an invited speaker).
When we spoke with Max he’d just started a new company, BFD Systems, which was launched to meet the need in the market for custom big rigs built with specific applications in mind.
We wanted to learn more about BFD and about Max’s work with custom big rigs, so we sat down to pick his brain.
UAV Coach: Please describe what BFD Systems does in one short sentence.
Max Tubman: BFD makes big drones for custom applications, particularly when customers need to lift 15lb – 40lb payloads. All our systems are built to order, for either the film industry or the industrial industry.
UAV Coach: You’ve been working closely with Gryphon Dynamics for some time now, and that relationship is what led to the creation of BFD Systems. Fill us in on where BFD came from, and what your vision is for the company.
Max Tubman: Gryphon Dynamics makes great airframe hardware and I’ve been a huge fan of theirs from the beginning, including back when I spent time working with XM2 Australia.
What I noticed when I was working with Gryphon was there was a niche market of people who didn’t just need an airframe, they needed a complete custom solution, with integrated payload systems, custom R&D, and even fleet management solutions.
This level of complete system development requires a lot of time and resources, which is what led BFD Systems to become its own entity separate from the creator of the airframe manufacturer.
UAV Coach: How did you first get involved with the drone industry?
Max Tubman: As I kid I flew RC aircraft with my grandfather and my father, and I’ve always liked to take things apart and learn how they work.
I ended up going to college for film making, and at the time I saw a film call “La Haine” from 1997 that featured a short drone shot using a 16mm camera that blew my mind. It wasn’t until years later when the GoPro first came out that I actually started flying cameras.
Soon the cameras got bigger, the RC helicopters became multirotors, then drones, and the rest is history.
Check out the opening shot and the shot at 1:11 to see what Max is talking about
UAV Coach: You have an extensive background in doing aerial cinematography via drones for movies. What was one of your favorite projects to work on, and why?
Max Tubman: Each project has its own level of excitement and unique challenges. Some of my favorite projects involve chasing vehicles or flying fast and low.
Everyone wants to do a high wide shot or a pull back. I like working with directors who know how to use the drone as another tool in their kit, not just as a gimmick, or just to say they used a drone.
UAV Coach: You’ve been involved with teams that build custom drones for all kinds of commercial applications. At a high level, can you walk us through the process of building a custom platform for a specific application—how do you start, how do you test, and how do you verify that you’ve built exactly what is needed for the job?
Evan and Mike from BFD Systems working on a custom drone
Max Tubman: Almost always the processes starts with extracting the right information from the customer, which can be a challenge.
Every variable for a custom UAS such as the motors, batteries, flight controller, or payload can dramatically affect the build or flight parameters. After we work out the mission requirements, we kit out the components and frame.
From there we test every part of every system on a bench tester or in a lab setting. For example, motor testing is critical because the motor specs may vary from the factory or when in coaxial configurations.
I don’t think any of our customers know how much time and testing goes into each aircraft. We are continually expanding our knowledge base, but every project requires some new discovery to get all the electronics and mechanics to play nicely together.
UAV Coach: What drone(s) do you fly and what camera(s) do you use?
Max Tubman: We fly everything. For fun we’ll do FPV race quads or airplanes. For image capture we’ll use anything from 800mm custom quads to 2400mm Octocopters with 32” props. My personal passion right now is finding a cool project to shoot with an Arri 416, 16mm or 435, 35mm camera.
UAV Coach: Most of the drones you fly are heavy rigs that cost tens of thousands of dollars. Is it stressful to fly such an expensive piece of equipment? Have you ever had anything go wrong during a flight?
Max Tubman: Because we are constantly developing new platforms and testing aircraft to the limit sometimes things break, but that allows you to learn from mistakes when testing and not while flying expensive payloads.
When flying expensive payloads we always have insurance, but also redundant flight systems and procedures, as well as parachutes and other safety features. It can be stressful but you generally just get used to it, and you become super focused on getting the work done.
UAV Coach: What advice can you give to solopreneurs out there trying to get their drone business off the ground?
Max Tubman: Don’t be complicit with your work. Be hyper critical of what you’re doing and learn from your mistakes. Also, make a list safety rules and stick to them.
Clients will push you to do unsafe or illegal stuff all the time. Stick to your rules and learn how to give options that are safer that get the desired shot rather than just saying no.
[In case you missed it, in this recent article Max shared a template to help commercial drone pilots with pricing, along with lots of other great advice on how to get—and keep—clients in the movie industry.]
UAV Coach: What are your predictions for the drone industry? Please feel free to answer at length (what you see way down the road, what you see for next year, where you see regulations headed in the U.S. and/or elsewhere, new applications, etc.).
Max Tubman: As we stand on the verge of a new battery technology and a fundamental shift of how we generate or consume energy, I think the drone industry is in for some major upgrades.
In the next few years you’ll see a lot more manned multirotors with increasing range, safety, and convenience. Emergency response, transportation, and military might see an increase in autonomous multirotors.
Another interesting question is looking at what the drone industry has become. Right now so much of the industry is fully or partially reliant on DJI aircraft and flight controllers. We have a monoculture that would suffer huge setbacks if for some reason DJI was no longer a viable option.
Check out Max flying a big rig in the snow: