An In-Depth Interview with DroneDeploy CEO, Mike Winn
BY Alan Perlman26 May 2016
When you step back and look at the sUAS industry as a whole, it is hard not to be amazed by it. As we work within it day after day, it should be easy to become numb or jaded to its impacts and advancements, but the depth of players and constant innovation involved in this space ensure we don’t fall into complacency. While there are many software companies growing and flourishing in the sUAS world, few have expanded into as many industries as quickly and successfully as DroneDeploy.
DroneDeploy is a San Francisco based startup whose cloud computing software handles autonomous drone control, mapping, modeling and analytics. As their software is accessible through the cloud, the company has developed a system that allows operators and business owners to effortlessly build aerial maps and models while also providing access to advanced data processing and analytics. With applications ranging from construction site volumetric measurement to advanced agricultural mineral analysis, the company has laid groundwork across multiple sectors of the UAS community.
While the company’s success means it is unlikely that any knowledgeable operator in the sUAS community would be unfamiliar with their name, it seems that some may not realize how truly vast their operations are becoming. To that end, we reached out to DroneDeploy with some questions to showcase how they’ve built a growing startup in this area and what they have in store for the future. Fortunate for us (and you), DroneDeploy gave us access to their co-founder and CEO, Mike Winn, to answer our questions.
UAV Coach: First of all, Mike, thank you for your time. For readers who are potentially unfamiliar with DroneDeploy, how would you describe the company in one, short, sentence?
Mike Winn: DroneDeploy is the simplest way to capture and make sense of drone data for business decisions. DroneDeploy is trusted by users in over 100 countries.
UAV Coach: As it currently stands, the UAS industry is a relatively young and growing industry with many companies finding varied degrees of success, but DroneDeploy seems to have risen exponentially over the course of a few short years from a fledgling company with seed money into an industry staple with millions of dollars in subsequent funding. In your opinion, what is it that separates you from others who are struggling in the market?
Mike Winn: The first key here is focus. There’s a great expression that “Startups die of indigestion, not starvation”, and it’s especially true in nascent and developing markets where there is so much opportunity for impact. Since our very beginning we’ve been focused on cloud based software to make drones useful tools for business, and it’s paying off.
The second key element for us is focusing in on a great customer experience – we try to make the UI/UX very easy to learn and use, and make sure that customers are having a great time. As Google put it “Focus on the user, and all else will follow”.
UAV Coach: From our viewpoint, the UAS industry seems to be spreading into a new sector everyday and DroneDeploy seems no different with applications ranging from agricultural to mining to construction. Do you feel like your product is best suited to large scale projects in these sectors (and others) or do they scale to small business operations as well?
Mike Winn: DroneDeploy users span many industries, including agriculture, construction, mining, inspection, drone service providers and more. Our user base is not just diverse in use cases, but also in the sizes of companies that use us, from globally recognized multi-national corporations, all the way down to 1-man drone operators. We are able to provide a product that appeals to a whole range of users, because so many people have a core need to easily operate drones and automatically generate data from which to extract insights. While we have a really strong foundation in simplifying drone data collection, we also offer powerful data analysis tools that large companies need, including the ability to process vast amounts of data, high accuracy, volume calculation, and sophisticated export formats. This flexibility makes our offering useful to anyone with a drone, irrespective of size or use case.
UAV Coach: As your clientele ranges from one-man operations to multi-national corporations across different sectors, it must be difficult to build a single platform that caters to such a diverse user group. As some users may come from small operations that are unaccustomed to using technology in their businesses, how do you feel about the technological proficiency level required to use DroneDeploy? Do you believe the software is easy enough for anyone to learn or does it require sufficient education/training to use?
Mike Winn: DroneDeploy has been built to make the skies accessible and productive to anyone. This requires stripping the complexity out of operating a drone, and building simple workflows that anyone can use. Our free iOS and Android mobile app automates drone flight, requiring just two taps on a mobile device. Your drone automatically takes off, captures imagery along a predefined flight path and lands, without you touching the controller. In terms of analyzing imagery, we also provide tools to make it easier to extract insights. This includes things such as vegetation indexes to understand crop health, elevation maps, 3D models, area and volume measurements, image annotations and sharing to better collaborate with team members.
UAV Coach: Okay, let’s say hypothetically that never used a drone and have very little interest in drones, is there any reason I should care or be aware of DroneDeploy? For example, let’s say that I’m a 6th-grade earth sciences teacher — why is DroneDeploy important to me?
Mike Winn: Drones offer a really fundamental value – the ability to attain a bird’s eye of anything you care about. For example, a 6th-grade earth science teacher could teach a class about erosion through a traditional lecture and textbook reading. Or, the teacher could take the class on a field trip where they fly a drone and create a map of a site. In this case, the imagery that was captured comes alive in the classroom. The kids could interact with the 3D model of the site they visited, view the elevation map to better visualize runoff and erosion, and annotate the image with their hypothesis and learnings. I’d argue that incorporating drone aerial imagery would create a more memorable and engaging lesson for the kids (and teachers).
UAV Coach: I have to say that personally, for me, one of the more fascinating things about DroneDeploy is the melding of a traditional Silicon-Valley-style software company and an up-and-coming market in UAS, which is quite interesting. If I were a high school student who wanted to work for DroneDeploy as a programmer/engineer, what would you recommend to me? Is it more important to load up on certain types of collegiate courses, flesh out my Github account, or grab an Arduino and learn how to use it?
Mike Winn: It’s true that finding great technical talent is tough, but there’s more to it than just coding well. Working in a very fast-paced environment also requires softer skills, such as being driven, self-motivated, communicating well and being able to laugh at yourself. I’d say get out there and do as much as you can. There’s no substitute for real world experience. And if you’ve got what it takes, we’re hiring!
UAV Coach: The advice to just get out there and start doing it in invaluable, in my opinion. I agree that there is no substitute for real world experience. For us tech nerds out there looking to further develop our tech skills, what are the most important technologies to know in order to work with a company like DroneDeploy?
Mike Winn: The commercial drone industry is nascent, but exploding in terms of growth. To stay out in front DroneDeploy focuses on staying nimble and moving fast. We are on the cutting edge on the frontend using Angular2 and TypeScript, and Python and Go on the backend. We process and store a massive amount of data from customers across more than 100 countries and have our core infrastructure on AWS to help us scale quickly.
UAV Coach: The scalability within AWS is perfect for a growing industry like ours – it’s a smart business decision for DroneDeploy. For potential and current users of your platform, how can one get the most out of the DroneDeploy experience — is there a certain type/make/model of UAV I should be looking at? Do you find the results vary from model to model?
Mike Winn: As an open drone software platform DroneDeploy processes geo-tagged images from all drone manufacturers and models. Our customers see great results with drones from senseFly, Parrot, AgEagle, 3DR, DJI and more. However, to leverage DroneDeploy’s full offering requires a DJI drone. This is because our free iOS and Android mobile app, which automates flying and capturing images with just two taps of your mobile device, works with DJI. Today, we support their latest drones, including the Phantom 3 line, Phantom 4, Inspire 1, Inspire 1 Pro and Matrice 100.
UAV Coach: Since I have you here, I have to ask your opinion on the regulatory environment for this industry. While our readers are worldwide, we’re based in the U.S. — as I’m sure you know, there’s a slight controversy when it comes to the FAA regulations in the industry. Do you feel that the current regulations are too stringent or not harsh enough? Do you believe that the requirement for a pilot’s license with manned flight hours is reasonable for commercial UAV purposes or unnecessary?
Mike Winn: Commercial manned aircraft are very different than small drones. Being able to pilot one certainly doesn’t translate to piloting the other. However, understanding the airspace and the ‘rules of the road’ as it were, is critical. We understand why the FAA is proceeding cautiously, but like many others we’ll be excited to see the regulations finalized. Thus far, we’ve been impressed by the proposed rules the FAA has come up with, and think it’s great that the blanket COA altitude has been raised, and we’re looking forward to a micro rule.
UAV Coach: The FAA is definitely in a hard position as it is unenviably difficult to manage the safety of an airspace this large while also juggling the expectations of individual pilots, so we’re also very interested in seeing what they come up with in the micro rule. To touch further on pilots, we are, obviously, big advocates of education; what are your thoughts on standardized curriculum for UAV pilots?
Mike Winn: A standardized curriculum for UAV pilots is important to ensure that all pilots have a common understanding of regulations, procedures and emergency scenarios. The FAA has a pretty good system in place for certifying airmen for different categories of manned aircraft, and a similar framework can translate into certifying UAV pilots too provided a relevant and carefully curated curriculum is set in place.
UAV Coach: As a spectator, it’s amazing to see how the company has grown since 2013 and it’s hard to imagine what will happen if you continue to grow at this rate. For you, where do you foresee the company in 2020?
Mike Winn: Looking at the Commercial Drone Industry Trends report from March 2016, which highlights DroneDeploy usage across 100 countries, it’s easy to forget that the industry is so nascent. The opportunity is so massive that I suspect that in a few years I will still describe it as nascent. We are working toward a future where there’ll be a drone on every single job site; and I think it’ll happen faster than any of us anticipate.
Our vision has always been to make the sky productive and accessible to everyone. With further developments in drone hardware, including more capable sensors and batteries, as well as advances in software and computing power it’s not hard to imagine that in the future drones will be capable of not only identifying, but also solving problems. We envision that DroneDeploy will continue to be at the forefront of the industry and will be the platform that brings this exciting technology to everyone.
From speaking with Mike, it is clear that the company has a bright future and plans to continue its walk at the forefront of the UAS industry. As he has mentioned, this is an extremely young industry and it looks poised to be a young industry for many years to come, which is an extremely exciting place to be as an entrepreneur, hobbyist, and/or researcher. We’re excited to see what the company produces amongst the inevitable ups and downs that we’ll see in this space – if their history is a blueprint for the future, we expect they’ll flourish. Thank you to Mike, Darr, and the entire DroneDeploy team for taking the time to speak with us. If you’re interested in their products, make sure to visit DroneDeploy.com to learn more about how their software can work for you.