How to Build a High Quality Drone Pilot Network for Customized Jobs: An Interview with Jake Carey, Founder of Helo Perspective
BY Zacc Dukowitz18 July 2018
We’ve known Jake Carey for some time now, since he first started building his drone network company, Helo Perspective.
Jake is a Drone Pilot Ground School alum with years of experience flying a UAV as a commercial pilot, as well as managing UAV service operations being performed by other drone pilots. Helo Perspective recently hit a milestone with over 500 drone pilots working for them, and we wanted to sit down to hear from Jake about how he first started the company, and how he’s managed to build it to the point where it is today.
What is Helo Perspective?
We are a drone pilot network with pilots all over the country. What sets us apart from other drone pilot networks is that we do really sophisticated, high end work, which means that we thoroughly vet our pilots—you can’t just sign up and start working for us.
We primarily work with the big tower companies, big communications companies, and big cell companies, and we’re in talks with a couple of the really, really big companies right now to be their exclusive drone provider moving forward.
At this point we have over 500 pilots across the country that work for us, and we’re working toward being one of the top drone service providers in the U.S.
Right now we do anything from cell towers inspections, to power tower inspections, to bridge inspections. We’re starting to get into some pipeline inspection, and we’ll also still do real estate marketing work, as well as some agriculture applications if the customer—whatever the customer needs.
How did Helo Perspective first get its start?
Five years ago I got laid off from my job and decided to start a roofing company.
It went really well for several years, but, oddly enough, I’m actually afraid of heights. So I got to the point where I felt bad that all of my guys and my business partners were having to climb up on roofs, and I wasn’t.
At that time we started to see drones around quite a bit, and it occurred to me that we could use them to do roof inspections. And sure enough, out of the box I was able to get really good results using a drone for inspections.
This got my wheels spinning, and I started thinking that it would be great to market drone inspections and try and see if there are other ways to make money flying drones as a commercial pilot.
So I started doing what everyone else does when they first start out as a commercial drone pilot—the weddings and events and different kinds of things here and there—and I had marginal success with that.
Things really started to take off in the drone space for me when my friend’s father approached me about going into business together. He had 30 years of experience in the telecom industry, and he was working with a company that was starting an an initiative to map cell and communication towers with drones. He wanted to know if I’d partner with them to create a business and be the drone service provider for companies that wanted to do this sort of thing, and I said absolutely. And that’s where Helo Perspective came from.
About four months later, we landed our first big client. We have just been running with our hair on fire ever since—we’ve now delivered close to 1.5 million images to our clients.
How did you scale from those early days to the point where you are now, with over 500 pilots in your network?
Our growth has really been made in direct response to individual client needs, both in specific geographic regions and in specific commercial sectors.
When we decided to grow to be a national network, it was in response to a really big client who had locations all over the country.
My recruitment efforts to find those first pilots across the country were very grass roots—I went onto Facebook and found several different commercial drone forums, and posted the scope of what our project was going to be.
By the end of the day I had almost 300 pilots signed up, and by the end of the week we had over 400 signed up. And when I say signed up, these aren’t just guys who just found us online and gave us some basic information. We interviewed them, had them sign non-disclosures, made sure they had their Part 107, drone insurance, and vetted them thoroughly to make sure we were getting top notch pilots.
From that first push, we just kept going and going and building the network, until we got to where we are now.
What makes Helo Perspective unique as a drone service network?
Our drone pilots are absolutely the best pilots in the country. We wouldn’t put them flying next to a telecom company’s million dollar asset if we didn’t really feel like they were the best of the best.
So what sets us apart is that, if you have a very specific, tailored project that you need a drone for, then we’ve got the network and the pilots to get it done, exactly to your specifications.
Even if you’ve got some weird, really unique and interesting project that nobody has ever thought of before, our pilots will have the skill set to do it.
That’s really what sets us apart—the ability to do exactly what the client wants, no matter how much specialized skill might be required.
How do you find your pilots?
One of our first points of contact is through the website. Pilots have to meet certain criteria to even be considered—do they have a Part 107, do they have certain types of drone insurance, do they have experience, and so on.
Next, we also have set a standard on the actual amount of flight hours that our pilots have to have to be eligible for different types of jobs.
Once a pilot has been approved to do certain types of work based on these things, then, when we get a job in a pilot’s area, one of our project coordinators will call that pilot and spend time with them on the phone getting their history and background, and really figuring out what they’re capable of doing.
We’ll ask whether they’ve done cell tower inspections before, or whether they’ve done any kind of communication tower inspections, and so on. We’ll also make sure they’re intimately familiar with the FAA’s Part 107 rules, and know basic restrictions like you can’t fly over a crowd, or at night, etcetera.
Because the work we do can be very technical and challenging, we take this vetting process very seriously. There have been several instances where we’ve pulled a pilot from a project before it gets started based on the results from these preliminary calls—bottom line, we don’t get started with a project until we feel 100% confident in our pilots.
Is your typical Helo Perspectives pilot working just for you, or do they have other drone services work they do?
Most of our pilots also have either a part time or a full time drone business that they own, or that they’re working towards launching.
We have a lot of guys that have just a highly impressive amount of drone experience. For example, we’ve got a pilot that’s working for us now that has done drone work for ESPN, and we’ve got a pilot in Arizona right now that has done inspections for a number of our larger towers who’s in California at the moment doing a shoot for a completely different company.
Bottom line, our pilots do not have no-compete clauses in their contracts, and they’re free to work however and with whomever they want. But if we have something come up, they generally pay special attention to us because they know we’ll continue to use them over and over again whenever we have work in their area.
What sorts of challenges do your pilots run into in the field?
The tower inspections our pilots do can be incredibly challenging, and require a great deal of experience and precision when it comes to a pilot’s ability.
These cell tower inspections aren’t a scenario where you can just drive up, fly around two or three times, then hand the client your raw data and hope they got what you need. We’re making some highly sophisticated deliverables for our customers, which allow them to measure different parts of a tower, and to put them into a 3D model.
The work requires certain types of expertise as a pilot, and certain types of equipment. For instance, we use a higher level megapixel camera—we typically use 20 megapixel cameras instead of the standard 12 megapixel cameras. Typically, for these tower inspections a client will walk away with over 1,000 photos.
In order to be able to do these things, you’ve got to spend quite a bit of time and be somewhat intricate in making sure that you’re getting exactly what the client needs when you fly your mission.
When we get to these towers that are 700, 800, 900 feet tall, or 1,000 feet tall, even 1,500 feet tall, the height of the tower starts to introduce some issues in making sure we can get everything that we need for our deliverables.
No matter how good of a pilot you are, there’s always a fear factor in flying your drone at 1,400 feet in the air. Wind speeds are significantly different at that level, and obviously it’s going to be very hard to see at that level. So it introduces a bunch more caution and complicated issues whenever you’re trying to fly in those kinds of conditions.
And again, this goes back to why we only hire the very best pilots, because we know we’re going to ask them to fly very challenging missions like this.