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PART II | The Missing Link for the UAS Industry

Apr 26, 2018

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A month ago, I wrote about how despite all the hype over the UAS Industry in the past few years, the reality is there is still a disconnect that’s preventing this technology from being properly leveraged to what we in the industry know that it can be. I highlighted the issue that those who truly stand to benefit from the technology don’t know how to use it or where to begin.

My solution to this unmet opportunity was simple: A trusted Unmanned Aerial Systems Service Provider is all that’s missing in making the benefits of UAS technology easily accessible on a massive scale.

That is only half the answer.

In my last article, I used the analogy, “If I want to get to Seattle from Phoenix, and I know that the quickest way is hopping on to a Boeing 747, do I expect to fly it myself? Absolutely not. I’m going to leave that to the trained and certified pilots and other aviation professionals along the way who can guarantee a safe flight without me having to lift so much as a finger. What if we tried treating UAS the same way? Maybe the best solution is to let those who have years of experience flying, and have the accompanying Standard Operating Procedures and the Safety Management Systems handle the work, instead of trying to sell a Boeing 747 to everyone and fly it themselves thinking they can all get from Point A to Point B without any issues.”

Sounds good and fine, but what does this analogy all of a sudden look like when the credibility and legitimacy of the aviation professional is in question? I probably wouldn’t want to step foot on that plane.

In my analogy, it is assumed that the pilot is a true aviation professional. Highly trained and certified, with years of experience, and backed by industry grade standard operating procedures and safety management systems, and using the best equipment to date to ensure a safe and satisfactory travel experience. We wouldn’t bat an eye hearing that in the context of a major airline, because with our expectations that should be a basic prerequisite for the Industry.

Where do we see that standard in UAS?

This is not to say that there isn’t a wealth of highly experienced aviation professionals that have made the transition to the UAS Industry, and are bringing along with them the same standards and practices that they’ve executed time and time again… That still doesn’t tell the whole story of what’s going on. It’s not just the aviation experience and knowledge that applies.

UAS Operators have spent all their time and focus on the operations of aircraft, and meanwhile completely missed the point of what they’re flying for.

It’s what makes things tricky with the UAS Industry. This is the point where my analogy I keep referencing falls apart and loses some relevance. With that analogy, the same basic solution exists across the board with air travel: Get _______ from Point A to Point B. It’s the same whether I’m talking about an airline, charter flights, or shipping. That blank might change, but the same principle applies, which means I don’t have much standing in my way with swapping pilots between different applications for the proverbial blank, because the solution and the expertise needed to provide said solution remains more or less constant. The same cannot be said about UAS, and here’s why:

There are basically no constants between UAS applications

Many individuals are under the impression that after passing the Part 107 Test and buying a toy off the shelf, that they are now properly trained, certified, and knowledgeable to solve issues in infrastructure inspection, search and rescue, agriculture, and cinematography. Putting it like that, I hope you see what I see, and recognize that for what it is, which is pure madness. Plus, it’s just not good business either. No one should try to be all things to all people. Find a niche, and stick with it. It’s not just a matter of different UAS platforms fitting the needs for each application, but how it’s different and makes things better than before for those applications. Simply having a UAS on hand and going through the appropriate regulatory channels within the FAA does not make an individual now suddenly qualified to do the exact same work as an engineer, or farmer, or emergency responder.

The real world doesn’t award participation trophies. It rewards skills and abilities, and being able to fly a UAS alone is not on its own a valuable skill. You got to know what you’re flying for and be good at that. If I’m flying UAS for inspections, I should probably know a thing or two about thermography to identify hot spots (and there’s a whole host of other tangents depending on WHAT you’re inspecting). If I’m flying it for land surveying, I should probably know a thing or two about the accuracy tolerance standards in the state I’m operating. I doubt they care one bit if I’m able to recite 14 CFR Part 107 word for word start-to-finish. That does nothing for them. Like I talked about with the end users not knowing where to begin with using the technology themselves, the UAS operators are not familiar with the industry applications they claim to have a solution for.

As much as I’ve said before that UAS Service Providers were the missing link, I think it’s fair to play a game of Devil’s Advocate and acknowledge that one could just as easily say that it’s some of the service providers in the market that are holding the industry back.

Don’t you dare tell me that buying a toy from Walmart last week makes you qualified to do inspections on bridges for the Department of Transportation.

To best solve a problem in a market that you are trying to sell to, it’s probably a good idea to have an in-depth understanding of your customer segment, which is an understatement. Understanding their pains, what they need, and the gains that can be created by implementing UAS for their specific application. I have some doubts that a Land Surveyor would give you the time of day if you come in with something you bought yesterday that their kid got for Christmas and tell them that you can get better data than their Topcon Positioning Equipment. Otherwise you’re just selling Snake Oil to someone who already knows they don’t want Snake Oil.

For any UAS Service Provider to make a meaningful difference, it’s not enough to strive for excellence in aviation industry practices and standards, but to do the same for a specific niche in the marketplace. Just like in any other business, know your target market, and know how to speak their language.

If that change can happen, we might see a few more unmanned systems in our National Airspace, and we’ll finally get to that point of UAS giving us that unparalleled leverage over our spatial environment, and make it become the new standard in data retrieval.

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