While federal regulators are scrambling to safely accommodate drones into the airspace above us, photographer Tom Walco says he’s already taking home a decent chunk of money flying small unmanned aircraft for pay. That makes him a small sliver of a drone economy that could grow to a multi-million dollar business over the next few years.
“I can make anywhere from $300 to $1,200 a day, depending on the size of the project,” says Walco, who supplements his drone income with more down-to-earth real estate and interior photography gigs.
Walco is the lead pilot for Workmode, a new program from San Francisco drone startup SkyCatch designed to connect companies in need of on-demand aerial maps with the drone pilots who can make them. Only four pilots are currently earning full-time pay on Workmode, but SkyCatch CEO Christian Sanz says the goal is to take the thousands of drone hobbyists out there making aerial videos for fun and turn them into high-flying freelancers.
“We said, you know, a lot of these [pilots] were just filming and doing some pretty shots and pretty videos,” says Sanz. “And we say, look, we’re going to turn your drone into a Workmode drone.”
SkyCatch started off two years ago by selling highly-automated drones directly to commercial clients like construction and energy firms. More recently, the company developed software that helps clients use drones to better track how projects are coming along. Today, SkyCatch counts major international companies like Chevron and Komatsu as clients.
“It wasn’t until 2014 that we started building our secret sauce, which is basically a suite of productivity tools on top of the data that we collect,” says Sanz, who also hints that one of SkyCatch’s clients is working on Apple’s new “Spaceship” campus. “One of our clients . . . is actually building a very iconic building down in Cupertino for a very iconic company. You can use your imagination which company that is.”
Whereas SkyCatch’s original business model involved selling drone equipment to major corporations, SkyCatch is intended to meet demand from smaller clients who only need a handful of maps and can’t afford a drone of their own.
To become a Workmode pilot, drone flyers need to watch a series of training videos, pass a written exam and do phone and video interviews (“to make sure you’re not crazy,” jokes Sanz). They also need to make a few test maps to prove they have the right stuff. Safety is a major element of the training process, though the whole ordeal is leagues simpler than actual flight school.
Making maps with Workmode’s software is slightly more complicated than just flying over a site willy-nilly and shooting pictures as you go. Instead, pilots must specific GPS waypoints for a camera-equipped drone to navigate, then send the resulting images to SkyCatch’s software via the cloud. Workmode pilots are also expected to become mapping experts, able to interpret the images they collect after SkyCatch analyzes them. That, says Sanz, also has the benefit of future-proofing pilots from automation.
“More and more [drone pilots] are going to be switching over to sitting behind a computer analyzing data and viewing things,” says Sanz. “A lot of these pilots, they do it already. They get very involved in the actual analysis of the data once we put the tool in place.”
Whether or not Workmode succeeds depends heavily what happens at the Federal Aviation Administration over the next few months. Right now, flying drones for fun is kosher so long as pilots don’t put people in harm’s way. Piloting them for pay, however, requires the same commercial pilot’s certificate that aspiring airline pilots get on their way to working for the major carriers. The FAA proposed new rules in February that would make it much easier to become a commercial drone pilot, but it won’t vote on those rules until later this year at the earliest.
For now, the agency has granted exemptions to 46 companies allowing them to conduct unmanned flights under gentler rules, largely for operations like survey work or aerial photography. Some SkyCatch clients, such as Chevron and design contract firm Clayco, have been given this blessing. But even those authorizations require pilots to hold at least a private pilot’s certificate, a financial and time investment of about $10,000 and at least 40 hours of training.
That makes the current rulebook a big obstacle to would-be commercial drone pilots. Some 4,000 potential pilots are signed up for Workmode, but the company has put the breaks on certifying them. Sanz says the slowdown was necessary to catch up and figure out a better way to automate the sign-up process. But Workmode can’t become what Sanz envisions until the rules get a little more lax.
“We are working with the FAA to give all Workmode pilots the ability to operate across the U.S.,” says Sanz. “We are determined to work together with them to make this a smooth and effective process.”
SkyCatch, then, could be a poster child for advocates of the “drone economy” who argue the FAA’s new rules have come too slowly, costing American jobs and innovation in the process — even well-known companies like Amazon have had their drone dreams squashed by regulators. Just how big could that drone economy be? The FAA says its proposal could lead to economic benefits “in excess of $100 million” a year. However, others say that estimate is far too low because it doesn’t factor in the quasi-legal commercial activity already happening in spite of the regulations.
“An analyst and I recently kicked around some numbers and came up with an existing $180 million annual marketplace right now, based on the assumption that there are 3,000 individuals or businesses already actively using drones,” says Brendan Schulman, head of Kramer Levin’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems practice. Schulman says the FAA’s numbers “ignore any impact on the existing market, which it assumes to be worth zero on the premise that people who are innovating today are doing so without permission.”
That permission could come when the FAA vote on its proposed rules, which, as written, would require only that commercial drone pilots pass a written exam every two years — or, as Sanz puts it, “the equivalent of a driver’s license.” That could help SkyCatch, along with a fleet of other drone startups, take off.
“In the long run, there will be many more drone business and startups regardless of the regulations, because the technology is so compelling across industries that it is simply unstoppable,” says Schulman. “Once the regulations are in effect, I think there will be a weeding out of companies whose business models are incompatible with the final regulations.”