Drones are revolutionising so many areas of life; from industrial inspections to how our shopping gets delivered. They’ve also been dogged by controversy. Andy Richardson spoke to Andrew Griffithss, managing director of one of the longest established outfits, Droneflight, based in Barnard Castle, County Durham, to get a bird’s eye view of a sector that’s set to soar.

When and why did you start the business?

My background is very much more sedate than the world of drones. I was a software process improvement specialist. Basically, looking at the process performance of software teams and programmes and changing the way they worked to improve delivery and quality. In fact I was running a process improvement consulting company for 12 years which employed up to about 30 people at its peak.

I first considered setting up a business that involved drones back in 2008, when a very limited drone would have cost well over £50,000 at the time it would have been a real long shot of a bet. However, I kept my interest at a hobby drone level and it was one of my hobby drone purchases that led to me being asked if I would like to sell drones. This was late 2013 when we wired money to South Africa and hoped we got 20 working drones to sell.

I wish I could say this was backed by a business plan.It was more like I fell into it. Within a 12-month period we were selling a broad range of drones and turning over nearly £500,000, which sounds great. In practice it was a very competitive market with high costs (Google Adwords), overall margins weren’t great. To cap it all the big retailers were entering the market and I was personally more interested in using the drones than just selling them.

So, in reality this is when the Droneflight you can see on the website today started. In the last few years we established a training division (DronePartners) that is a CAA National Qualified Entity able to provide training and recommendations to the CAA for new pilots to get a Permission for Commercial Operations.

What was the toughest thing about getting started? 

Starting the wrong business in the first place wasn’t ideal. Using money, time and head space on a retail business I never really wanted. Making the move from retailer to drone operator should not be underestimated. It took well over 18 months to be clear of the market and ongoing liabilities. Whilst this is going on we were investing in equipment and training to be able to deliver services with a range of drones. In effect translating the stock to equipment.

The other key thing is that, in all the excitement about drones, people missed that it is not accepted practice to complete work with drones. Even today, most organisations (apart from video/film production companies) don’t consider using a drone as the obvious solution even when it is technically superior and delivers better data.

What qualifications, licences etc. do you need to operate a drone commercially? 

In short you need a PfCO a Permission for Commercial Operation, which can only be issued by the UK Civil Aviation Authority. The CAA operates a scheme of National Qualified Entities these are training providers of ground schools and assessments that are a pre-requisite to be able to operate a drone commercially. There are other routes, for example, if you have a private pilot licence you don’t need to attend a ground school but you do need to complete a drone practical flight assessment.

Lots of drone businesses have come and gone over the past decade. What has made your business survive?

Being in early is a big advantage. The market has heard of us and longevity of your website seems to be a big factor in search engine optimisation. 

When we started providing services with drones we provided a broad range of services, which we have narrowed over time. This specialisation has really helped us remain ahead of our competition in the areas we are interested in.

We also have focused on finding clients who can deliver repeat business, which has been key in helping establish a base level of revenue.

Tell us about some of the high profile contracts you have won? Which have been the most difficult to deliver and why? 

We have also worked on a rail deport handover inspection we had to field a team for two weeks onsite and visit the site on a number of other occasions to fit in with the ongoing operations.  This was challenging because of its scale: over 40 lines in the whole deport, very large building, lots of high voltage infrastructure and trains in the depot the needed to be moved to enable the inspection. In addition, we provided survey data for the as built survey of the site.

In the confined space drone inspection area we completed a project in a waste to gas power station. The gasification chambers required inspection to ensure the lining was in good condition and that there were no build ups of product on the lining.  Completing a confined space inspection with a drone is tricky, but in a power station that is off line there is no heat and it was -9 degrees C inside the building. 

Locally we have completed several projects with STSC (South Tees Site Company) who manage the safety of the old SSI steel works at Redcar. We have helped them establish an internal drone capability and also worked with them on large area land surveys using fixed wing drones.

Tell us about the range of work that you do - confined space inspection, thermography etc. 

Basically our work is in two main areas with additional specialisation: Inspection and Survey.

Within the inspection area we use drones outside to inspect buildings and infrastructure.  We also add thermography to these inspections typically for Solar Panels or for Steam Lines. A further specialisation is being able to conduct confined space inspections with a drone.

Within the survey area we use drones to capture maps, 3D models and we process this data into other forms for clients. So for example we might complete line drawings from the data or integrate with other data sets. We are often completing this work for surveyors or engineering consultants.

The Gatwick drone incident put the industry in the international spotlight, but for all of the wrong reasons. How do you as a drone operator feel about it? What more can be done from a legal/technical point of view to stop rogue operators?

Unfortunately this incident was inevitable and actually it is inevitable it will happen again. Also, it is not clear what actually happened.

I like the idea that the police will step up and start policing the illegal use of drones, but the reality of that idea is that they have limited resources and, for the most part, they are rightly looking at much more serious crime. The thing that will make the most difference is people checking the credentials and the insurance of supplier providing services to them – a practice that is becoming more common.

Where do you see drone technology going in the future?

The best way of thinking about drone technology is that it is a robot that just happens to fly. Look at the amazing advances made in robotics with companies like Boston Dynamics Atlas and Spot the dog. These advances will make their way to drones to increase their safety and capability. I have personally been involved with using gas sensor, LIDAR (a surveying method that measures distance to a target by illuminating the target with pulsed laser light), ultrasound sensors on drones to provide new and more comprehensive data to asset integrity requirements. Granted some of these things don’t work so well at the moment on a drone but they will improve over time? 

Who would have thought you can fly a collision tolerant drone in a sewer under London?

The best thing about your job is...?

Working with new and emerging technology to deliver new solutions, however this can also be deeply frustrating as the market changes and technology changes. Almost every week someone will ask a question that challenges accepted wisdom and makes you think about the future of the market.

The worst thing about your job is.....?

I went to a meeting over a year ago and this large company told me that they had used drones on many occasions and they did not consider them successful projects. In the discussion it became apparent that they were asking suppliers to do things that had never been done before, in effect paying to deliver a job that was really a research project.  None of the suppliers pushed back or tried to change the scope to that of a trial of the technology. The company never stopped to check if they had every done anything like it before. Which brings me onto the worst thing about the drone market – overselling of services and products. This undermines the credibility of the market as a whole and delays or stops the adoption of the technology.

Contact:

Droneflight Ltd

Barnard Castle

Co Durham

DL12 9TN

Tel 01833 605013

www.droneflight.co.uk

www.dronepartners.co.uk