At an open-pit mine, blowing stuff up is just part of the daily grind. But that doesn’t mean the danger disappears. If a truck drives out onto a blast site and over a piece of explosive that failed to go off, the result could be catastrophic. But Christian Sanz, the CEO and founder of aerial drone startup Skycatch, says that at least one mining outfit is now using his quadcopters to make these sites safer.
A drone launched from a remote landing station shoots video of a blast, and mine personnel play back the video in slow motion to make sure all the charges were detonated. That, Sanz says, is just of one of a vast number of ways that Skycatch drones can open up new windows onto the landscape below through the collection of data. Skycatch doesn’t sell its drones. It leases their talent for data collection, in much the same way that cloud services from Amazon and Google rent access to computing power. Instead of managing their own fleets of unmanned aerial vehicles, he explains, companies can tap into a scalable fleet operated by Skycatch—and into the insights these extra eyes in the sky can send back to earth.
Skycatch, like Google’s recently purchased satellite venture, seeking ways to make high-resolution, easily accessible aerial imagery a part of how the everyday world works. But for now, launching a drone is still a lot easier.
Unlike metaphorically-named cloud services, using Skycatch drones isn’t as simple as spinning up virtual machines over the internet. Someone still has to bring the drones and landing stations to a customer’s physical location. But once the hardware is set up, the idea is that you can use the drones over the web, or from your phone, without leaving your office. Instead of drones as a toy or novelty, Skycatch is seeking a way to make drones a deeply practical part of how the business world operates, starting with heavy industries that can use aerial photographs to learn a lot about the work they do. The way drones will evolve, Sanz says, is through entrepreneurs like himself who can figure out the most valuable uses for on-call flying machines. Call it drones as a service.
A Data Business, Not a Drone Business
Sanz says he got the idea while hanging out at a construction site, where workers were using their personal iPhone cameras from the ground as de facto data-collection tools. Like a lot of techies in Silicon Valley, he had long enjoyed hacking drones. He liked to tinker with the software they used to fly themselves, and at one point, he helped organize the popular DroneGames competition at the Maker Faire, the Valley’s premier festival of DIY geekitude. But he also believed that drones could be used for more than just fun, and he got a chance to prove it when the construction site’s superintendent asked a favor. Could drones take an aerial photo of the site, the superintendent asked, so he and his colleagues could track their progress?
Sanz took up the challenge, and it turned into a good two weeks of work, as the builders kept requesting new photos. A logistics manager, for instance, wanted to track the size of stockpiles to see when deliveries were made. Then, Sanz says, people started getting “lazy,” asking for photos they probably could have taken on their own. “It just became more efficient to be able to stay at their desks and see the imagery and just continue working,” Sanz explains.
Alan is serial entrepreneur, active angel investor, and a drone enthusiast. He co-founded DRONELIFE.com to address the emerging commercial market for drones and drone technology. Prior to DRONELIFE.com, Alan co-founded Where.com, ThinkingScreen Media, and Nurse.com. Recently, Alan has co-founded Crowditz.com, a leader in Equity Crowdfunding Data, Analytics, and Insights. Alan can be reached at alan(at)dronelife.com