An Interview with Ian Smith, Helicopter and Drone Pilot
There was a time when Ian Smith wanted to be a chef or an architect, but he quickly realized at age 20 that those career aspirations were just not for him. The son of a NASA engineer, Smith has been around aviation his whole life, so it’s no surprise that he now works as a drone pilot for a software company called, DroneDeploy. He describes DroneDeploy as "a free mapping platform compatible with any drone. With the touch of a button you can create and share aerial maps and 3D models". As drones become smaller and more intelligent, Smith sees increasing opportunities for growth in the industry, citing the expanding list of universities and training companies that are offering courses in this hot new technology.
Currently attending Utah Valley University and pursuing a bachelor’s degree in aviation management, Smith is already an aviation expert. He has earned an FAA commercial rotorcraft pilot’s license and also holds a certified flight instructor’s certificate in the use of R-22 helicopters. Also an aerial photographer, UAV operator, and subject matter expert on the aviation fuels industry, Smith is the founder and creator of SkyCapture, a company that specializes in custom aerial photography and video using drones.
Smith is a sought-after speaker at symposiums and conferences nationwide and around the world. Recently, he has spoken at the Citisense 2014 conference, a Smart City Expo World Congress event, Intergeo 2015, the Commercial UAV Expo, the Commercial UAV Show, the 2015 Esri International User Conference, and he was also a presenter at Leading Digital: The BVG Challenge, which was held in Berlin. Smith has been published in a number of magazines, including GEOInformatics Magazine regarding DroneDeploy, where he currently works as a business development and marketing manager.
Enjoy the entire interview with Ian Smith as he explains the technology of drones and how the face of this exciting industry is ever changing.
eLearners: You founded SkyCapture, a company that uses drones for photography and video. Tell us more about your company and what you do for your clients.
SkyCapture was ahead of its time for 2013. I created the company to provide services with drones for oil and gas companies in the Greater Houston area. The regulatory environment in the United States dictated that I look elsewhere to break into the drone industry. I wound up moving to France to pursue the industry there where it was much more friendly and advanced regarding regulations.
eLearners: Some people have vague ideas about drones and drone pilots. Is there a difference between UAV's and drones?
The term ‘drone’ is hotly contested. Most say that small quadcopters are definitely not drones in that they aren’t thinking for themselves or exhibiting traditional military drone behavior. But then again, a military drone is still being piloted by someone on the ground and not ‘droning on’ in the traditional sense of the term. UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle), UAS (unmanned aerial system), sUAS (small unmanned aerial system), drone, RPAS (remotely piloted aircraft system), quadcopter, hexacopter, octocopter, multirotor… all of these are terms used to describe basically the same thing. The company I work for right now is called DroneDeploy, so naturally, I now call them ‘drones’! It just makes things easier. I’m not going to dwell over being politically correct on this topic anymore.
eLearners: Tell us about your background in aviation and aviation technology. What led you to working with DroneDeploy?
I started flying helicopters when I was 20. I wanted to be a chef or an architect before that but realized it just wasn’t for me. All I know was that I wanted to do something cool and aviation always fascinated me. I’m the son of a NASA engineer and have been around space and aviation my entire life. When I started investigating learning how to fly—everyone told me to fly airplanes. Naturally, I chose the opposite of what people suggested; helicopters just fit.
From there I earned my wings as a commercial pilot and flight instructor, took aerial images of go-fast and sailboats for a while but then pivoted in 2008 when the economy took a dive. I stayed in aviation but wound up working for one of the largest jet fuel brokers in the world at UVAir. I managed corporate jet accounts for about 4 years and then just had to get into the drone scene in 2013.
I started SkyCapture as a side project while still working at UVAir, realized the drone business wouldn’t fly in the States, then moved to France (not just for drones, my wife is French, too!) where I worked at Delair-Tech, one of the leading French OEMs who make small drones. After about a year there, I contacted DroneDeploy because I loved what they were doing—taking the software approach to the drone industry. Everything has been clicking since. I live in San Francisco now and we’re growing at an incredible rate.
eLearners: Most of us have an idea how drones are used by the military. What are some of the less publicized but still important ways that people use drones?
At DroneDeploy, we have lots of experience with agriculture. Growers and farmers are using drones in their fields and having great success. Corn can grow over 12 feet tall. How can you possibly see anything going on in your field when it’s at that height? Drones powered by DroneDeploy give you an easy, autonomous way to get really fast maps and 3D models of your fields. A very accessible aerial perspective.
When outfitted with special infrared sensors, drones can actually get crop health information by capturing the reflectance data from plants’ leaves. When processed in a special way, crop health maps are generated and can show stress levels, malnutrition, diseases, or even highlight healthy areas of fields. From there, growers can use that data to optimize on nitrogen inputs, fertilization, and save money by being more efficient and stopping problems before they spread. DroneDeploy allows easy access to same-day data and gives growers and agronomists the tools to do on-the-fly analysis.
Other industries like construction and mining are really blowing up. Construction and mining companies can track progress, monitor for safety, make easy measurements, and share all of this new data seamlessly with just a link. Since DroneDeploy is 100% cloud-based software, all you need is a web browser. You can even view, share, and have conversations on the data directly from your smartphone or tablet.
eLearners: Is there any particular education or training needed to become a drone operator? What skills do you need to succeed in this line of work?
For me, it was aviation that brought me where I am today. Right now, however, there are degree programs being offered by lots of universities that allow you access to some of the hottest new technology. There are also third party training companies who will help you become proficient with drones and give you advice on starting a business. As with anything, practice, research, and exposure are all key to gaining experience. The good thing is that this technology is relatively inexpensive so it may not actually be that hard to get involved.
eLearners: What’s the best part of being a drone pilot?
When using DroneDeploy to pilot your drone, it’s actually really boring—it flies itself! All joking aside, the best part is with this new technology that streams HD quality video directly to your smartphone while your drone is up to 1 kilometer away. It is absolutely incredible the quality that you get from your flying camera. FPV is also really fun but you have to be willing to break some equipment in order to learn.
The most fun thing for me to do with drones now, though, is to just make really nice maps and 3D models. The technology has progressed to where it’s really easy to do so and you can just get really cool perspectives on things that are stuck in time. Looking down at the planet has always been one of my favorite things.
eLearners: What are some of the similarities and difference of piloting helicopters and drones?
Aerodynamic rules still apply to both types of aircraft. It’s really interesting to just note how instead of a traditional tail rotor on manned helicopters, you have counter-rotating rotor systems with these small quad-hexa-octocopters and it just allows them to behave in different ways. One of the coolest things about larger helicopters (their ability to auto rotate to the ground in the event of an engine failure) is actually lost on most small drones since they can’t finely control the pitch of the blades and don’t have mechanical linkages to a central control unit.
eLearners: Where do you see technology going? What are some of the ways that companies and individuals are developing the use of drones into their business models?
I see it shrinking. I think in the future we are going to see smaller and smaller drones. They will be cheaper that way but will also enable them to be safer. You will also be controlling a fleet of drones to get things done. Mapping a large area with one drone will all the sudden become twice as fast since you can use two drones, or you could map twice the area by having control of multiple drones.
DroneDeploy actually pioneered the use of embedding 4G LTE modems into drones, essentially making them internet-connected while they’re in flight. This allows the drone to send data, as soon as it’s captured, directly into the DroneDeploy cloud for processing. This greatly reduces processing time for generating maps and actually makes the maps start “appearing” before your very eyes as you monitor your drone’s flight on your mobile device—you start seeing the map appearing while the drone is still in the air.
The internet connected age of drones is still a ways away but already most of us have 4G LTE modems in our smartphones. It’s just a matter of time before they’re in drones around the world.
eLearners: What’s your advice for someone looking to pursue a career in the industry?
Research. Join forums. Buy a cheap drone. Learn to pilot it manually. Read about photogrammetry if you’re interested in making maps and 3D models. Talk to others who are interested in drone pilots. Completely immerse yourself in the technology, the DIY movement, and the community. You’ll be flying comfortably in no time.
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