An aerial view of drone industry during COVID-19
CEO of DroneUp in Virginia Beach discusses how technology is being used during crisis.
Virginia Business virtually sat down with Tom Walker, founder and CEO of DroneUp, a Virginia Beach-based company that provides end-to-end aerial data services to the commercial sector, government and pilots to get a feel for how his drone company has adapted to doing business during the coronavirus crisis. This is part of an ongoing series of conversations with Virginians about how their work lives and businesses have changed during the pandemic.
VB: How can drones help in a public health crisis?
Walker: One of the issues that obviously people are talking about is how we may or may not use drones for a COVID response — whether it’s things like delivering packages or using aerial infrared thermography to check for temperatures using drones. But the reality is none of this has ever been really tested, where we go out and we see how many drones can deliver during a specific period of time. If we’re using these drones and we’re running them for 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 hours, what will happen? How do you actually de-conflict the air space with that many drones flying? Those types of questions and issues are things that nobody really asked until this happened.
And now the question is being asked. The state of Virginia, and specifically the Center for Innovative Technology (CIT) and DroneUp and a handful of other Virginia companies are being very proactive in developing and testing response capabilities not only to the current COVID-19 crisis, but also testing innovative use of drones that can be utilized in future emergencies that include storms, hurricanes and other types of things. We’re actively performing those types of projects collaboratively today. … And what we’re doing is we’re putting together a pretty robust exercise that is going to test that. We’re going to be taking packages into a safe environment. We’re going to be delivering at volume. We’re going to run 24 hours a day, day and night. And really just find out what are the strengths, what are the weaknesses, what are the blockers and how do we actually do it if we ever need to do it.
VB: Who are clients you typically service and how has that changed?
Walker: Well a lot of things have changed. So 90% — I may even say 95% — of our work prior to this crisis was commercial. What has picked up is critical infrastructure work like cell tower inspections, bridge inspections, power line and gas line inspections. A lot of that has picked up because the people that would normally travel to go do these inspections can’t. That type of work is through the roof. It’s increased significantly. For cell tower inspections, trained operators fly the towers in a very specific pattern and collect anywhere between 1,200 and 2,000 photos. Those high-resolution photos are put into a processor and it will build what is called a “digital twin,” that looks just like the tower with an accuracy of tenths of an inch. So, it’s pretty amazing.
People who would come out and do those inspections don’t have to. Some of them weren’t coming out because they’d been ordered to stay at home. Because we don’t have to go into the facility and go up to the roof, we don’t have to be around anybody. We can get out of the car in the parking lot, send the drone up, do the inspection and bring it back down. We process the data to deliver the next day and there’s no human contact.
VB: How could the crisis change the drone industry in the long run?
Walker: I actually think it’s positive for our industry, as long as our industry remains pragmatic and doesn’t try to be too aggressively opportunistic. Our real goal is around leveraging drone technologies to change the way things are done. Not just because there’s a crisis, but because there’s a better way to do it. A lot of people are scared to call — they’re like, “Ah, I don’t even know whether a drone can do this.” Sometimes those are the questions that lead to the most productive outputs or outcomes.