Kovar and Associates provide sUAS Investigation and Aerial Survey Services. Read their thoughts on starting a drone-based business
Starting a drone-based business is hard. Kovar and Associates share insights on doing this as well as on their business, on the industry, and more.
Q. Could you tell our readers a bit about your business, Kovar and Associates?
This may sound odd, but flying isn’t our primary mission. Our mission is:
- To help clients integrate UAVs into their business operations efficiently and safely
- Develop and share cyber security and forensic analysis solutions for UAVs
- Support emergency services in the Midwest with UAV services provided by people who are intimately familiar with emergency operations
To accomplish this mission we need to be superb UAV operators, which we are, but we are far more than just operators.
I’m certain that some people will argue with me on this point, but I believe that we’ll see about two years of hyper growth in the UAV services space before the market saturates and retrenches. More importantly, as the FAA regulations come into effect and technology addresses many of the safety and automation issues that we face today, companies will bring UAVs in house rather than contract with service providers.
We will take care of our clients who want to contract for services, but we are very interested in helping them to develop the ability to perform their own UAV operations if that is the right approach.
Q. How did you get started in this business?
I’ve been flying fixed wing, helicopters, and sailplanes for years. I love to fly but really didn’t want to go the commercial route. Due to my involvement with search and rescue I have a keen interest in near real time mapping and imagery analysis. About two years ago I started working with Jeff Taylor of Event 38 and bought one of his first fixed wing UAVs. There was no real market for services yet and the technology for delivering quality UAV imagery wasn’t quite there but you could see it coming.
This winter I had a lot of time off, good weather, and a DJI Phantom 2. That combination of factors gave me time to prove to myself that the time was ripe for providing UAV imagery services and it gave me the platform to start developing the forensic analysis techniques for UAVs.
Q. If somone were to ask you for your advice on starting a drone-based business, what would you tell them?
The immediate response is probably “Get a UAV and start flying” but that misses a critical component – why do you want to get into the business? If you want to turn your love of flying into a way to make some money then building up a portfolio of your aerial imagery and doing real estate photography might be enough. But if you want to make a living for the next couple of years in the UAV business you should give some serious thought to several questions:
- What will sell in your area? You may want to do real estate photography but there aren’t a lot of high end properties, or someone else has already locked down the market.
- What are you good at? If you are a so-so pilot but a great businessman, consider finding a good pilot as a partner and focusing on the business side. Make sure you understand all the resources you will need to be successful and have a plan for acquiring them. You may just need a contractor for a week or you’ll need an employee for several years. Maybe contracting for someone else will work better for you.
- Take a really good look at your finances. You’re starting a small business with all that entails. If you’re not flying, you’re not earning money. If you do not have clients lined up in the pipeline you could hit a long dry spell. Can your financial cushion support this while you get to a steady revenue model? Spend a lot of time learning about running a small business and the joys and pitfalls that come with it.
Once you are comfortable that this is a viable option for you, determine how you will deliver the service. This is not the time for “go big or go home”. You can do very good work in many areas with a DJI Phantom 2 and a GoPro. If you are doing photography, that may be all the equipment you need. If you want to do aerial imagery, consider a service like DroneDeploy to process and present your imagery. Demonstrate to yourself and to your clients that you can do quality work on time and on budget. Then, as your revenue stream increases and stabilizes, think about getting better equipment. Over extending yourself financially can kill your business and your spirit.
If you can find a way to keep your regular job while doing UAV services on the side you’ll have a much less stressful launch of your new business.
Q. What drones do you use in your business and why?
We own three and are looking at two others as we grow.
- DJI Phantom 2 Vision+. We can do most any job with the Phantom. The sensor quality isn’t as good as some of the other platforms but it will get the job done. It lives in my vehicle so we can always do work without running back to the office. And it is inexpensive to repair or replace.
- 3DR Iris+. This is replacing the Phantom. It’ll carry more sensors and has a PixHawk flight controller with more options and more data logging capability than the Phantom. It shares sensors and mission planning options with our E384 fixed wing, reducing complexity in our operations.
- Event 38 E384. This is our workhorse fixed wing UAV. It’ll fly an optical or NDVI sensor for upwards of 100 minutes per flight, enabling us to cover enormous areas. It is rugged, easy to work on, and well supported by Event 38. The one drawback to a fixed wing when flying crops is lack of suitable landing areas. Farmers maximize their use of the available space so what isn’t planted is often obscured by power lines, roads, and buildings. We’re really good at landing in narrow spaces by now but the Iris+ is more suitable for some jobs despite the reduced flight time.
We have a PrecisionHawk Lancaster on our 333 grant due to its ability to fly a larger variety of sensors. We are also looking at the AgEagle for its ease of use.
Q. If the FAA could make one change, what would you want them to modify that would most benefit your business?
Change the blanket COA to 400 feet. Our optimum altitude for crop imaging is around 300 feet. Flying at 200 feet per the COA reduces our efficiency.
Q. I was deeply impressed when I read this on your website: “If you wish to integrate UAVs into your DR or SAR operations or if you have an active incident, please contact us. Our services in support of emergency operations are provided at no cost.”. No cost? Kudos to you and what motivated you to make that kind of commitment?
There are three reasons why this is an important part of who we are as a firm:
- It is generally agreed that there should be no charge for search and rescue. If you charge people for getting lost then they are less likely to call for help. This often results in the situation deteriorating and the urgency increasing.
- Emergency services are woefully under funded, particularly in rural areas. Asking for an emergency management agency to pay us for UAV services when they are lacking critical financial support for their normal operations is counter productive.
- Volunteering in SAR and disaster response has enriched our lives in many ways. We’ve met amazing people, increased our ability to face physical and emotional adversity, and truly helped make the world a bit better. We want to pay these gifts forward.
Q. We noted that you “partner with Cloudpoint Geographics to provide end to end sUAS data collections and analysis”, why was Cloudpoint Geographics the right partner?
We are very good at all things UAV – flying, maintenance, integration, etc. We invest a lot of time and effort in our excellence. However, we lack the foundation, expertise, and passion required to be as good at the processing, analysis, and presentation of the aerial imagery we collect. This is where Cloudpoint comes in.
Cloudpoint has been in the GIS space for years and they know how to put together high quality imagery products for clients that solve their needs efficiently and effectively. We collect high quality imagery and Cloudpoint turns it into high quality GIS products. Together we provide a better service to our clients than either company could do on their own.
Q. What should we have asked you about your business?
Are we having fun? We certainly are. We are working with a disruptive technology, we’re not tied to a desk, we’re helping clients solve challenges with a significant impact on their business, and we can leverage this to provide services to the public in emergencies.