Drone School Makes Better Pilots, But That May Not Be the Point

Crashing isn't cool. Neither is unemployment.

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Drones are cool. Flying drones is cool. Flying drones well is cool. Flying drones poorly is basically dropping your iPhone on a grander scale. Not cool.

This is why SkyOp exists. The drone education company already offers quadcopter training courses at five community colleges and plans to scale rapidly to meet the growing demand for quadcopter pilot lessons. Founder Brian Pitre, a 45-year veteran of the computer industry, says that the idea is to help people earn their wings while also demonstrating that drones represent ground-breaking tools. A drone is more than a hobby for Pitre. In his eyes, it’s a revolution — and as he argues, he knows how to recognize those. “I’m the oldest geek you’ve ever met,” he says.

Inverse spoke to Pitre to see what happens when drones go beyond toys and multi-rotored fliers proliferate in the skies.

Why did you start teaching people to fly drones?

One of the values of being an old geek is you get to see stuff redundantly — history does repeat itself. What I saw was, this is just as I remembered the change from mini computers to personal computers. When PCs first came out, it was people doing little kits, and that turned into virtually all computers as we know them today. I watched as computers started in government, went into big business, went into homes, and changed our lives. I saw the internet — it started in government — connect our homes and again change our lives.

The next transformative technology is called personal robotics, and this technology is going to be really large, just like the two I mentioned before. I’m focused on flight robotics, which I believe will be the largest market segment because of the agility that these flight systems have. And we went from the government, skipped over business, and they’re personal already.

In 2012, I could easily see 86 different vertical applications for this technology. I can tell you now, three-and-a-half years later I was totally wrong. There are thousands of applications. People don’t realize it yet.

And so I wrote the course based upon the fact it was all the stuff I’d learned over a couple years — testing these markets out and so forth — that I thought everybody else would want to know. It turns out I was right. Because the people who have gone to our classes — and we’ve now graduated hundreds of students — they just love it. You teach people how to fly, you teach people how to fly well, without GPS — which is the key to becoming a really good pilot.

When you say people are missing all these applications; is it beyond Amazon promoting the idea of delivery drones, or surveillance drones, or different ways to collect data? What are the applications that people aren’t seeing?

I can hardly think of a business that can’t use it. It’s things like agriculture, which many people believe is the largest market for this stuff. I’m not sure that that’s true, but is a very big one. Certainly construction and engineering, there’s so much you can do here it’s absolutely amazing, whether it’s inspection of fiber optics or cell towers and windmill blades. Or inspection for insurance claims. It’s going to change the way we devour media in this country, because we are going to have a whole different perspective. Every time people look at the types of videos that are done with these things, they say “Oh my God I’ve never seen it from that perspective before!” And certainly real estate is a mundane one, but it’s one of the early adopters.

I have a personal physician, and I said this could change your business. He says, I’m a doctor and it’s not going to change medicine. I said, really? So I show him the ambulance drone, which is basically a defibrillator inside of a drone. By sending a drone to the person through the air, rather than an ambulance, you can save more lives. He goes, are you kidding me? I never thought of it like that. It’s an “aha!” moment for people.

If there thousands of different applications for drones, do you envision one person contracting him- or herself out as a drone pilot? Or do you see that the field claims adjuster of the future has drone flying skills in addition to photography skills? Is drone-flying just going to be another line on a resume?

I think it’s going to transition over time. In the early stages, what we’re going to see in the next year or two, are these commercial applications where people go out, specialize in it, and create businesses around it. But this technology is moving so rapidly — the life cycle of these flight systems is about 12 months maximum — what we’re going to see is these things becoming tools. Generalized tools.

Think of it much like your computer. The computer is the universal machine. Drones are going to fall into that same sort of category, which is why we as a company are focused on training and not creating degreed curriculums to get a bachelor’s degree or masters degree in the stuff.

The specialists are going to lead at the forefront, but that will become lesser and lesser over time because the tools that we have, the new mechanical technology along with software, is going to make this easier to use in the future.

So 10 years down the line, if they’re going to be so easy to fly, is your course going to be obsolete?

No, I don’t think what’s going to happen longer term is like that. I don’t think it’s going to become — and I’m going to use this technical term — “automagic.” It’s going to continue to progress in different ways for different things.

It’s kind of like this: Today, GIS software — graphical information systems — is highly complex, and you have to be a degreed person to learn how to use these really expensive graphical information tools. You’re a GIS specialist. We’re going to see those tools get broken down into smaller subsets — they’re very robust and they cover wide areas today, and that’s why there’re so complex.

What people want is actionable intelligence to come out of the systems. You have farmers who are going to have these on every farm. They’re going to become as ubiquitous as the tractor; what they’ll do is launch them and follow a flight plan over their crops to collect data on fertilizer, and water and all this other stuff. You can upload the data in real-time to the cloud while the things are flying around. The data that goes into the cloud is going to get postprocessed automagically— there it is, my favorite technical term. And it’s going to give information back to that farmer that he can visualize and use within hours. It’s going to be really simple for them to use.

You know how many people today take classes on word-processing or take corporate training on PowerPoint? There are always people who need that type of training. There will still be those who say, you know, I really want somebody to show me the way. That need will never, ever go away. There’s some segment of the population for whom that will always be the case. In some cases, it’s because they’re ignorant. And in other cases it’s just because they feel better when someone leads the way.

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