Building and maintaining a successful long-term business has been a significant challenge for many in the UAV industry. The UAV ecosystem has yet to find its equilibrium, and we have seen the consequences of this born out in the rise and fall of many startup companies over the years. Finding longevity in this climate not only requires the development of a product that is capable of growing and scaling with the industry in the present but also determining what those industry needs will be in the future.
Skydio is looking to establish that equilibrium for their customers and for the industry as a whole with fully automated solutions like the Skydio 2 and Skydio 2 Dock. Although there is a great deal of value the technology can unlock in the present, for many in the industry, autonomous, BVLOS flight is what’s needed to fully realize the full potential of UAV operations. Skydio products are designed to enable these opportunities in both the present and future, but the company believes that doing so for the enterprise in the short and long term is ultimately about making drone flights as easy as pressing a button.
This ease of use is something that Adam Bry, CEO at Skydio, has made a priority when designing the company’s products and was also something he highlighted during the CEO Panel Discussion that took place at the Commercial UAV Expo. Bry talked through insights and strategies for success in the current marketplace along with innovations that are poised to usher in the future of the UAV industry. Commercial UAV News caught up with Bry to discuss how his company is bringing ease of flight to users today, his views on the current regulatory climate and the future of automated flight, and more.
Danielle Gagne: What are some ways that your products’ autonomous capabilities can improve how people operate drones today and in the future?
Adam Bry: We're hoping to be on the forefront of making this kind of product accessible and useful. Regulation is a key part of the picture. We think that our product is inherently much safer than anything else out there. Because of our autonomy system, we don't need GPS, and because we have obstacle avoidance, we can fly very close to the ground, which means that we're not going to interfere with manned aircraft. These features make our product safer than most.
Beyond this, we’re going to roll this out in a responsible way. We are partnering with our first customers and with regulators to make sure that everything is done in a way that is safe and in a way in which people are comfortable. There are things you can do right now, and that's where we are starting, but the real goal is to get to full automation without needing to have a person in the loop. I'm pretty confident in our ability to do that, and I think that there's promising signs on the regulatory front. There's a lot of customers that really want that and derive clear value from it. We want to be a part of making that possible.
How do the autonomous capabilities of Skydio 2 compare to other drones in the global market?
Ultimately, I think this is something that customers and the market will decide. I feel pretty comfortable in saying that we've been working on the state of the art now for the past 12 years. My co-founders and I met as grad students at MIT doing very similar stuff. So, we're deeply familiar with the technology and the way these things come together, as well as the full landscape of what's out there. I don't think that there's anything that that comes close to us really in terms of price point and in terms of all the different pieces that it takes to make an autonomous system work.
I think the thing we underestimate is that no matter how close to the beginning everything is, there is still a long way to go that will bring more capabilities that will be more useful to more people.
You’ve stated that UAV technology is providing value in the short term, but that the real value will be in autonomous capabilities. What are your short-term and long-term goals for your product?
In the short term, our autonomy technology, collision avoidance, and intelligent navigation make a lot of drone tasks easier. It enables people to fly close to structures, in tight spaces, and in GPS-denied environments with way more confidence than they could otherwise. Skydio 2 enables more users to utilize the technology. You don't need an expert pilot to go off and do these tasks, which enables you to do things faster and more efficiently. We're seeing this in a few different areas such as public safety and energy infrastructure-type inspection tasks.
Looking at the long term, which probably isn’t that far away, we are bringing way more automation to the whole thing. Rather than being constrained by the number of pilots you have and the skill of those pilots, companies will be opened up to the full value of what drones can do for the enterprise, where you can just push a button and automatically get all the data that you want to get.
These concepts have been out there in the drone world for a few years now. We've seen examples of full automation that works right now, such as downward-facing, low-flying satellites being used in agriculture. With our technology, any kind of task should be able to be automated, and that's what we're most excited about in the long term.
Being able to get familiar with this kind of technology right now would seem to give companies an edge when regulations change. But there is still a tendency to avoid this kind of technology until the regulations are ready. What would you say to people who don’t want to adopt or are not thinking about adopting anything until regulations change?
When we started at Google in 2012 people were afraid that the FAA was just going to shut the whole thing down. They thought that there wasn't going to be a commercial drone industry in the United States. This hasn’t been the case. First, there were the Section 333 exemptions, then there was Part 107, and now there are waivers to Part 107. I think the trend line is super positive.
We can't get distracted by the fact that there are these real, immediate, obvious short-term use cases that are adding a lot of value now. I still believe that we're just scratching the surface of what this technology can do. People are finding new use cases all the time, even if the workflows or data backend processing isn’t quite solidified yet.
I think the real restriction is not having products that are good enough and work well enough to want to be promoted by regulators and to deliver real value to customers. And there's a lot of examples out there today. We tend to look at these things through the product lens, and I think if you can get the product right and get it out there delivering real value, the regulations will come around. There is an inevitability that beyond visual line of sight with fully automated drones will become legal at some point. I don't think that day, in at least some scenarios, is that far away. We want to help drive that with a product that delivers value and is safe.
As we become more automated and rely on our hardware and software to deliver, process, and analyze our data the concern has been increasingly centered around security. What are some ways Skydio ensures its data is secure?
I think the first piece for security is really transparency and making it clear what's happening and what data is going where and when. So that's our starting point, and the high level on that is that we will never send drone telemetry data back to our servers without the customer explicitly doing that themselves. If you use our app, there is a part of the app in the settings menu where you can see all the flights that you've done. In order to send telemetry data from one of those flights back to us, you have to look on the flight log and physically click the option to send it to Skydio. We use this as a diagnostic tool, if somebody is having issues in the field, this information is useful to help us debug. If somebody has an issue and we want to understand it to design improvement towards it, we might ask somebody if they'd be open to sending it back, but it's fully an opt-in for those who are interested. Being transparent and clear is an important starting point.
For customers that want that extra level of security, we've developed a special mode, which basically ensures that the drone will never talk to one of our servers. For those people who care about encryption and data security, we're using state of the art wireless encryption technology on our consumer device. This is something that has been a request from customers, and we'll have more to say about it in the future in terms of taking that to the next level and getting encryption across the board.
Can you speak about the ways in which you believe Skydio’s current price point will impact conversations about adoption?
A major focus for us is making this technology accessible. Some of the major investments that we've made have been about getting to the point where we can use relatively inexpensive sensors. Everything we're doing now is based on cameras. And I think that is what's really special about these devices.
We've gotten autonomy performance that's beyond high-end platforms. Our autonomy is actually more advanced than $10,000 to $20,000 rigs out there that have Lidars, radars, and other sophisticated sensors. We've accomplished this with relatively low-cost hardware, which makes it very accessible. This fits in with our own vision of making drones as useful as they can be for as many people as possible.
We also think there's a lot of areas where there's sophisticated software that can be placed on top of our system that can add a lot of value for customers. This is something that you're going to see more and more from us over time.
By focusing on camera-based data collection, which industries or applications do you think your products are best suited for and why? What are some examples?
In the commercial world, I point to two things: detailed inspections and tactical first responder scenarios. With detailed inspections, there's a lot of different industries that have similar requirements around this, but a couple that I would point to are bridge and infrastructure, and power lines and energy, where there's a need to inspect a large amount of equipment.
There's a lot of challenges involved in doing that any other way. If you're flying with a more traditional drone you need GPS, you can't get too close to the stuff, and you have to worry about running into walls, but with Skydio 2 you can get right in there and see up close. With tactical first responder units, you want to be able to put the drone into a dangerous situation ahead of people, which oftentimes means flying challenging dense environments. And that's something our autonomy system is particularly suited toward.
The industries we are interested in right now are ones in which people have already proven the value of what drones can do but also know the friction of manual operation. We want to remove that friction and make new connections useful. I think there's a lot of opportunities like that, where drones have proven that they can do something useful but there's also a lot of friction and costs that make it not as widely used as it might be.
The kinds of use cases that we're thinking about include being able to set up a dock on a construction site and have it build a complete map (interior and exterior) of that site every day, and to be able to track those changes. I think that's a really compelling thing that can bring significant value to those kinds of customers.
What do you want people to know about how they should consider the adoption of drone technology or the creation of an enterprise drone program in the present versus waiting to do so at some point in the future?
Our goal is to be able to do all the standardized operations you would do with a drone. This means being able to take high-quality imagery, to control it manually if you want, but also to be able to use the autonomy software to make every aspect of using the product better easier, faster, and cheaper, while understanding that there is a lot of potential in the future for more automation.
My main suggestion would be that people should pay attention to it and if they see something that they think could be useful for them now, then they should consider checking one out. And if not, they should stay tuned for what's coming down the pipeline over the next few years.