DroneUp Callsign: skycamkc
Badges: Part 107 Certified, Responsible Community Pilot
When we caught up with Mike, he was sitting on the tarmac of Daytona International Speedway, which was serving as a staging area in Florida for the emergency response teams preparing for Hurricane Dorian’s arrival. This wasn’t his first time driving into a storm’s path for business, but it was his first time doing so as a drone operator. Last time, while working as a general contractor for Farmers Insurance, he drove from his hometown of Kansas City to Greenville, North Carolina for Hurricane Irene.
“In my mind, while driving (to Tampa) from Kansas City, it’s all come full circle,” Raymond said. “When Irene made it North Carolina, it hit further east in the Outer Banks. As we tried to move into the area where it hit the hardest, it was like driving into the Third World.”
While Raymond and his team were working their way through the fallen trees and flooded roads, they were severely hindered by obstacles that took precious time to clear. After however long it took to cut and haul the trees and debris from the roadway, they would continue only slightly further before hitting another roadblock. To chart a path to the devastation, it required them to charter a helicopter.
“It’s clear now that UAS and drone reconnaissance is vital for saving time in situations like that,” Raymond said.
Mike Raymond is now the owner of Sky-Cam, an advanced drone-services company in Kansas City. He got his start in drones five years ago, though, long before the fledgling industry had the attention it does today. He was dining in one of the Florida restaurants of New York Times bestselling author Randy Wayne White—Raymond’s favorite writer—and asked to speak with the author himself. White obliged, and when he came to the table, Raymond had his very first drone at the table with him: a Parrot Bebop. He’d used the toy drone, constructed partly with styrofoam, to take photos of the restaurant.
Fascinated, White invited Raymond to the private Useppa Island, of which White had a hand in development. Raymond took images of some of the luxurious private estates under construction on the island.
“I came back to Kansas City and I had some business cards made,” Raymond said. “This was well before Part 107 or 333 or anything like that, so to run into somebody who had a drone which could take aerial pictures like that was like ‘Oh my God, that’s so cool!’ Now it’s pretty commonplace.”
Mike’s introduction to flying came long before the first quadcopter lifted off the ground. For several years, he served in the U.S. Army flying the CH-47 Chinook and Bell UH-1 Iroquois. After leaving the military, he worked in construction and roofing, and this came in handy for one of his breakthrough jobs. Driving through his hometown, he noticed a construction group was reroofing a three-story high school. He phoned the number on the side of one of the trucks on-site and gave them a pitch. He explained how difficult it would be to capture images of the roof to provide to the school district and potential clients using conventional methods. They were interested right away.
“We hammered out a deal and they paid me, what I thought was a good idea at the time, like a subscription service,” Raymond said. “They wanted the cost-per-job to be pretty low… I negotiated with them what I call ‘Prepay Drone Service,’ which turned out to be most of my business model.”
His prior experience with the actual work involved in a job like this was invaluable in those initial jobs working with the contractors and builders to deliver a valuable, reliable service.
“I understand the nuances of construction,” he said. “Even though you have a concrete pour scheduled for Tuesday morning doesn’t mean it’s happening Tuesday morning. I understood that construction companies documenting special processes would need that kind of response. After I did that one package I started marketing and selling that all over.”
The business has only grown since. Raymond is a full-time drone pilot and even began teaching new pilots entering the business through a boot camp and deep-dive course. He primarily works with already-certified pilots who have some experience, and takes them to what he calls the “next level.” He shares with them his success with apps like DroneDeploy and Pix4D, and coaches them on how to market and sell their services. To him, there isn’t the same competition among drone pilots that you expect in other gig industries.
“We should all be working towards the same goals for freedom of the air and having a voice when it comes to regulations,” he said. “I’ve advocated for the industry more than most, and I believe it’s elevated me to somewhat of a thought leader.”
Looking forward, one of Raymond’s primary concerns for the drone services industry involves the division of airspace. He predicts there are ongoing negotiations among the biggest players in the drone delivery services and the FAA, and he’s anxious to see how these are settled.
He was first contacted by DroneUp this year, as we expanded our coverage and were recruiting new pilots to our network. Since then, he’s flown several missions with our service and is “looking forward to new opportunities” with DroneUp. He said DroneUp’s compensation exceeds that of other drone pilot networks, and the flight operations team has provided him with critical support while flying highly technical jobs.
“To get a mission, plan for it, execute it and get paid for it is rewarding for me. It gives me a sense of satisfaction that I’d never be able to get from sitting in a cubicle,” he said.
Stay tuned for more installments of our Drone Jobs series, as we highlight some of our best pilots and the missions they fly.