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In any burgeoning industry, there are success stories and there is heartbreak. This holds true for the drone industry, but entrepreneur drone pilot and UAS mentor Michael Hill has diligently worked his way to his benchmark success story, and heartbreak eludes him. Like many others, what started as a hobbyist interest in drones quickly revealed itself to be an incredible business opportunity.
“I retired from Microsoft after a number of years, I had no idea what I was going to do and I had a gentleman approach me and ask ‘Hey, you fly those RC things. Do they do video?’ and I said, ‘Yeah!’” Hill recalled. “So I flew one job for him and came back to him, and he said, ‘We’ve got 200 facilities we’d like mapped.’ That’s where my company started.”
That company, Cumulus Technologies, Inc. has been growing for four years. They offer high-quality aerial imaging services, but Hill was also adamant about focusing his attention on education, consultation and mentorship. To him, it’s in the best interest of everyone in the industry to prioritize safety and responsibility above all else. His group has developed a safety training curriculum that’s utilized by several organizations and school districts around the United States. One example is Texas school Little Elm ISD, which has 170 students enrolled in their LEISD engineering program, and now offers specialization in unmanned aviation and aeronautics.
“These kids have ideas like ‘I want to be a drone pilot and go out and take pictures!’ but it’s much broader than that,” Hill said. “They have a passion for this, as well, and as the industry is evolving and changing, we need them. We don’t need kids just getting Part 107s and taking real-estate photography, either. We need the next Bill Gates of our industry.”
A concern that Hill addresses in much of his work is the shortage of engineers equipped to meet the exponentially growing demand for new technologies in the industry. He consults with powerful corporations that are getting involved with drones—Amazon, Google, Wing, Bell Flight—and he says there’s a consensus among them: they can’t find nearly enough engineers pilots, or developers of software ecosystems.
“And when I say ‘pilots,’ I mean people with basic aviation knowledge,” he said. “Everything is changing to autonomous flight, but you still need to know how to fly in the NAS (National Airspace System), you need to know datalink, understand propulsion and embody professionalism.”
Those broad, industry-wide changes remain at the front of Hill’s mind. Whether it’s in regards to FAA regulations, evolving technologies (he’s been excited about VTOL advancements), or even the shifting public perception of drones, Hill sees opportunity at every turn. One of the changes he’s seeing is dire for many in the industry, though: the internalization of many drone services by large companies.
He has watched as drone service providers have perished by the dozen over the past two years. While many businesses work to consolidate their drone services, other big players like Amazon, Uber and Google are pouring millions into their own drone innovations. Hill himself consults with representatives of these businesses and advises them on their expansions. He predicts, though, that most drone service providers will fall by the wayside.
He’s more optimistic about DroneUp, however.
“It’s about leadership, it’s about management,” he asserts. “There’s guys like (Tom Walker, DroneUp Founder/CEO) that have already stepped on top of the pile. It’s the philosophy, the willingness of people to want to come and work with you. It’s the employees that you have and the way they interact with your customers and pilots. That’s the key, the secret sauce, to being successful in this industry.”
Hill’s prediction is that, no matter how far the megacorporation drone-developments go and how much of those services are internalized, there will always be a place for drone services and pilot networks.
“Say 35 percent of businesses bring those drone services internally,” he proposes. “The rest are still going to need those services, and they’re going to turn to the ones on the top of the pile, like DroneUp. The ones who have done right by their clients.”
Stay tuned for more installments of our Drone Jobs series, as we highlight some of our best pilots and the missions they fly.