Drone Jobs: Spotlight on Thomas Sanford

Thomas Sanford

DroneUp Callsign: skyryder

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Being a professional drone pilot is an enticing career for many. Some of the most successful and industrious have proven to be those who are entering a new phase in their life altogether. They’re people who have had long, successful careers in their field and want something new. For many, it’s an irresistible promise for that something new to involve taking to the skies.

This was true for Thomas Sanford, who founded SkyRyders LLC, a full-service photography company specializing in drone photography, which Sanford writes on their site is “accountable to the highest standards meeting the needs of customers.” He created the company while transitioning to a future retirement from Arconic, a materials, components, systems, engineering and design firm in the aerospace manufacturing division where he works as a facility engineer. He was looking for something to supplement his retirement income.

“I wanted to use all my project management experience, design, AutoCAD and 3D modeling skills, plus all my infrastructure knowledge. I figured I could walk the walk and talk the talk in almost any circle,” Sanford said.

His initial ideas involved design and technical writing. The way that drones were introduced is a common story amongst professional drone pilots—he was gifted a toy quadrocopter. 

“Several years ago I was complaining to my wife that I never get anything fun for Christmas,” he said. “I didn’t know that she had bought me a toy drone from Walgreens.”

He could barely keep that toy in the air, but his curiosity was awakened. He started looking around online and found DroneUp. He realized that the next step was to get a real-deal drone, and he settled on the Phantom 3 Professional. Right away, the technology’s power was apparent.

“With that type of tool, I started to think about how I could use it with my design and technical writing skills and it all came together pretty easily. Then I purchased an Inspire, I have a couple of Phantom 4 Pros, Mavics….that’s how it started, and I blame it on my wife,” he said.

His first commercial job was a residential roof inspection; just trying to get an idea of what kind of work there was. In his mind, he was going to be working with the knowledge he’d earned after more than a decade of engineering. He was familiar with infrared imaging, volumetric data collection, point clouds and generating 3D models through imagery. Putting that knowledge into practice in a brand new industry, though?

“I was excited and petrified,” he said. “I’d already decided to start a business. While I was studying to be a pilot, I was also working on registering my LLC and getting my FAA license. So by the time I got my first drone job, I already had a registered business.”

They’d acquired the equipment to do the infrastructure work he’d envisioned, and SkyRyders were having some success in that field. They needed something to fill in the gaps, though. Work in the interim would help to recoup some of the investments into all of their equipment.

That’s when SkyRyders really began to explore what it means to be a full-service aerial photography provider. Beauty shots, parking lots, real estate and volumetric data collection—Sanford began exploring the broad range of drone applications that companies like DroneUp specialize in.

To adapt, Sanford also had to do what DroneUp Founder and CEO Tom Walker explained in his Interdrone Keynote this year, which was to “stop acting like drone people trying to start a business, and start acting like businesspeople trying to start a drone industry.”

“We wanted to select our own customers. Not every customer is a good customer, and we wanted to specialize more with certain clients. So we had to attack more with advertising and marketing. We had to do more cold-calling, more lead generation, which was kind of new to us,” Sandford said.

One of Sanford’s early missions with DroneUp was a property assessment with SITE Technologies. When he was just starting to research how he could make a business out of drones, DroneUp was one resource he found early on and registered with. Since becoming a pilot with them, Sanford has enjoyed the company’s mission support and overall professionalism.

“I think the world of DroneUp,” he said. “[They] do a great job of understanding what the client wants and how to relay that to the pilot. [They] do a good job of selecting the right pilot for the job and getting that work done. For most of the jobs I’ve done, I’ve had the mission commander right at my fingertips.”

Sanford has had success in the industry, flying missions for Wal-Mart, CVS, RiteAid, Food Lion and others. He credits that success to going above and beyond his client’s expectations and going the extra mile to deliver what they actually want, even if they didn’t know what they wanted to begin with.

Moving forward, he’s confident that regardless of technological innovations and regulation reforms by the FAA, so long as he sticks to those business principles, SkyRyders LLC will continue to prosper.

Stay tuned for more installments of our Drone Jobs series, as we highlight some of our best pilots and the missions they fly.

DroneUp Media Contact: Austin Walker | marketing@droneup.com | droneup.com