DroneUp Callsign: ospreydrones
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Aviation is a world of its own, comprised of technological marvel, physics, and human passion. The ways in which people find themselves in the sky are many, and for some, it becomes their entire world—or at least, their entire career.
Such is the case for John Kayes, a 22-year Coast Guard veteran who now holds a position in the Federal Aviation Administration. He has supervised helicopter maintenance for the USCG, engineered extensively with Lockheed Martin, and founded his own drone services company, Osprey Drones LLC, headquartered in New Jersey.
Years after completing his service, Kayes knew that there was a future for him in business ownership. He enrolled in a Master of Business Administration program at Stockton University in New Jersey. The timing of what he calls the “drone explosion” coincided with his coursework that focused on entrepreneurship, marketing, and managerial accounting. One of his courses tasked him with applying those skills to a mock-company, and Kayes outlined what would become Osprey Drones. He felt like, relative to some of his peers’ concepts, his was attainable.
“There were some great ideas out there, but some were way outside the box,” he said. “I felt like mine was a realistic idea that could be implemented, and I’ve made it a reality.”
Three steps preceded his company’s inaugural flight: the tedious process of licensing his business, the lengthy one of applying for his company’s status as a Service-Disabled, Veteran-Owned Small Business, and obtaining and insuring the expensive equipment. His first self-described “A-ha moment” came in the form of…birdwatching.
Ospreys (like Kayes’ namesake company) are a species of predatory birds that have a protected status in New Jersey. In the mid-20th century, the number of nesting sites for the birds dropped by 90%, and conservancy officials implemented protections of those nesting sites which are still in place today.
This created an issue for a large media company in the state. Ospreys were routinely nesting in the space between the two large panels on either side of their hundreds of billboards throughout New Jersey. This meant that workers weren’t able to do maintenance on the billboards unless they could confirm that a nest no longer housed any eggs or hatchlings. Kayes was brought in to use his drone to check and make sure the nests on three billboards were empty so workers could do their jobs on the signs.
“That was a special moment for me,” Kayes said. “I thought, ‘I’m helping the environment, I’m helping my customers.’ It was a very cool feeling, I can’t really explain it. All of the business came together at that moment.”
Fast-forward several years, and Kayes has found himself on-site for DroneUp. In an almost serendipitous way, he was on a dock, capturing imagery of a tugboat for appraisal. After decades in the Coast Guard, he felt at home surrounded by thousands of tons of steel.
Those tons of steel turned out to be a challenge, though. The radio interference forced him to do tricky manual flights, but he was able to complete the work near-perfectly. DroneUp mission coordinators were able to assist him as much as possible in collecting the required data.
“It’s just my desire to always complete a mission, going back to my time in the Coast Guard. We were very mission-oriented, and it had everything to do with working as a team,” Kayes said.
Throughout his career in drone services thus far, Kayes has found himself in a very unique position in the industry—as an employee of the FAA, he has an uncommon stance with one foot in the public and one in the private sector. He sees little concern of a conflict-of-interest, however, as his role on the Enterprise Portfolio Management Team doesn’t influence policy decisions. The policy is handled by his FAA colleagues in Washington, D.C.
Instead, he considers his position in the FAA as a reason for him to run his drone enterprise with integrity and respect for regulation.
“I take it very seriously, and I fly extremely safely—pre-flight, post-flight, working under regulations,” he said. “Being in the FAA, that only notches me up. I have to be better, I have to. I don’t want to be the first one, ‘FAA Employee Crashes Drone Into Crowd of Shoppers.’ I don’t want to be that one.”
Kayes hopes to see an expansion of Osprey Drones in 2020 beyond the current team-of-one operation. Meanwhile, he’s continuing his involvement in STEM education, working as an ambassador of the FAA to schools around New Jersey. He keeps an eye on emerging technologies from within his agency and the drone industry as a whole and continues to be surprised by new applications and advancements.
Stay tuned for more installments of our Drone Jobs series, as we highlight some of our best pilots and the missions they fly.