Commercial drone usage has expanded dramatically in the last decade — Business Insider predicts consumer drone shipments to hit 29 million in 2021, a compound annual growth rate of over 31 percent.
Commercial drone technology platform PrecisionHawk has seen its own product growth increase thanks to new regulations, as it positions itself as the end-to-end leader in industries like agriculture, government, insurance and more. The platform offers drone operations, sensors and software for data analysis, all in one place.
In 2017, PrecisionHawk added nearly 100 employees to its team after the addition of Michael Chasen, formerly of edtech company Blackboard, as CEO. Following a $75 million Series D round this January to add strategic investors, the Raleigh-based startup acquired two drone pilot startups, Droners.io and AirVid, to expand its pilot network reach for clients looking for one-time use, for example, following a storm damage event.
“We needed to have aerial imagery on the ground around the world to work with our clients who needed to get quick access to that type of information,” says Chasen. “Now we have 15,000 pilots throughout the United States and around the world. They can go down there with the drones to collect aerial imagery, upload it to our servers where we could do analysis and provide our clients with the data.”
They’re also continuing to innovate on the hardware, launching yesterday the industry’s first beyond visual line of sight-enabled, multi-rotor drone platform.
Chasen shares more about the stratospheric growth the company has seen since he came on board last year, how he took his team of hobbyists through the transition and why they’re focused on growing the industry as a whole.
What problem is PrecisionHawk solving for the commercial drone space?
Before August 2016 consumers and the government could use drones, but corporations couldn’t. They were really prohibited from using drone technology. Then, the FAA came out with Part 107, a set of rules and regulations that allows companies to use drone tech as long as they follow them. That’s what we focus on — working with companies to enable them to utilize drone technology.
We do so in two ways: we work with some companies that will buy drones and our software, and we design algorithms for them while teaching them how to fly the drone. On the other end of the spectrum, we work with big gas and electrical companies that do not want to own the private drones themselves. They hire us to fly drones, collect the data, and then we give them the results of that data. We really provide the end-to-end solution for companies that are looking to deploy drone technology, whether they want to own the technology themselves or they just want to utilize the benefits of the drones.
When you came on board as CEO, what were the first goals you had?
I came down to meet with the team, fell in love with the people — they are so passionate about what they were doing. The technology that they had was really state of the art, but what they lacked was putting in place the infrastructure to be able to take that next step with the company. They had 150 people — all technical. They didn’t have any sales people. So they were doing a lot of individual company sales work, but didn’t have a consulting arm.
The first thing I did was take all this cash and technology and put in place an infrastructure that could grow as this industry started scaling. It’s only been just over a year and we’re already starting to see the results of it because we have taken a leadership position in this industry. We’re now working with the number of clients on six- and seven-digit deals.
In addition to adding a sales team, what other things did you implement now that you have run through this growth spurt?
One of the first things I did was I looked at ways to ensure that we are profitably financed to go after the opportunity that I knew was in front of us — not only raising money, but bringing on board critical investors that could help us in the long run.
Our investors include Intel, DuPont, Verizon, Comcast and others that I knew would be able to provide more than just capital. I used that capital to build up the sales team and hire people who were experts in building services organizations.
Once those things — capital and basic infrastructure — were done right, it was time to invest even more in technology. We did two small acquisitions to create the largest network of drone pilots to make sure that we had that for one-time solutions. And now it’s about executing. We just needed to have the right infrastructure in place to be able to go after the opportunity and cash as it came to us.
What does your customer demographic look like?
We started with agriculture, although I think we’re now equally as large in energy and insurance. We also do construction and a lot of work for the government. These are the five industries that we focus in. As far as the makeup of our clients, we work with both individual farmers who want to use our software and drones, to clients that are paying off millions of dollars a year to work with them. An average client ranges from those that spend $10,000 a year to $2 million a year.
How did you keep your team motivated through the growth spurt and mergers?
First of all, the people that work with Precision Hawk are very passionate about the drone space. That is one of the interesting things about the space. We’ve developed on the backs of hobbyists and people who love to fly, even in the office. But that being said, culture is very important and I learned during my time at Blackboard that the culture changes as you go from 10 people to 100 and 100 to 300. Upon my arrival, I formed a culture club — I designed it after the ’80’s rock band. The committee needed to identify the key parts of the culture that we want to make sure we continue to focus on as the company grows.
It is critical to making the organization successful and it’s critical to continue to attract top talent.
What’s next in the pipeline for PrecisionHawk?
One of the things that excited me by joining Precision Hawk were they were working closely with the regulators and had so many great partners in other companies to help grow this industry. I wanted to make sure that we were investing in that.
I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t just building and putting growth behind this company, but doing what we could to contribute to growing in this industry. We can get to that next phase where drones can truly fly 50 miles beyond visual line of sight. That entire industry growing is going to help Precision Hawk as a company the most, and the way we can best drive it there is to be a leader in the field. So everything I’ve been doing is been setting us up not only to take advantage of the huge growth in this market, but also make sure that we were at the forefront of it, helping drive it forward.