Jesse Kallman is used to drones helping him get his work done — in his ideal world, his drones would “be boring”. The Georgia Tech aerospace engineering grad, who has returned to Atlanta after a 7-year hiatus spent in Washington, D.C. and California, has been working with unmanned aerial vehicles since before the industry even had solidified regulations — in fact, his work helped to create them.
After serving as a consultant to government agencies like the Federal Aviation Administration, as well as helping launch and grow a successful drone data services startup, Kallman is leveraging his dozen years of experience as the freshly-appointed President of Airbus Aerial, a division launched by France-based commercial aircraft manufacturer Airbus. From building a team to solidifying a product and marketing to customers, Kallman is doing it all in this brand-new division of the 40+ years-old company.
Kallman took a break from searching for office space and hiring engineers to sit down with Hype and tell us about his background in drone regulations and data capture, why he returned to Atlanta to launch this global endeavor, and the perks one gets for working in this startup within a corporation. And yes, we had to ask — at Airbus Aerial, employees are encouraged to get experience with the product by getting their commercial drone license.
How did you get involved in the aviation field?
I grew up loving aviation, flew a little bit in high school, and knew I wanted to get into engineering. During my undergrad at Georgia Tech I studied aerospace engineering and realized I was very interested in unmanned technology as well. My research, even early on, was in aerodynamic design, and later on, in aerospace systems and Federal Aviation Regulations.
I moved to Washington D.C. after school to work for a large consulting company, through which I worked for the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) on how they could integrate their rules and processes into what was already happening in the unmanned aircraft space, and keep pace with what other countries, in Europe and elsewhere, were doing. This was in the really early days before there were even rules around drone— it was more about starting to understand how things would work in the air space.
Where did you go from there?
After working as a consultant for a couple of years, I did a complete 180 and left to go work at a startup. Some friends from Tech and some others from MIT who had all been working for Boeing got together and started a company called Airware, out in southern California. Initially we were focused on developing tool systems for small unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). But, as many startups who start doing one thing and begin to evolve, we developed that idea a bit and became a software company that used drone data into insights for businesses. When we reached about 20 people, we moved the company from Newport Beach to San Francisco and really focused on developing enterprise software for large organizations that wanted to use the UAVs directly themselves. That company is 150 people now.
During my time there we got into talks with Airbus, because they were trying to understand the space and how they could leverage the technology they have, figure out what approach they should take in the market. We talked about a few different ideas and then, earlier this year, they approached me and said, would you like to come start this for us? I agreed.
Airbus is headquartered in France and has multiple U.S. locations, none being Atlanta. How did you end up back here?
When it came time for us to talk about where we were going to built this team, I was the one that came back to Atlanta. I’d been wanting to come back here— the city has changed so much since I left school in 2010. There’s a brand new startup scene, lots of large corporations that just moved here, clients that we want to work with, amazing startup talent, so I figured why not come back here where we can do not only just as much as we can do in Silicon Valley, but even more than in Silicon Valley.
What’s it like to be set up as a startup division within a company as large as Airbus?
The way we’re set up is really like a startup with a very uninvolved but helpful VC. We are able to leverage all the technology that VC happens to have, but we have a lot of freedom to do what we want, hire the people we want, hire quickly, address certain customers in certain markets, and make decisions quickly, without having to deal with the typical processes that a large company has. On the other hand, we get the security of a large company, the recognition, the name, global access, resources to satellite and drone technology, that your typical startup is never going to have access to.
What have been your first steps in launching the division?
We really just started to set up shop in Atlanta. Right now we’re working out of a co-working space, but we’re looking for office space. We’re also really starting to hone in on what the product will look like, who the customers will be, what our strategy will look like, and really build out that strategy. Once we do that, we’ll take it across the water to Europe and say to our “investor”— Airbus— here’s our product, here’s what we want to build, how long we think it’s going to take, what we need to fund it. We can tell them, once we’re off and running, here’s what we’ll bring in in profit.
Describe the product that you’ll be building.
We’re bringing together a lot of existing technologies from Airbus and from third parties in the field of data collection. This includes high-altitude unmanned aircraft, satellite reading technologies, drone technologies, and data science, to form one common data offering. The core product for customers is a single platform or place where, if you’re a client, you can come and say, here are the areas where I need information on— whether it be on weather events or population density or product delivery— and depending on the resolution target, the frequency of data capture, the geographic area, we then determine if it needs to be captured by drone, by satellite, if so which satellite or which drone. Once we make the determinations we go out and get the data, bring it back, analyze it, and provide recommendations with additional layers of analysis on top of it.
What’s the revenue model here?
Our service is actually more of a software as a service model, where customers pay to subscribe to the service. It’s actually more of a SaaS company as a drone company. The pricing could depend on the project, the method of data collection, the frequency of data collection; so it’s really specific and tailored to the company, but really about volume and method.
What do you see as being the most exciting application of drone technology in the future?
I see the more interesting applications where drones will make a big impact to businesses and their customers. For one, insurance companies who can now settle claims for their customers before you can even report it. In general, the most useful applications are not the typical exciting things, but more about making someone’s work more efficient. If a drone is successful in its job, it is actually incredibly boring— you are just standing there watching a thing fly around.
What should investors looking to get involved in the field look for?
Stick to companies who understand who their customers are, what problem they are trying to solve, and how their technology can solve the problem. Too many people are investing in the shiny drone, but many of those companies miss the customer problem.
What about students— what do you need to study in school to get into the UAV or drone field?
Drones are mostly software. Software skills are also key once you get the data off the drone. But an Aerospace Engineering degree never hurts as well!
Inline image via Airbus.