A Small Business Startup Based On Small Drones
By David Esler, Business and Commercial Aviation
Modesto, California, resident Tom Davis’s background includes 25 years as a scientific programmer during which he developed software apps and performed software engineering for high-speed computer systems. Having been raised on a farm in California’s Central Valley, he also was familiar with mechanized agriculture. And since his father had been an air traffic controller and flight instructor, this spawned an interest in aviation.
In 2010, he experimented with a control system for a hovercraft and began tracking the development of multi-rotor vehicles, which shifted his attention to control systems for the pseudo-helicopters. He ultimately became a DJI distributor and adapted its flight controller to a hexacopter that he designed and built specifically for agriculture and crop inspection. Subsequently, Davis discovered other uses for his drone, as the development proceeded to provide customers with “actionable data.”
Thus was born Drone 4 Hire LLC, Davis’ Modesto-based commercial operation. It’s a family business including Davis’ wife and sister plus three qualified drone pilots working on contracts. In setting it up, Davis did everything right: “We went down the path of getting an experimental airworthiness designation for the aircraft to be able to sell it to public agencies, but along came the Section 333 exemption, and that was the easier entry into commercial operations.”
Dubbed the Y6 Scout, Davis’ drone won’t win any beauty contests, but like a piece of farm machinery, it’s designed for utility. (On the other hand, aesthetics aren’t multi-copters’ strong suit.) “It’s a coaxial-drive hexacopter in a Y-configuration,” Davis explained, describing his design that features over-and-under motors with contra-rotating prop-rotors. Rather than expensive carbon fiber, Davis builds his Y6 Scouts from aluminum and high-impact ABS plastic, the latter of which he molds in his own homebuilt vacuum-molding setup. The machine measures 21 in. long by 20 in. wide, and its brushless motors are powered by 14-volt, 8-amp lithium batteries that give it a duration of 12 to 15 min. It’s a fully equipped unmanned system: GPS receiver, streaming video download, its ground station operating on a different frequency with telemetry capability relaying altitude, vertical and horizontal velocity, lat/long and distance from takeoff.
“You can preprogram the flight path and send it out,” Davis said. He hopes to manufacture and sell Y6s. “The aircraft can be a recreational vehicle with a simple camera or a thermal imaging system and video capability. It’s a flexible platform — priced at $7,000 on the high end and $4,000 for entry level.”
Smack in the middle of one of North America’s largest and most productive breadbaskets, Davis’ logical first market for Drone 4 Hire was agricultural scanning. “For the large farms we might be scanning 50 to 100 acres, and we can bring up a Google map and draw the flight path over the map, then upload it to the drone, which executes the pattern and comes back and lands itself. For my [Section 333] exemption, I am allowed to operate up to 400 ft. over farms and have a blanket Certificate of Authorization allowing 200 ft. almost everywhere as long as we are not endangering anyone or property on the ground.”
Davis has worked with farmers conducting aerial scans of crops in visual and near-infrared (NIR) spectrums using software for the Normalized Density Vegetation Index (NDVI) developed by NASA for studying canopies in rain forests. In addition to precision agriculture, he’s identified construction, EMS, recreation and environmental applications. NIR scans are billed at $5 to $7 an acre and produce a geo-tagged mosaic of a crop with latitude and longitude for exact locations of sections of a planted field or orchard that needs attention. “I’m doing mostly orchards right now,” he said.
Another application Drone 4 Hire is exploiting is construction. “We provide a construction chronology for integration into their business reporting.” Real estate is a third application, a basic package the company sells for $350 that includes a fly-around of the primary structure followed by an x-pattern over the top, and a two-acre peripheral circuit, all on video.
“Emergency medical services is one we’re trying to get into now,” Davis said. “We’re looking at search and rescue and equipping first-responder vehicles with drones for downloading video of search areas. For law enforcement, we are considering an airplane that can loiter for longer air time.” So far, Drone 4 Hire’s customer base is in single digits.
Davis also offers a lease option for customers. “For $10,000 a year, we provide the aircraft, pilot training and a maintenance regimen in which every quarter we swap out the aircraft for a new checked-out one — a key issue for reliability.” Depending on the application, the company allows at least one “forgiveness wreck” without billing the customer for repairs.
Davis said his emphasis is on manufacturing unmanned vehicles. “I believe I can build specialized aircraft for a small, more focused market,” he concluded.