Pittsburgh-based drone producer woos potential customers with ‘new possibilities’
When Dick Zhang started pitching the idea of flying drones to business leaders 2 1⁄2 years ago, most prospective customers only knew about the technology’s military uses.
A year later, people knew drones could take cool pictures, Zhang said, noting how drones had become popular with hobbyists and garnered some controversy as curiosities hovering in the sky.
“This past year, though, people see a legitimate business tool,” said Zhang, CEO and founder of Identified Technologies. The company has grown from a startup in late 2013 supported by the AlphaLab Gear business incubator to a firm with 13 full-time employees and a half dozen contractors working from a design and manufacturing space in Larimer.
Identified Technologies assembles drones for commercial use and then provides customers with an integrated package: a self-flying, camera-carrying drone equipped with navigation software that will survey a pre-mapped area, land on its own and send photos embedded with geocoded data to a cloud computer for analysis. It’s sold as a cheaper and safer alternative to sending out survey crews or flying a piloted plane.
“This is called the Boomerang because you send it out and it comes back by itself,” chief marketing officer Barry Rabkin said while showing off one of the firm’s 6-inch-tall, 13-inch-wide black carbon fiber drones equipped with four propellers. “You just push the button.”
Zhang, a New Jersey native who started the company in Philadelphia before moving to Pittsburgh a year later, initially considered courting potential business in several markets that could find value in the technology, from road crews to emergency responders.
He settled on the construction and energy industries, offering services to clients that need to see large and remote areas such as gas pipelines and well sites, or to track changes during construction.
“There may be circumstances where a drone could perform certain work functions, like surveying pipeline rights of way on steep or hazardous terrain, more efficiently,” said Rob Boulware, a spokesman for shale gas producer Seneca Resources, which contracted with Identified Technologies to get ultra-high-resolution images of operations in rural parts of the Marcellus shale.
“This imagery is important for our (geographic information systems) mapping program and it resulted in detailed current aerial imagery that we have shared gratis with county GIS managers in Elk, Jefferson, Lycoming and Venango counties,” Boulware said.
Though oil and gas companies have cut back on spending and activity because of low prices, the sector remains a viable customer base as pipelines are built and producers look for cheaper ways to continue necessary survey work.
“We found the demand is great,” said Emily Chiodo, a spokeswoman for Robinson-based Civil & Environmental Consultants, which does permitting and other work for companies in energy and other fields. CEC did trial work during a partnership with Identified Technologies but started offering its own drone services to clients last fall.
Using a drone can be safer and cheaper than sending a crew of surveyors crawling over hilly terrain and construction sites, Chiodo and Zhang noted. As methane detection equipment and infrared technology become lighter and more portable, drones can handle more intensive remote sensing at a fraction of the cost of sending a piloted helicopter or airplane over an area.
Analysts predict the commercial market for drones will surpass $1 billion by 2020. Identified Technologies, which is backed by several investment firms, has not yet turned a profit from the growing market, but Zhang predicts it will in the next year to 18 months as business grows 20 percent month over month. He did not provide specific sales figures.
He is pushing two key selling points: Identified Technologies has the Federal Aviation Administration clearance to fly the drones and the know-how to convert the data from the cloud.
Two staffers with airplane piloting and FAA regulatory experience “work hard to make legal and insurance issues non-issues for customers,” Zhang said. Software packages help map survey flight paths that can be uploaded directly to the drone.
Although people pay most attention to that flight — a 6-pound robot flying about 20 to 30 mph a few hundred feet off the ground remains a curiosity — Zhang said the greatest value to customers is in the analysis of the images and data the drone is capturing.
“That’s where the juice of our business is,” he said. The drone is “just getting raw photos up there.”
Programs can convert the images and data into three-dimensional models of a work site. The fourth dimension of time becomes even more valuable as frequent drone trips can track changes over days, weeks, or months.
“The analytics allow you to track trends but also predict trends,” Zhang said. “It really opens some new possibilities.”
David Conti is the assistant business editor at the Tribune-Review. Reach him at 412-388-5802 or [email protected].