USI: Why were you inspired to begin droneVC?
I saw that the non-military drone industry overall was rather in its infancy, with a surprisingly small group of technologists pioneering the fundamentals for a technology that could end up becoming a multi-hundred billion dollar opportunity to change how we transport light matter and perform sensing. While some folks had made investments in drone companies, it didn’t seem like anyone else had specialized in doing a drone fund. I was also interested to try out AngelList’s syndicate platform with its low time and capital overhead. If I was to do this part time, I’d need something that required very little backoffice overhead – starting a full traditional fund requires managing several Delaware corporations, sending out K-1s annual to partners, etc. AngelList takes care of everything for me. Investors also don’t pay a management fee to me. In a traditional fund, they’d pay somewhere between 1% to 2% of the fund annually to managing partners. In this model, substantially all of their capital goes to the company and is put to work immediately.
USI: What are you most excited about in the field of commercial UAS?
There are the more obvious advances I’m looking forward to – transitional UAVs like Vayu opening up lightweight delivery logistics in environments where there aren’t roads and your flight are saving lives, better powerplants that utilize tiny high efficiency internal combustion engines that allow for dramatically longer flight times, superior path planning algorithms that transcend basic collision avoidance and start optimizing for a “minimum energy safe transit” plan – and in filming a “maximally beautiful safe path”, lowcost lightweight solid state steered onboard LIDAR for environmental awareness, and better sensors that go beyond simple visual acquisition.
But I think what I’m most excited about is the things I have no idea how to expect, having people from industries I’m not familiar with have a lightbulb go off in their heads as they start thinking about the opportunities. What does it mean for a steel plant to incorporate drones into their business? Or bakeries? Or dry cleaners? I have no idea, but I bet someone does. I’m not trying to say that drones have a place in every industry, but there will be applications that are unobvious now and I find that really exciting. I had two guys come to me with deep experience in the insurance business – roof insurance for hail and the like is a big deal in the Midwest and insurance companies need prompt before-and-after shots. Drones are perfect for that. That would never have occurred to me because I don’t spend much of my day thinking about roof insurance.
USI: Do you have your own UAS? What do you use it for? What would you like to use it for (if approval needed)?
I have got a 3D Robotics Iris; we’ve done some fun manual and autonomous flights. I’m planning on installing the Iris+ upgrade kit soon. We did find that after we had it flying with long legs, a gimbal, and a GoPro the flight times were quite short and the Iris’s battery meter was tragically optimistic. At putative 30% charge the thing fell out of the sky! I’d be tempted to get a Phantom 3 at some point to compare and contrast.
USI: When did you begin following the evolution of UAS? How has the unmanned systems landscape changed since then?
I began earnestly tracking things about a year ago. It’s been impressive to see how the quality of the optics and gimbals has improved even since then. There were also far fewer drone companies then. At CES this year it was astonishing to me to see a whole tranche of the show floor reserved for drone companies. It’s definitely an industry now.
USI: How have your other positions (HackerDojo, Google, Facebook, etc.) impacted your droneVC initiatives?
I like working on cool problems and helping people, which is why I started Hacker Dojo – one of the world’s largest hackerspaces – and why at Facebook I worked on helping launch internet.org and am now working on getting everyone online at Google. I find drones exciting because they represent both neat, new technology and an opportunity to make a huge positive impact on the world.
USI: How do you think the large increase in 333 exemptions handed out and the NPRM impact the near future of the UAS industry?
It is great to see the FAA begin down the path of opening up the airspace. It was obviously at a slower pace than Congress or industry wanted, but better late than never. It was getting pretty embarrassing there for a bit when the best plan for a non-military US drone company would have been to cross the border to either Canada or Mexico, both of whom seem to have been embracing commercial drone use better than the US. I’m glad that’s changing, even as it’s clear that we’re far from where we need to be, especially with NLOS flights.
USI: What are you interested to share with the unmanned systems community at USI 2015? What are you interested in learning more about?
I’m quite interested to hear from others about what problems need solving and could potentially be helped by drones, what cool new technologies are possible, and how the industry is evolving.