Need Eyes in the Sky? ‘Uber for Drones’ Will Send a Pilot

By: Clint Finley

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(SkyCatch)

Christian Sanz calls it “Uber for drone pilots.”

The founder of the San Francisco drone startup SkyCatch wants to bring the “sharing economy” ethos to drones, offering a new service called Workmode, which helps companies find and hire unmanned aerial vehicles for mapping jobs, surveying, and other work.

Aerial drones make it far easier and faster to make good maps, as they provide a view of the landscape below. What once took days of surveying can be done in hours. That’s a boon to construction companies and mining operations that need maps of quickly changing terrain, but not every company can spend $10,000 on a drone for a one-off project—and even fewer have qualified drone pilots on staff.

That’s why SkyCatch is launching Workmode, which helps companies find third-party drone pilots—much like Uber lets you hire a car ride or AirBnb lets you rent a room. The goal is to make it easier for companies to afford the expensive technology of unmanned aerial vehicles and, in the process, help independent pilots make money from their drones. But it’ll need some help from regulators.

It’s All About the Software

SkyCatch also makes drones. But it doesn’t sell them. It leases them to companies that need mapping, surveying, and other services, and it includes trained pilots in the deal. “A lot of time customers try to do this themselves first,” says SkyCatch’s Ambar Pansari. “They buy a Phantom drone, they go out and try it, and the first time out the drone crashes. And then they come to us and say, ‘This was a lot harder than we thought.’”

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But the company’s main selling point isn’t drones, or even pilots. It’s the tools SkyCatch has built to analyze and process all the data and photos the drones collect. With Workmode, SkyCatch is trying to find ways to bring this software to customers who might not need the company’s more extensive services.

SkyCatch’s clients typically have their maps updated weekly or even daily. But not everyone needs or wants that level of service, though. Pansari realized the company simply did not have enough pilots to send out for smaller jobs, but there were plenty of independent pilots who would love the chance to make some money from their drones.

Through Workmode, a company can hire one to photograph a site. All the pilot needs to do is upload the images to SkyCatch, which then makes the maps and other tools available to the customer through its online dashboard. For only a few hundred dollars, depending on the site that needs to be surveyed, SkyCatch can create a map that would have taken thousands of dollars to create otherwise.

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A drone can be very useful at a construction site (SkyCatch/Facebook)

Pilot for Hire

Tom Waclo is among the first pilots testing Workmode. He bought his first drone two years ago to help out with his real estate photography business. When he read about Workmode on SkyCatch’s website earlier this year he jumped at the chance to make extra money, and the service already is keeping him busy. “I fly three or four times a week,” he says. “I’ve been going to various construction sites, a lot of vineyards, some of the other pilots are flying mines.”

SkyCatch provided Waclo with one of its drones, but he also owns several more. Which drone he uses for a given job depends upon the terrain he needs to shoot. He can upload data from any of them to SkyCatch’s platform.

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To join Workmode, Waclo had to pass both a flight test and a knowledge test that covers the basics of photogrammetry, aerospace law and more. Those, like Waclo, who have passed these tests appear on the Workmode site as “verified” pilots. Pilots will be able to sign-up without being verified, but SkyCatch will only vouch for those who pass the tests.

The Gray Area

For now, though, Workmode is only available to a select few pilots and companies while SkyCatch works with the Federal Aviation Administration on legal issues. In the US, it’s not quite legal to use aerial drones for commercial purposes. But it’s not quite illegal either.

This murky gray area makes it hard for SkyCatch to do business, but Sanz says there are good reasons to regulate drone usage. “The FAA’s biggest worry is public safety, which we share,” says Sanz. “They don’t want these drones flying around in parks, in highly populated areas.”

But even as the U.S. struggles to regulate drones, SkyCatch has found opportunities in other countries. Workmode will open to the French public next month at the Le Web conference, and an Australian launch will follow soon after.

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