With customers in 49 countries using their products for agriculture, surveying, construction, environmental preservation, and other applications, Event 38 is a leading designer and manufacturer of unmanned aerial systems. Jeff Taylor of Event 38 shares with Droneblog about his background in Aerospace Engineering, how he got into the drone industry, and how he started Event 38. Jeff also gives an update on recent developments with FAA regulations.
Tell us about yourself and your background.
I finished my degree in Aerospace Engineering in 2009. My first job was at SpaceX where I worked on the very first commercial space launch. From there I went to 3D Robotics to head up their R&D engineering, and then in 2011, started Event 38.
How did you get started in the drone industry?
Actually it started while I was in university where I built a drone for my senior project. At the same time, I got involved with the open source community DIY Drones. I helped develop an early version of the now ubiquitous MEMS-based autopilots when gyroscope chips were first being made available cheaply to the public. Our prototype was quickly deprecated by new chips capable of full attitude estimation but it taught me a lot about the open source movement and project management.
Tell us about Event38, what it is, and your role there. How did Event38 get started?
Event 38 designs and manufactures unmanned aerial systems, specialized optical sensors, and a precision analytics data platform. Today we have customers in 49 countries using our products for agriculture, surveying, construction, environmental preservation, and other applications.
I founded the company in 2011, initially in my spare time. I believed that businesses would be able to extract great value from aerial data collection and the new UAS technology allowed me to do it for a fraction of what it would cost from manned aircraft. I tested my early prototypes for about six months and then launched a website. Within a week I had my first sale.
From there, we started to grow rapidly. We developed both multi-rotor and fixed-wing airframes, multiple camera options, and made significant hardware and software improvements over time. We had two initial goals:
- offer cost effective, multipurpose, reliable, and durable UASs and
- make them easy to use by providing high quality customer service.
Today our primary workhorse, the E384 fixed-wing UAS, costs less than a quarter of the competition, has an industry leading endurance of two hours, and can carry a 1 kilogram payload. It can fly a 1,000 acre farm in a single flight and capture data at the 2 centimeter level. Customers fly our UASs for hundreds of hours all over the world.
Our “Easy Button” initiative is an ongoing process. We have made many key improvements to Mission Planner, our open source flight control system, to reduce the time required to safely get launched and ensure a safe and successful flight and are currently working on several additional hardware and software initiatives. Our industry has rapidly moved from the geek world to the more general user and our customers want a reliable, fast, and simple process for their UAS use. In order to assess our progress, we recently completed a customer satisfaction survey and received a 4+ out of five rating. So we believe we are on the right track but understand there is more we can do to ensure safe and successful flight operations.
Understanding the value of our offering is in the data that is collected, we have embarked on a comprehensive open architecture data analytics initiative. Our goal is to provide users with an easy way to store, process, and analyze the huge amounts of data that is collected. We are collaborating with leading universities and industry experts to create actionable information and deliver it to end users in a timely, accurate, and meaningful way. Our sole focus is on providing robust information leading to increased ROI for our customers. Our open architecture initiative is currently in private beta with an expected public release in the second quarter.
I serve as the CEO of the company but understood early on that that I couldn’t do this all on my own. So over the past two years we have begun to build an experienced management team to grow the business and we now have the talent and plans in place to make that happen. We are very proud of the fact that in three years we have been able to bootstrap our business, develop it to an international enterprise, and most of all provide quality products to our customers. Now we want to take that experience and grow the company to the next level.
What kinds of services does Event38 provide? Who are most of your customers?
Our focus is strictly on the small and medium business sector. We have no plans to enter the consumer market. Today we have customers in five primary markets: agriculture, surveying, construction, environmental conservation, and a long tail of ‘others’ using our UAS’s for research and niche applications.
Because other countries have been quicker than the US in adopting regulations, most of our business is outside the US. Today we have customers using our UASs on six continents in a variety of applications.
On the manufacturing side, we offer flight ready airframes and optical sensors. Today you can buy them directly on our website from us or through a growing network of reseller/partners around the world. Our products are field tested with thousands of hours of real world use and our customer service is second to none. We continue to develop new hardware offerings and are about to release both significant new airframe products and optical sensors. We have begun to integrate other sensors into our offering and soon will make those developments public as well. We believe the ability to collect not only optical but thermal, LiDar, microwave and other sensor data will create thousands of new applications.
On the service side, we offer limited professional services, primarily onsite training and flight operations, and we are about to release our open architecture data platform as a subscription service. This service will offer a wide range of cloud based data services, i.e. secure data upload, storage, and image processing. In addition we are working with industry and research leaders to create an extensive list of applications for our users across a wide range of vertical markets.
What is geo-located aerial imagery used for?
Geo-located aerial imagery is used to make maps which can in turn be used for a wide variety of applications. Sometimes it’s just as simple as knowing where things are located and how big they are to provide useful insights to end users. A good example of that is measuring how much gravel has been extracted from a quarry and how far it has to be moved to process and deliver it. Other times the reflectance of the area of interest is analyzed to determine something about the objects being imaged. Farmers do exactly this, using the light reflected off their crops to estimate the health of each plant and quantify the size and location of abnormalities.
What types of applications are your customers using the drones for?
Our customers are mainly using our drones for agriculture and surveying. At the most basic level, we’re able to provide farmers with an up-to-date, high-resolution map of their fields that lets them step back and take in the big picture rather than being stuck down in the weeds (pun intended) at eye level. This lets them monitor their entire operation where it may be otherwise very time consuming to physically go out and check on each plot of a large farm. On top of that, we’re now able to provide insights not visible to the human eye through our specialized optical sensors.
Our customers working in the surveying industry are able to make extremely high resolution aerial imagery and even 3D models of their work sites in a fraction of the time and expense it would take to survey on the ground. But it’s not just traditional agriculture and surveying – our customers continue to pleasantly surprise us with the diversity of ways they put our UASs to use. For example, one of our customers recently flew a river valley in western Uganda to survey possible dam locations. The country of Belize is using our drones to stop illegal fishing off their coast, another customer is flying glaciers in Alaska, and we even have a customer who bought one of our drones to count sea turtle nests on the Caribbean coastline. For more examples, check out our blog and white papers on our website, www.event38.com.
What is your personal favorite drone to fly and why?
My favorite drone to fly is the E384 loaded up with more batteries than should reasonably fit inside. Utility is more appealing to me than flare and as such. I like the way a steady workhorse aircraft handles as opposed to a zippy quadcopter, for example.
Share an experience of a failure (crash, tech failure, etc.) and what you learned from it.
Early in my days at Event 38, I occasionally traveled to train customers. On one trip to Indonesia, I was flying with a customer over an oil palm plantation when suddenly our telemetry link dropped and then later resumed to show our aircraft now completely stationary. After trekking a kilometer into what was essentially a jungle using my phone to navigate to the crash site’s GPS coordinates, I found myself standing precisely 15 meters beneath our aircraft, firmly lodged into a tree’s fronds. We had to get a farm hand to cut it down using a pole saw. After much investigation we discovered that a power regulator was overheating in the tropical sun, reaching almost 100 degrees Centigrade. This failure taught me that we couldn’t rely on a quick test flight at home to be sure our drones would operate for all customers anywhere in the world but that each configuration had to be qualification tested and stressed to worst cases scenario conditions. Once a configuration passes these tests, we produce vehicles to the same standard, and acceptance test each unit before delivery to a customer.
What advice would you give to others who want to get started flying drones?
Before you get started, talk to someone at the company you’ll buy your drone from. Make sure you’re comfortable with their equipment and procedures. They should be able to help decide if a drone is the right tool for your task. The preflight checklist is the most important part of any operation. Stick to it religiously even after you get comfortable flying frequently. Make sure it includes a physical inspection, not just electronic criteria. Remember above all else that UASs could potentially be dangerous if operated irresponsibly, so don’t operate close to people or busy airspace.
Where do you see drones and drone technology ten years from now?
Drone technology has the potential to impact a variety of industries through cheap data collection. Similar to how the smartphone was driven by consumer scale production and R&D efforts and then became an indispensable business tool, drones will become extremely cheap and reliable over time. We plan to build on that growth by adding the right sensors, processing capabilities, and precision analytics to turn drones into tools that businesses can use to improve their operations. Ten years from now we will see hundreds of thousands of drones flying in the US alone, many without a dedicated human operator.
Thank you so much for your insights. Is there anything else that we haven’t touched on that you would like to share?
The FAA plays a key role in our US operations and there are two recent events that have had an impact on Event 38:
- On February 11, one of our customers, Pravia, LLC www.praviallc.com received FAA approval to specifically use our E384 fixed wing UAV for commercial use in agricultural applications. The “FAA 333 Exemption” approval gives Pravia the ability to operate commercial UAS in the United States national airspace system. This is one of only 29 exemptions ever granted by the FAA and demonstrates their willingness to approve our aircraft design for commercial use.
- On February 15, the FAA published draft guidelines for commercial use of UASs in the US. In general, we see the draft regulations as a positive move. While the devil will be in the details, the draft is more business friendly than all the speculation we have been hearing about over the past year. However, we think that the proposal could be improved by relaxing the line-of-sight requirement, especially for agricultural operations. We need clarification on flying over populated areas, privacy issues still remain, and most of all, we think that some sort of interim regulation needs to be put in place while the final rules are completed. There is still a long road to final approval, including a public comment period, many hearings, and so on, but finally the process has begun.
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