Three years ago, Patrick Walsh’s dad gave him a toy drone for Christmas.
“I think I crashed it in the first 15 minutes,” Walsh said. “Luckily, it didn’t break.”
Walsh has come a long way from that experience. After developing an affinity for drones and their capabilities, Walsh teamed up last fall with business partners to form EagleHawk, a Blasdell-based company that flies sophisticated drones to collect images and data.
Its fleet can inspect buildings and towers, survey land, and take photos and video of real estate, among other tasks. The company is in talks with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service about conducting wildlife counts in the Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge in upstate New York.
EagleHawk is among a number of companies tapping into drones’ commercial potential, taking the technology beyond the realm of hobbyists.
“I kind of saw this technology going from a toy to a pretty sophisticated tool that can provide better data to a lot of different industries,” Walsh said.
EagleHawk is led by Will Schulmeister, who specializes in geographic data science, and Walsh, an aerospace engineer who returned from working for Lockheed Martin in Florida. Michael Reitano is also a partner in the venture, along with Joseph Weiss, who is trying to attract more investors to the start-up.
EagleHawk captures images through drone-mounted cameras and then processes the information for its clients. The company flew over dozens of University at Buffalo buildings’ roofs, using a thermal camera to detect wetness problems. The collection images will help UB to develop a maintenance plan.
Walsh talked about his expectations for EagleHawk and how drones are giving customers alternatives for gathering images and information:
Q: How difficult is it to fly a commercial drone?
A: I’m pretty mechanically inclined. I think Will is, as well, so I kind of picked it up pretty fast. If you spend a few hours with it, it doesn’t take too long to get proficient at it.
If we put the thermal camera on the big [drone] platform, it’s almost $20,000 worth of equipment going up in the air, so we treat it like an aircraft. We have checklists. We keep maintenance logs. We survey the area for safety. We put a lot of effort into the pre-flight stuff.
And then as we’re flying, like in the situation for UB, we maintain what’s called a visual observer – somebody to help with the flight, second eye on the drone, second eye on the area, to make sure you’re not in an unsafe situation.
Q: What perceptions do you find people have about drones?
A: There’s the whole stigma with drones that, ‘They’re going to spy on me. They’re going to look into my back yard.’ So you’re getting beyond that mindset and people are seeing the benefits of drones, versus the problems. There are transformational benefits in safety. To be able to send a drone up before you have to send a man up to do any kind of inspection or any other task is huge, as well as the ability to save time and money.
Q: How can you expand a business like this beyond Western New York?
A: We’re tied into a lot of different groups. We’ve got one niche real estate client that wants help across the country taking photographs of different things. We’re building a network of [drone] pilots, so if we get a job in Ohio, or California or Minnesota, rather than travel there, we’ll have a qualified pilot go fly it, take that imagery. We’ll analyze it for the customer, and then provide it to the customer. ... That’s where you kind of get some scalability and cost savings, with leveraging the network.
Q: What’s an unusual job you have on the horizon?
A: We’re talking with a company that’s doing 1,000 acres of solar farms in Seattle right now. They’re able to go out and acquire that topographic data for such a large area before they even begin their plans or to integrate with their planning piece.
Q: How can you distinguish your business from others flying drones for commercial purposes?
A: I envision in the future, five, 10 years from now, that there are not going to be drone pilots anymore. It’s all going to be automated. There are just going to be robotics that are essentially flying on their own, so you want to focus on the data piece of it. So creating that data platform, to take that data, aggregate it, go through it, make it meaningful for the customer – that’s kind of the long-term vision.