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Drone on Demand: Company Provides Unmanned Aircraft Pilots

Nothing may say 2015 more than a company that claims it's "the Uber for drones."
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Nothing may say 2015 more than a company that claims it's "the Uber for drones."

While the Federal Aviation Administration figures out how to regulate drones, it continues to approve their use. Nearly 400 "exemptions" have been allowed, and the number of industries that want to use the unmanned aircraft is growing.

However, drones cost money, and companies have to know how to operate them safely. Depending on the business, some firms may need a drone for only a short period of time, which in turn makes the investment impractical.

San Francisco start-up Skycatch has a product called Workmode that it claims solves that dilemma. A service called Workmode matches companies wanting a drone with qualified pilots who own and operate them. Hence the comparison to Uber.

"If we didn't have Workmode, we would have to buy our own drone, train our own pilot and potentially carry a little bit more liability insurance," said Kevin Soohoo, chief information officer for Air Systems, a commercial heating and cooling installation company. "I don't want to have a rookie flying a drone."

Skycatch connected Soohoo with drone pilot Tom Waclo, who uses his drone to monitor rooftop work for between $400 and $1,000 a flight. Being a hired gun has become Waclo's full-time job. "It's still a very new industry. There's not that many people who even realize what the capabilities are," he said. "It's been great to have (Skycatch) help me find work."

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Skycatch has raised almost $25 million from investors like GoogleVentures. "This is probably the first time that we have had anyone do an initiative where you had pilots using the drone for fun, (and) now they're using it for making money," said Skycatch co-founder and CEO Christian Sanz.

Each Workmode pilot has to go through a certification process with the company, and nearly 1,000 pilots have done so.

"Our pilots are responsible for their compliance, but we make sure they know all the safety protocols," said director of business development, Gabriel Dobbs.

Skycatch also builds drones and leases them to companies such as Japanese construction and mining giant Komatsu. Sanz said Skycatch is betting that while supplying drones is useful, its financial future lies in selling the data that it can collect through photography. "Our secret sauce is our productivity tools."

For example, a drone can monitor a pile of dirt on a construction site, and Skytcatch can tell the builder how much has been removed over a given time period. That in turn lets supervisors offsite know how quickly work is being done and if construction is sticking to schedule.

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"Some of the other things my clients have been using it for is to watch what the subcontractors are doing and track their work," said Waclo, the pilot.

When asked if that's akin to spying on workers, he laughed: "I wouldn't say spying. I'd call it logistics."

Skycatch recently got approval from the FAA to operate drones in construction and agriculture, but Sanz hopes to expand to pipeline inspection and search and rescue. The company sent some of its drones to Nepal to help rescuers survey earthquake damage.

"A year from now," Sanz Said, "we're probably going to be doing things that we don't even know today."