Meet a Dronepreneur — 5 Questions for Ryan Cowell of Soaring Sky
When it comes to professional drone operators, they don’t come more passionate than Soaring Sky’s Ryan Cowell—a man who moved across the States to pursue his dream of using drones for good. Waypoint caught up with Ryan to discuss thinking big, praying to the UAS gods and, ultimately, trusting your technology and your path.
1. Hi Ryan. Why don’t you tell us a little about your journey into the world of drones. When, how and why did you first start thinking about, and then using, this technology?
I was born and raised in Southern California and I graduated from St. Mary’s College with a Business Marketing degree. Throughout my college career, I immersed myself in business and marketing, helping brands like GoPro and RedBull to manage and grow their brands, as well as my own ventures in the music industry.
I packed up my things and moved across country, leaving my loved ones and everything I knew behind. This was my opportunity to put my experience and knowledge into action.
In late 2014 I was offered an opportunity to start a drone company in Florida with a friend; a successful real estate entrepreneur. I had very little knowledge about drones so I decided to do some research on my own before making a decision. I was blown away at the potential this technology had to make a positive impact on the world and I immediately wanted in. I packed up my things and moved across country, leaving my loved ones and everything I knew behind. This was my opportunity to put my experience and knowledge into action by building Soaring Sky as a brand that would use drone technology to make a positive impact on the world.
An eBee-sourced orthomosaic of a new home development in Bonita Springs, Florida.
A digital surface model (DSM) of the same site, generated using Pix4D software.
2. Tell us about one of your favourite or most challenging drone projects. Where and what was it? What made it stand out? What did you learn?
My most challenging drone project would have to be a highway extension project we did, north of Tampa in Florida, using the senseFly eBee. Its data would be used to provide a report to the client on the overall progress of the site.
The site was roughly six miles long so we had multiple missions to fly. This was by far the biggest project we had done to date so I would be lying if I didn’t say I was a little nervous. The missions were carefully planned out to ensure the best results; we’d researched the area and made all the preparations for a safe flight.
No matter how much you prepare and plan though, you always have to be ready for something to change
No matter how much you prepare and plan though, you always have to be ready for something to change. When we arrived on site the conditions were less than optimal. We had high winds, towers that were not on the Google Earth map we’d used for the planning, and not a lot of space to launch and land the drone. The site was about five hours from the office, so turning around and going home was not an option. So we quickly had to adapt and re-plan some of our missions.
The winds were definitely exceeding 15 mph and coming in all different directions, so I could tell the eBee was going to have to work pretty hard. I will never forget the one flight where we launched and the low battery warning came on, but we still had just a little bit left to map. I knew the eBee could handle it so I decided to let it complete the mission. Once it finished the mission it started returning home, but for some reason it was moving so slow. I realised it was flying against the wind and probably had 15% battery left at this point. My heart started pounding and I think I even started praying for it to make it back in one piece. It was probably 100 yards out and the battery was reading ‘Critical 0%’! I thought for sure it would drop, but to my surprise it landed safe and sound.
My heart started pounding and I think I even started praying for it to make it back in one piece
Needless to say, this project was definitely one for the books. We were able to gather all the data needed and take it back to the office for processing—the 3D model was awesome! We love to push the limits, but always want to make sure we fly as safe as possible.
3. What impact would you say drone technology has had on your working life?
Drone technology has had a very positive impact on my life. I get to work with state-of-the-art technology every day and try to figure out new ways to use it in the real world. I have met and worked with some amazing people so far and I know this is just the beginning.
There are so many problems that I believe drone technology can help solve; we are only now just seeing some of the possibilities
There are so many problems that I believe drone technology can help solve; we are only now just seeing some of the possibilities. I can say that I have a true passion for wanting to make a positive impact on this world and I believe drones will help me do that.
4. What kind of role do you see drone technology playing in the future for companies such as Soaring Sky? Can you imagine what your working life might look several years down the line?
I see drone technology becoming invaluable. Our whole company is based off of using this technology. I believe every industry will have a need for this technology in the future.
The way I see the future unfolding with drones is full autonomy
The way I see the future unfolding with drones themselves is full autonomy. We are going to be able to launch our drones from remote locations and gather data that we can then analyse and use to provide reports to our clients.
A golf course that Ryan flew in Florida. Shown above is what Ryan names the ‘vigor layer’, used to detect plant stress (in this site’s case, due to a lack of water in some parts of the course). This particular output was produced by flying an NIR flight, then overlaying this imagery onto an RGB orthophoto of the same site.
5. If you could give three tips to a budding dronepreneur, what would they be?
1. Be patient. This industry is very new and we still have a long way to go. Education is the key to progressing this industry and we need the world to understand the positives of this technology, which takes time.
2. Be persistent. There will be times when you are getting turned down by people or people are doubting you. If you are adding value and solving problems you will succeed—just believe in yourself and keep moving forward.
3. Have fun! This technology is awesome and we should have fun and love what we do every day. Being passionate about what you are doing will take you farther than anything else in life.
Inspiring words Ryan, thanks so much for your time.
Industries served: energy, utilities, agriculture, education, construction
Drones: senseFly eBee, DJI Inspire 1 Pro, DJI Phantom 3 Pro, custom-made quadcopter
Flights per month: 4-10
Lifetime flight hours: 200-300
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