Drones and Simplifying the Future: An Interview with Converge CEO David Pitman
This interview is with David Pitman of Converge Industries which brings easy-to- pilot drone technology into everyday business use.
The Drone Series explores the drone industry via discussions with CEOs of leading companies, giving investors and industry analysts the opportunity to hear directly from emerging technology leaders. The series is lead by CEO Grant Canary of DroneSeed which is a drone company positioning to automate and dominate the forestry services vertical.
GRANT CANARY, CEO DRONESEED: You were involved in drones from the very beginning- can you tell us about those early days and the first projects you worked on?
DAVID PITMAN, CEO, CONVERGE: In 2008, we were just starting to see drones emerge and my co-founder and I were designing the first mobile app in the world for flying drones as part of our research at MIT.
At that time, there were essentially three labs at MIT that were focused on drones. All three labs have spun out drone companies of their own — Airware, Skydio and our company, Converge. Our research sprung from the military which said to us: “We think there are going to be small drones in the future and they would be really good for doing reconnaissance. But here’s the problem: We have to give them to guys who don’t have time to get trained, will be in a war zone, and need to use them without thinking about how they’re actually flying the drone.” Essentially, they needed machines to enhance what the ordinary person could not do — they needed drones to be flown by people who aren’t pilots.
With funding from Boeing and the Office of Naval Research, we built the software.
Next we said, “Now that we’ve built the app and the experience, let’s have people try it.” So we ran a series of controlled, academic research studies with about one hundred users in the end. The studies were a massive success. It unequivocally showed people being able to fly a drone that they had never seen before, in order to do recon tasks. In fact, we had them fly without seeing the drone itself, as a double blind trial. All they could see was the video imagery that they were getting through the iPhone and the map of the drone’s location. It was awesome and we had a blast with it!
GRANT: Very cool. So tell us more about Converge today, and what is your value proposition and what are you guys insanely good at?
DAVID: Converge’s value prop is really straightforward: “How can you make drones so easy to use in your business that they can enable all sorts of incredible things you couldn’t do before?” Say you’re a skilled professional- somebody who inspects buildings for insurance companies. You may need to look at a roof to assess damage and plan repairs. Learning how to fly a drone to do inspections isn’t actually part of your job in the first place, nor should it be in the future. You should just be able to interact and collaboratively work with that drone to get the photos as fast as you can. It also means you don’t have to go up on a roof which is very time consuming, dangerous, and expensive. And ultimately, on the roof they are just holding a digital camera to take a photo. Why can’t that drone just hold a camera and take the photo instead? Drones can even take photos from positions that a human can’t get to. We are making it easier and safer for property owners and insurers of all sizes to evaluate and maintain their buildings.
So what are we insanely good at? Actually we take a step back and say that really it’s about figuring out how you can use robots to make people better at their jobs and more powerful at what they’re doing.
GRANT: Makes total sense. Similarly in our industry, labor costs are a big deal. Workers burn 2x the calories of a marathon each day climbing insane terrain to plant trees or spray herbicide on invasive species. Much cheaper to have a drone do it. Yet you still see some in the American public that are skeptical of the practicality of drones. What is your take on the role of drones in industry and what do you say to a skeptic?
DAVID: Drones can dramatically simplify processes in many industries. They can make things possible that were either ludicrously difficult, or just economically unviable beforehand. There is a huge amount of complexity behind the scenes, but the end user’s experience is simplified. Like with the invention of the internet, all the end user has to do is type in a few words or tap a link to get at endless information, but think of the effort behind the scenes that is required to make that happen.
Simplification is what both Converge and DroneSeed are doing. What you guys are doing is simplifying somebody walking around and slamming a shovel in the ground.
How inefficient is that compared to having a drone fly along and plant seeds where they need to be?
GRANT: So you’re seeing it as simplification technology. What about people who think drones are a fad? Especially investors trying to get an idea of how big the industry will be or what its potential holds.
DAVID: I would challenge them to look out the window and think, “What are all the things I can see outside in the physical world that a drone could be interacting with? What does it look like when suddenly we have a lane in the sky that’s for drones” We have been discussing smaller drones but there’s no reason why we can’t go bigger. Other potential applications are remote and rapid delivery, or wireless internet in places where it doesn’t make sense to run wires. There are a lot of revolutionary ideas that drones make possible as a platform. Drones themselves have been around for 70 years, so arguably the drone itself is not really revolutionary at this point. It’s that we’re finally reaching a technological tipping point where they can unlock potential. I think the future will be amazing.
GRANT: The future is very cool. Thank you so much David.
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See other interviews in the series:
From Kosovo to Sand Hill Road: A discussion with Skyward CEO Jonathan Evans
The Democratization of Flight by Drones