The Democratization of Flight by Drones: An Interview with Skyfront CEO Troy Mestler

This interview is with Troy Mestler of Skyfront which makes hybrid-electric commercial drones with flight times 10x longer. (Full Disclosure: DroneSeed is a pilot customer of Skyfront.)

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: To get an idea of who you are, where you started and where you come from, let’s start with one of my favorite questions, what is one of your biggest wins professionally?

TROY: Starting Skyfront was a big win. Skyfront successfully demonstrated a hybrid electric-powered quadcopter drone. For nearly a decade people thought that was impossible.

Actually that’s where the physics came into play- using our physics equations we were able to disprove the skeptics.

GRANT: Nice. Defying the skeptics. What’s the origin story?

TROY: Skyfront got started about two years ago; my co-founder and I are aviation fanatics. I am a licensed skydiver and I did my first hang glide at the age of ten. I also have a very technical background: I got my PhD in physics at Princeton and had spent the three years after graduation in software. I wanted to get back into hardware and drones in particular because the potential of this technology is just massive and it spoke to my passions and technical background. But when we first bought some drones, we realized that the technology really couldn’t do anything-what we were buying were toys that could only fly for about 20 minutes. Despite all the hype, this technology just simply wasn’t useful for most commercial applications that manned aircraft are used for. We’ve been tackling the challenge of a long-lasting, commercial drone ever since.

GRANT: What flight times can Skyfront’s drone achieve?

TROY: Four hours.

GRANT: That’s incredibly impressive. Let’s shift a little bit to the industry itself. How revolutionary, or not, is drone technology? Do they enable change?

TROY: When you think of traditional aviation, you think of multimillion dollar airplanes and helicopters. If you want to use these aircraft, you either have to be a corporation or you have to be rich. Drones today reduce the cost of flight by 100 times so that the average person can get the same perspective and data that he or she would get with a manned aircraft. Drones have democratized aviation through cost reduction.

GRANT: That’s well thought out and strongly worded. What would you say to someone who’s a skeptic and doesn’t believe drones have the versatility to translate into different industries?

TROY: Well it’s kind of like the skeptic to the personal computer. There were people back in the day that asked, “what am I going to use this thing for?” Now we laugh at those people.

GRANT: Let’s shift a little bit to the hardware/software dynamic. What’s different about being a hardware startup?

TROY: Things are much more difficult, to be honest. When things go wrong in hardware, you can’t just hit the recompile button like you can with software. You have to make sure that things are right the first time around before you launch them- especially if you’re building an aircraft. A lot of drone startups and investors, for instance, are pushing for a pure software play in the drone space which is something I disagree with. You can’t reap the benefits of software without the hardware, despite hardware’s difficulty.

GRANT: What advice would you have for an entrepreneur launching a hardware start-up?

TROY: It takes someone who has prior hardware experience to set realistic expectations for yourself and your investors. If you’re coming from the straight software world, your expectations are going to need to shift with respect to timelines. Luckily, our entire team at Skyfront has hardware experience. I have over eight years of it. Two of my team came from a prior drone hardware startup. Our other colleague built circuit board printers. We’re all very familiar with how difficult hardware is and we’re prepared to tackle that.

GRANT: Excellent. Can you speak about your two-to- five year vision for Skyfront?

TROY: Certainly, we are going to be a major drone player. I think when people buy these DJI drones, they realize “Oh, OK…this thing can only fly for 10 to 15 minutes. What can I do with that?” I think there’s a lot of disappointment now. We are in a learning period where people are now starting to realize the limitations of the current technology and are beginning to see the value in what Skyfront is building. We’re very optimistic about the next two to five years.

GRANT: How is Skyfront’s pilot program going and what can you tell us about what’s next?

TROY: We’re piloting with a few companies like DroneSeed, which is doing some really impactful and amazing stuff- automating the forestry services business with specialized payloads for drones. We’re improving your operations and business case by extending your flight times by ten times. It’s still early in our pilot programs but we’re really looking forward to building some great technology together.

Have a question you want to ask, send it to founders@droneseed.co.

See other interviews in the series here:
From Kosovo to Sand Hill Road: A discussion with Skyward CEO Jonathan Evans
Drones and Simplifying the Future

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