Good news everyone: I’m joining Fat Shark as CEO.
Over the last several months I’ve been working with Fat Shark, the leader in First Person View (FPV) goggles and other drone racing hardware as an executive consultant to the team. Today, I’m excited to announce that I’m joining Fat Shark as it’s new permanent CEO. Greg French, my friend and the company’s founder, will continue to work as the company’s chief engineer and I look forward to working with him and the entire team closely.
Through my months of consulting I’ve learned that the FPV market has massive potential, and below I want to ruminate on where the industry is headed — but first, it might be helpful to share some context into why I chose this role (and why it chose me).
A History of Head Mounted Display Innovation
My last several years working at Avegant in Silicon Valley have been among the best in my life. As a founder and CTO, I was able to help lead a talented team as the company developed and commercialized a new, ultra-high-quality, projection-based consumer display technology with the Glyph. Later, I was privileged to be part of the group that initially adapted the technology for use with light fields and mixed reality. I consider myself very lucky to be part of the early VR/AR industry.
As new technologies in the head mounted display space have grown, so too have the markets and opportunities. The industry now has a quick and fashionable way to capture social images on-the-fly thanks to our friends at Snap Inc. Smartphone manufacturers are now integrating AI solutions directly into mobile phone platforms, opening up a whole new world of virtual imaging — only one step away from mounting the technology into headsets. And the geniuses at Google, led by Clay Bavor, are pushing VR into realms that nobody ever previously thought possible.
What I’m most excited about though, is the innovation coming up in the worlds of FPV and drone racing. Low latency and high-quality headsets are bringing amazing new perspectives to drone flight and the community within that space is full of talented and hungry people. And there’s a lot of new development coming down the pipeline.
Drone Racing as the next E-sport
Like many young teens, I was obsessed with video games, which led to a long career in building and tweaking desktop computers. I learned networking to set up and play eight player LAN Warcraft, taught myself to program on an Apple II and wrote code on my graphing calculator to play Risk in math class. My love of video games drove me to learn and participate in the early performance computer market and eventually become an engineer. This early experience is not unique to me, but is shared by many of today’s young engineers and makers in the technology world.
Today’s drone racers remind me of those same LAN party computer builders I knew when I was younger. They know how to build amazingly fast, flying, race robots. Racers work together to get radio signals to a drone, manage weight, set unique controller settings and develop mechanical, electrical, computer and aerospace skills in the name of a hobby they love. They then go compete and everyone goes home, iterates and pushes harder.
The best thing about this constant innovation though, is that high school and college students that dive into this hobby are surreptitiously learning the skills necessary for the next technical era in the same way that hardcore video game players of the ‘90s are positioned for the current era. The drone racing community represents this incredible gathering of people that will influence the future; staying on that edge is the biggest reason why I took this role.
The Future of Fat Shark
Fat Shark is the leader in FPV headsets and a major player in the drone racing market. In joining, my first goal is to bring new display technologies to our current customers. I’m excited to team up with Gregory French, Fat Shark’s founder, chief engineer and spirit animal as well as Grant Martin, a friend and former colleague at Avegant who recently joined Fat Shark as VP of Marketing.
It won’t be an easy journey. The head mounted display and the FPV industries have major hurdles in front of them, and the challenges we have in front of us get bigger every day. On top of that, we have to understand how to help our customers keep the winning edge while helping more people get involved in drone racing.
I’ve joined Fat Shark to push into new territory. We are going to inject innovation in all components from the glass of the camera through the hardware chain to the design of the goggles and nature of the controls. Start with Fat Shark’s current goggles, sprinkle in a few new display technologies and add a dash of Silicon Valley and you’ll end up being as excited about drone racing’s future as I am.
To get to this point though, I see broad strokes of change coming in the next years.
Communications will Improve
Most current drone racers still run flight and video communications on analog, 5.8 GHz communications. And while fast, those connections produce low resolution video signals for pilots and audience members, limiting the quality of engagement.
The Drone Racing League, The Drone Champions League and DR1 all face these problems today as they build racing leagues for mass audiences. Pilots prefer analog communications because they fail reliably and they’re a known variable. But nobody’s going to tune into ESPN to watch an FPV signal captured on analog technology (fun fact, each DRL has a GoPro on its back to capture race footage — the pilots don’t actually race with that feed).
There are some digital solutions on the market, led by the innovators at Amimon and DJI. And while groundbreaking in their own ways, they’re still not perfect; current digital solutions tend to be either large, expensive, or have significant latency. And while those trade-offs work for aerial photography, they simply won’t work when flying a racing drone at 80 MPH while doing flip turns.
Tomorrow’s solution to better communication and broader audiences lies in high quality and digital feeds with as little latency as possible. These technologies will be developed to solve problems in AR/VR, self-driving cars, and a variety of other industries. At Fat Shark, we’ll look forward to implementing them not only for better video feeds but also in the robotic controls specific to racing drones.
Barriers to Entry need to Fall
Last week I tried hooking a 3D nerdcam FPV camera into my Dominator V3s, and before the project was complete I had watched 20 YouTube videos, purchased a half dozen parts from as many vendors, 3D printed a camera mount and ultimately called up a local pilot to help me finish my build. It was one of the most frustrating maker projects I’ve ever taken on — and I have a PhD in electrical engineering.
Hobby drone flying and drone racing need to get easier for casual pilots to get involved. That means simpler battery architectures that don’t require third-party chargers, easy-to-understand flight controls and painfully easy and friendly guides for training new users. This is critical to getting new and younger people involved in the sport and an imperative for market growth.
The Rise of Micro Drones
My realization that this was the right career choice was sealed when I flew a micro-quad around my apartment earlier this year.
For many, micro drones represent the perfect intersection of low cost and low risk without having to deal with the concern of wind, weather or the FAA. It’s easy to set up a course anywhere, from the legs of your dining room table to the back area of your local brewery (check us out every Tuesday at Bare Bottle Brewing in San Francisco). But most of all, it’s easy for everyone — young and old — to get involved.
I see micro drones as the gateway to larger scale and even professional drone racing. They’re new-flyer-friendly and they lower the barrier to entering the sport.
So yes, it’s official: I have joined forces with Greg and the Fat Shark team. Priority one is shepherding in a new generation of high quality, premium FPV headsets. But on that foundation we plan to build a next generation FPV company. And we hope that you’ll join us along the way.