Former SpaceX engineer Jeff Taylor has landed in Akron. His company, Event 38, is constructing drones intended for aerial photogrammetry, but the company’s customers have had a slightly different take on their application.
“I built it for surveying or with surveying in mind from the beginning,” says Taylor, company president and founder. “So that was just kind of general purpose map making, being able to make georeferenced maps and 3-D models of the landscape. That is definitely still a reasonably good part of our business, but agriculture has kind of found its own way into these products and has been using them their own way.”
The drones look like remote-control airplanes, but they’re equipped with software for remote sensing and image capture. They’re classified as drones because the aircraft autonomously navigate waypoints that are programed by the user.
Farmers, agronomists and other service providers in the agriculture industry are using them to get up-to-date, high-resolution maps of their farms or crops.
“And they’ve found that to be very useful, in the most basic sense, just to get that big picture overview of their land and of their crops from the air, which when you’re looking from the ground, you really can’t see,” Taylor says.
Founded in 2012, the company now has sales in 49 countries.
“We started selling them online, and anybody has the ability to come to our storefront and buy one easily. And we make it as easy as possible — more like buying a computer than like buying an airplane,” he says.
That is, almost as easy as buying a computer.
Drones, privacy and the FAA
There are concerns in the U.S. about the use of drones, their surveillance capabilities and how the combination may infringe on people’s privacy rights. Those concerns present a challenge for Event 38.
“It’s been a huge hindrance for us in the U.S.,” Taylor says. “The FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) does have very strict rules in place right now about the commercial operation of drones, and since the drones that we make are basically, by nature, going to be used for commercial applications, that’s really, really slowed down the number of sales that we can get here in the U.S. Not necessarily abroad, but here it has certainly been slowed down quite a bit.”
Taylor says the one advantage Event 38 has is that the company is selling to commercial operators, which makes it more likely that responsible people will use its drones compared to the hobby market. Also, an Event 38 customer applied for and got an exemption from the FAA to operate the aircraft. That’s led to a lot of inquiries since the news got out.
Real metrics, simplified
Though the company came from the drone side, which is the hardware background, it has recently realized that its new customers were having trouble interpreting data the drones collected.
“Building that software that turns things into actual information or real metrics for our users is where we’re headed right now,” Taylor says.
That shift has required Event 38 to focus its hiring on software developers. Having a background in drone development requires an understanding of software, so some existing employees can move onto projects that are just dealing with post-processing data. Finding the people with the skills to fill the new positions, however, isn’t easy.
“It’s definitely been very difficult to hire for tech in the area, for sure,” Taylor says.
To meet that challenge, the company has a cooperative program through which it works with students on a trial basis. It also has to deliver some kind of benefit other than just money.
“Working with an exciting new technology, I think, has helped us in that regard, because what we do, it’s fun, it’s cool, and it’s new and we get to do something that there’s not too many people doing yet,” he says. “So that’s definitely a competitive advantage for us in making hires.
Getting out more
Another shift is occurring as the company grows: Taylor’s move from engineer to CEO.
“It’s definitely been hard for me to give up some of the engineering side of things,” he says. “I do still like to keep my hands dirty as much as possible and it’s still possible to an extent, but yeah, I definitely have to set the goals, walk away and let people do it themselves sometimes, which is a bit of a challenge.”
There are currently 12 people working at the company, so communication is easy.
As the company gets larger, however, people aren’t going to be available to talk one-on-one as often as they do now.
The solution, Taylor estimates, is to bring on experienced managers and executives, like his recent hire, John Blair, formerly of JumpStart Inc., who has experience working in larger organizations, some of which have have gone through IPOs.
“These are companies with hundreds of people,” Taylor says. “That’s certainly going to be a big asset for us. Hopefully we’re able to set up our management team to deal with that growth as quickly as we think it’s going to come.”