Modesto entrepreneur in on the drone revolution

Modesto entrepreneur in on the drone revolution

Startup Drone for Hire builds, flies unmanned aircraft for commercial use
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Startup Drone for Hire builds, flies unmanned aircraft for commercial use

With a background that includes agriculture and aviation, and more than 20 years working as a computer programmer and software engineer, Thomas Davis was well-positioned to enter a field that’s set to soar: commercial drones.

In 2010, six years after moving with his wife, Mahndisa, to her hometown of Modesto, Davis began to develop unmanned aircraft systems and their application to agriculture. The couple met while studying physics at San Francisco State University.

“We started with the idea of a nonprofit entity, and the first thing that came to mind was scanning crops,” Davis said. “As time went on, we found out there are applications for emergency services, mapping for industrial surveys and industrial videography, which includes real estate photography, big construction projects ... and golf courses.”

Today, there’s broad recognition that drones will play a huge role in precision agriculture and other applications:

▪ “California’s commercial drone industry is taking off,” reads the headline of a June 13 Los Angeles Times article about the business of selling drones to consumers and commercial enterprises.

▪ Drones “are moving rapidly into daily business and consumer use and poised to become powerful tools for farmers,” wrote agriculture and food industry consultant Robert Giblin in a June 17 article in the California Farm Bureau Federation publication Ag Alert. “Drones could revolutionize precision agriculture and enable farmers to enhance yields and production, while profoundly contributing to reduced environmental impacts.”

▪ And a May 18 Fortune article, headlined “Why 2015 is the year agriculture drones take off,” says, “With the debut of the Federal Aviation Administration’s Section 333 exemption (which permits companies to fly drones commercially on a case-by-case basis) ... agriculture drones will legally be able to gather widespread data across an entire growing season, allowing companies to test their business models and technologies together for the first time.”

Davis’ Drone for Hire business, housed in a small warehouse space in northwest Modesto, has that Section 333 exemption. An FAA database shows just 1,180 approved nationwide.

A farmer will once a month or so walk his fields. (For) guys with 1,500 or 2,500 acres, I’ve been told it can take two weeks to walk. What I can do for a couple of hundred acres in a day might take them five or six days.

Thomas Davis, Drone for Hire

On a recent afternoon, Davis worked at Drone for Hire as son Enabran, born in 2008, occupied himself by playing and watching TV. In addition to being the owner of a startup business, Davis now is a single father. Mahndisa – “my wife, partner, friend and an integral part of Drone for Hire” – battled a number of health issues and died in January 2014 from the H1N1 flu virus.

But their family has lent him great support both professionally and personally. His father-in-law, Paul Rigmaiden, a longtime Modesto teacher and pastor and a past president of the Modesto-Stanislaus NAACP, is Davis’ primary financial backer. Two brothers-in-law do a lot of his video editing, and his sister does some of the business development.

Other than that, “it’s me and a pilot,” who is a subcontractor, said Davis, a Mariposa native who worked on his family’s ranch as a teen and whose interest in aviation was spurred by his dad, a now-retired commercial flight instructor and air traffic controller.

Davis says Drone for Hire provides “end-to-end aerial imaging solutions” – everything from the aircraft to the pilot to processing images. He buys flight control systems but builds his own airframes.

Davis is working to develop a statewide network of pilots because the Federal Aviation Administration requires that commercial drone flights use licensed pilots. He also has developed a drone pilot training program to meet FAA requirements, he said. He has two certified multirotor and one fixed-wing aircraft and a short-term goal of getting two more multirotors certified.

As for services, he and his late wife “realized there’s a broad market – the challenge is putting the technology in front of people and letting them see it. Everybody thinks of drones as just flying over things and taking high-res pictures.” But he also offers, for example, high-resolution video, thermal imaging and near-infrared cameras.

“As we marched forward, we kept identifying more and more applications. Real estate and golf courses, those just kind of fell in our laps,” Davis said. “We found so many Realtors looking for a legitimate company that can offer this service. … If you’ve got a million-dollar home, we’ve got a basic real estate package that starts at about $350 where we can do a quick fly over the property. So for someone getting a pretty good commission off that, that’s peanuts for that advertising.”

I know where to find pilots, and I know you’re not getting paid a lot unless you’re flying the president around. I offer $50 an hour, and basically you’re standing out in a field.

Thomas Davis, Drone for Hire

What little market research he’s done, Davis said, also indicates there are golf course operators who see an aerial video tour as a great marketing tool.

“We can fly around each hole and give a virtual tour,” he said. “The other side is we (can tell golf course operators) we’re doing this for farming, too. ... We can see if your sprinkler system is distributing water evenly. We can identify low spots, wet spots, so it does help them conserve water. It has a practical application in that sense as well. ...

“I think everybody is interested in their water consumption, from the smallest to the biggest golf course. That’s really what we’re targeting now – not just a virtual tour but a tour that has some underlying data to it.”

Drone for Hire’s work in precision agriculture involves assessing variables such as rates of evaporation, soil variations and rates of crop production. For a couple of years, Davis said, he’s been working with farmers to test drones and fine-tune imaging. Through pre- and post-season scans, he said, he can show farmers things such as areas that aren’t retaining water, and trees or plants that are stressed.

“Many farmers have a whole slew of consultants they work with,” Davis said. “When I take (imaging) and show it to one of my farmers, he pulls out a soil map. I realized, ‘Let me put the data in front of him, and make sure the data is self-explanatory.’ … These guys are super-smart. You put the data in front of them, they know what to do with it. They can run with it, they can pass it to the next consultant, they can make decisions right there. That’s what I’m really shooting for – providing data for better decision-making.”

Farmers long have relied on images from satellites and private planes to track crop progress and manage water, fertilizer and pesticide use, consultant Giblin said in his Ag Alert article.

“Drones may offer farmers more accessibility and greater flexibility,” Giblin wrote, “at a lower cost. ... Precision agriculture has revolutionized American farming by allowing farmers to maximize yields while reducing water, fertilizer and pesticide use. Drones are the next step in this evolution. Farmers will be able to nimbly use drones to assess water, pesticide and fertilizer needs, and to identify and target pests, diseases, weeds and stress.”

Another application Davis said he’s working on involves flying a drone down into large winery vats.

“There’s a very special texture they put on the interior and they have to lower somebody down inside, and a lot of times they have to walk around, which puts imperfections in the surface, he said, adding that he was asked by a winery, “‘Can you fly a drone down there and give us some high-resolution video to inspect the inside?’ Then no one would touch it, it would stay really pristine. That’s one we’re working on.”

Davis said he’s also still interested in applying drones to emergency services. Reducing risk to people long has been a selling point of drones.

“If you can send a drone out to look at a hazardous waste spill instead of a bunch of firefighters, then it protects humans,” he said.

That thought, which he and Mahndisa shared, stays with him as he moves forward with Drone for Hire, Davis said.

“Since the day we met, we agreed our scientific endeavors would have a positive impact on society,” he said.

Deke Farrow: 209-578-2327