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Posted by on Jul 9, 2016

Drone Pilot Networks are Yogurt Shops

Drone Pilot Networks are Yogurt Shops

When we acquired TravelByDrone back in early 2015 we were convinced that in addition to already being a successful content aggregator it would become THE drone pilot network. The sky was the limit (to use a terrible cliche related to this industry), and we knew there were at least 3-4 forms of monetization improvements to be made. We typically use the phrase ‘Pilot Network’ as a loose catch-all term referring to platforms that are attempting to be the link between pilots (AKA supply), and customers (AKA demand). I was wrong — turns out pilot networks are a challenging model AND the market is now flooded.

With on-demand services being all the rage it is common for people interested in the drone industry to think: “Aha! We’ll create a platform connecting the drones to the jobs, and we’ll make a little cut on the deal.” In fact this train of thought is so common that you’re starting to see “exciting new pilot networks” popping up at rate of at least once a week. You can safely say pilot networks are to the drone industry as yogurt shops are to retail real estate. They’re everywhere!

A few examples of drone pilot networks include:

  • AirVid
  • DroneLife
  • DroneClick
  • DroneBase
  • DroneCast
  • HireUAVPro
  • SkyTango

This is not an exhaustive list. There are probably another 10-15 of which we’re not yet familiar at the time of this article and new ones are popping up every month.

Most of these networks will fail, limp along or pivot in the coming 12-18 months (including our own TravelByDrone). The failures will be the result of lack of deal volume. In order to create real revenue, a network would have to be doing *absurd volume* of projects and we’re confident these networks are not doing that level of volume. Additionally, pilots are very independent personalities. Why do pilots need a network if they can simply pick up the phone and drum up a few projects?

An example of this independent mentality has been observed in the use of our drone programming app / curriculum DroneBlocks. On more than a handful of occasions we’ve seen a reluctance in individual operators to adopt a FREE app that will make their phantoms an educational powerhouse. Perhaps operators are so excited about the future growth of the drone industry that they prefer to forge ahead solo?

Regarding pivots, we recently received a pilot survey from a network (DroneBase) asking a variety of ‘drone game’ related questions that are ENTIRELY different from their originally stated mission of providing the link between drones and commercial real estate, mining and construction. DroneBase was in the headlines over the last 18 months because after graduating from Y Combinator they received seed investment from Accel/SkyFund, Union Square Ventures, SV Angel and Rothenberg Ventures. DroneBase had a pricing issue in the form of massively underpricing their product, but if there was a team that may have pulled off the pilot network perhaps it would have been DroneBase. Furthermore, being underpriced should have enabled faster growth to sustainable volume but that must not be the case. The noise currently coming from their camp clearly indicates a pivot.

One exception is the network led by Patrick Meier. They are approaching the drone network from a non-profit / humanitarian perspective. Patrick is working hard to establish protocol and standard operating procedures for drone pilots in the context of disaster relief. The incidents around the California wildfires indicate a clear need for such protocol, and my hat is off to Patrick for taking a professional approach to doing good with drones.

Drone pilot networks are yogurt shops, and there are a number of failures or pivots on the horizon. Our TravelByDrone attempt at the pilot network had structural / ownership issues, but even in the absence of such issues I imagine it would have been a rough go. It will be interesting to see how these platforms attempt to reincarnate themselves into business models that are hopefully more unique and sustainable.