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Water Today Title April 14, 2024

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Thinking about a Business with Drones?
Learn to Operate from Commercial Pilots

WT Interview with Joe Henderson, Founder and CEO Agile Drone Services, Part 1

WT staff

WT: I have Joe Henderson on the phone here, founder of Agile Drones, from Victoria BC. Thanks for doing this Joe.

Joe Henderson: Thanks for having me, it’s a pleasure.

WT: Tell us your background, how you got started as a commercial pilot and how you came to be running a drone school?

Henderson: My interest in remote piloting started very early. My dad let me watch old war films with dogfights, that’s my earliest memory of aviation. I was the kid attending all the air shows, very much a keener when it came to every airplane I could learn or know, I read everything I could get my hands on. As a kid, I got a tour of the flight deck, back when they used to let kids do that. I got into the remote-controlled planes when I was eight. As I recall, I crashed a lot! I also learned a lot; I was pretty much self-taught. 

I did go to University, I studied psychology, but my heart was in aviation. I wasn’t sure if flying was something I could do, but I had mentors that encouraged me to give it a try. I started out with a discovery flight, and then took the flying lessons and got my private pilot’s license. I moved to Victoria, BC at that point, finished my commercial pilot’s license, and luckily got a great job flying floatplanes up the west coast of Vancouver Island, flying the de Havilland Beaver. I still fly commercially. The drone flying was layered in with all of this.

WT: All of us who have been in the bush have been quite happy to see a DC-3 or an Otter, happy to know the supplies are in. You do that work today, and also in drone education, if I call you to learn about drones, what happens at the first phone call?

Henderson: The first call is to find out what you want to do: topography, videos, or the scientific side, surveying? We then build your skillset to where it will work for you, to figure out where you are going to fit with this highly interesting and valuable technology.

WT: If I am interested in doing shore surveys, what kind of equipment would I need, how long would the training take?

Henderson: It doesn’t take long, learning to fly a drone is not difficult. We would start with the smaller machines, to learn the basic operational skills, it’s just a matter of the time spent flying. We set up a course kind of like pylon racing, we get you to where you are confident operating the machine. Basic photogrammetry can be done with the smaller equipment we use for training. Learning on the small units works because they fly the same way the bigger drones do.

WT: What happens if I’m taking your training course and I crash or damage your drone? Am I liable, do I owe you money?

Henderson: Crashing the drone? I am largely going to prevent that from happening. We follow a process called “error-less learning”. We set the training up so that you won’t crash. We build your skills up and build up your confidence in steps. The main part of training is done with an inexpensive drone. If anyone is worried about crashing, I would say, don’t worry about that, leave that to me as the instructor, that is my problem.

WT: What education level do I need?

Henderson: I have just one language, so as long as we can communicate, that’s the most important. If you have experience with video games, this will help. It’s best to have vision corrected to close to 20:20. You don’t have to have a degree or college. High school is ideal, I build off that maturity, there is nothing more you need.

WT: Should people come in pairs, a drone operator student with a computer tech buddy? One person to fly and one to run the computer?

Henderson: That’s a really good idea! Typically, you operate as a pair, one person is flying and one is spotting. It would help if the spotter had those computer skills, that part of it is huge. Taking pictures with the drone, putting data into the computer, and sending it out to customers is the simple part.

WT: So now I have decided to come and talk to you, take your classes.

I am wondering about the different equipment, such as LIDAR sensors, can you go over some of the specialized equipment that students can learn to use for a commercial base? What technologies could they learn at your place?

Henderson: The first thing you have to master after the flight part is to point the camera, to point and take video. That’s a product people will pay money for. You can take those pictures, videos and sell them to industry, entertainment, travel/tourism. The next one would be photogrammetry, where you take a drone and fly it over a parcel of land and collect a series of pictures shot straight down, take all that data, and put it all together in the computer to do two or three-dimensional modeling. This is important for road builders, for property developers, there are many uses.

Another use for drones, flying over and taking an inventory of natural assets, like creeks, streams, natural landscapes; this inventory record is useful for restoration down the road.

I would say the photogrammetry work is the best option for getting into a business with a drone. Students will be able to do all of this work after my training.

Lidar, which stands for Light Detection and Ranging, is a remote sensing method that uses light in the form of a pulsed laser to measure ranges (variable distances) to the Earth. These light pulses—combined with other data recorded by the airborne system — generate precise, three-dimensional information about the shape of the Earth and its surface characteristics. National Ocean Service, NOAA

WT: If you were going to do this as a business, how much would it be to get the training and buy the drone and equipment?

Henderson: There is a critical mass when it comes to drones, you have to get to a certain size for it to become useful. There are the small training drones to learn flight and operation skills, the more advanced drones for doing the basic commercial activities are $3500 for the state-of-the-art prosumer grade unit with the state-of-the-art camera, this includes remote control and batteries, you need an electronic device dedicated to it, a tablet or phone. And that’s it. You don’t need a tonne of stuff to start off, with these basics you are off to the races, ready to fly take pictures, video.

WT: Some places have a lot of trees, some you have flat land for miles, can you tell us how the drones work around forested areas compared to flat open land?

The drone will show you, you will see on your control screen, exactly what the drone is seeing in real-time. Keep your eyes on the drone, getting around trees is not a problem, even a mid-level sophisticated drone has built-in collision-avoidance technology, it won’t let you fly into a tree.

There is a built-in GPS, Global Positioning System.

The drone can launch vertically through trees, fly around taking pictures then land back in the same spot. The machine and the flight plan software help you avoid obstacles and get back to where you started. 

WT: Do these have the ability to hurt an animal, scare people, scare the elders? Many people are leery about surveillance, having their picture taken, how do you make this work?

Henderson: The drones I fly and teach on are not a nuisance for sound. The bigger part of it is the operator. The operator must have the utmost respect for people, for the communities they are operating in.

A good operator explains what they are doing before flying.

Drones got a bad rap early on for this, for spying. This has more to do with the operator than the drone itself.

WT: I expect you would see people coming in from the north, from remote communities. When students come to your drone school, how will you look out for them, in the after-hours, after the school day is over, would you make sure that they are settled in at their hotel and comfortable in the city?

Henderson: I am a father of three, my youngest is four years old. If young people are coming in from remote areas, I would treat them as my own. Victoria is not a huge city, but this only works if you feel comfortable and safe in general. I would make that as much of a priority as much as the technical learning to fly the drone. I would also show the students around my city, they will be my guest.

WT: Would you take the folks that come down on a complimentary flight in your floatplane?

Henderson: Let me work on that one! I love sharing aviation, my love of flying. I make no promises, but that would be something fun, a trip to the airport would be a lot of fun.


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