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Drones help operators phone in their work


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At National Property Inspectors, they’re using drones to help with the hard tasks, such as getting on top of roofs. “My goal was to keep people safe first thing,” says Randy Yates, above, drone evangelist for the franchise.

Look, up in the sky! It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s …  your cough medicine?

Drones are a staple under the Christmas tree and on the news as various firsts are claimed by companies from Amazon to Walmart. But now drones are being commercialized.

While legal hurdles will keep customers from getting everything delivered by robot for a while, there are some franchise firsts bringing the promise of the far off future a little closer.

In the largest test of its kind so far, 7-Eleven partnered with drone company Flirtey to deliver convenience store staples within a mile of a test store in Reno, Nevada. It’s a notable test and unlike so many drone firsts, the test shows how regular drone operations might actually look. It’s a nice win for the franchise industry as well, which generally falls behind the commercial technology curve.

The 77 successful deliveries to select customers—most of which took less than 10 minutes—has 7-Eleven well ahead of drone newsmakers like Amazon and Walmart, which have both been testing drones and lobbying for favorable rules. The 7-Eleven test also jumped ahead of the mighty Google. The tech giant’s futuristic Project X division partnered with Chipotle to deliver burritos on the Virginia Tech campus, one of six Federal Aviation Administration drone test sites. The Google test was also successful, but under very limited delivery range in a fenced-off part of the campus.

All those tests, however, show just how far legislation has to go before drones will actually be dropping off Slurpees or burritos to the general population. Under a collection of regulations for commercial drones dubbed Part 107 by the FAA in 2016, there are some strict guidelines outside of sanctioned tests. The most damning rules for drone delivery prospects keep businesses from flying at night and require three miles of visibility. That means no order surge from inclement weather or nighttime diners (or even early evenings in northern climes).

Flirtey

A drone named Flirtey delivers packages for 7-Eleven, in a test.

Even more limiting are dictates that pilots must be within eyesight range of drones, even automated ones. For 7-Eleven, that meant having a dedicated drone operator from Flirtey there at all times.

“There was a Flirtey operator in the loop to take over if ever needed, but it wasn’t necessary,” said Flirtey CEO Matthew Sweeney.

That’s fine in a test situation, but technology like drones aims to reduce labor, not add to labor costs—especially for someone twiddling their thumbs and watching automated drones buzz around.

Luckily, there are already scores of opportunities for drone-eager business owners that life well within the FAA regulations.

Measure is one company pioneering what the commercial drone industry will look like. Founded in 2014, the company just started franchising in September of 2016. The franchise offers drone operations for businesses large and small around the country. With specialization in agriculture, transportation and logistics, security, media and insurance, the company aims to tap into what a PwC report pegged as a $127-billion industry.

Dan Rothfeld, VP of franchising at Measure, said they already have a pipeline of interested drone enthusiasts and business owners looking to get into the mix, even at this early stage. “This is very much an industry in its infancy and it’s very much like the wild west right now,” said Rothfeld.

He said despite the early days for commercial drones, big businesses are eager to sign up with someone like Measure. Companies like Verizon prefer the standardized pilot services, and since Measure analyzes all the data taken from the drones, they also offer standardized data. It’s a sea change for the industry that so far has no national players and because of the specialized and geographical requirements, often defaults to dude-with-a-drone style operations.

“It’s a very hyper-local type of industry, so what kind of sets us apart is being able to provide a service on a national basis,” said Rothfeld. “Many of the large enterprise clients that we service are very identifiable brand names, so they want to know that their service requirements are going to be handled instead of betting on every single area.”

By creating standard procedure and handling the data at the corporate level, Rothfeld said the company has plenty of demand for the piloting services it funnels to local operators around the country.  

One major project came in the wake of the destructive Hurricane Matthew that swamped much of Florida with floodwaters. And when Verizon technicians couldn’t get to cell phone towers, they called Measure to inspect for damage to the tower and sensitive base stations.

Across all the various verticals, there are new ways to use drones just about every day, from measuring stockpiles of metals at a salvage yard or spotting dead zones on a massive farming operation. That means training must be ongoing, something Vania Wang, policy and communications analyst at Measure, said was the most important part of being a franchisee.

“What really sets us apart is the additional training that we provide the pilots. Not only do they have to have the skill to be recruited and be hired, they will also have additional training,” said Wang.

Doing drones the right way

That training is what Randy Yates, the training consultant administrator at National Property Inspectors, said has been the major undertaking in the franchised inspection services company’s own nascent drone initiatives. “They call me the dronemeister,” said Yates. He’s been flying drones for three years, and helping franchisees bring the technology into their businesses.

“My goal was to keep people safe first thing. The guys have to get up and on the roof. We’ve had a few guys get hurt, and when they get hurt, we get hurt,” said Yates, but on top of that, he said getting a full view is sometimes difficult.

In the property inspection business, there is a patchwork of insurance and legal hurdles to just about every job beyond the actual inspection. A warranty might be broken if someone walks on the roof prematurely, so to keep the warranty, Yates said it’s sometimes a matter of a best guess based on the percentage of the roof an inspector can actually see.

With a drone, however, nobody has to climb on the roof (or fall off) and damage anything during the inspection process. It seems like a no brainer for franchisees, but despite Yates’ drone evangelism, he’s the first to admit it’s not exactly a breeze to implement.

He said training has come a long way from when he started with drones, but it’s still not easy. Under the FAA regulations, the test is close to the level of knowledge required for actual pilots, and ignoring regulations can mean major fines. So he advises franchisees to play it as safe as possible.

“It makes sense to do it the right way, and the FAA has made it tough enough that you have to be dedicated to doing this,” said Yates, who said it costs between $2,000 and $3,000 to get a good drone, register it and get proper training and licensing.  

Currently four franchisees have gotten their drone licenses, and use drones from time to time on jobs for a small additional upcharge, but it hasn’t been a drastic windfall, at least not yet.

For companies or franchisees looking to bring drones into their operations, it’s still a pioneering effort. But as more refined flight automation makes actually flying the drones easier and the FAA’s promise to right-size regulations for business, it’s just a matter of time before drones pay off. And pioneers will be ahead of the curve.

 “The sky is opening up and there is a lot of opportunity for people who want to do this,” said Yates.

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