Drone franchise BirdsiVideo heads to U.K.
BirdsiVideo drones specialize in data collection and inspection at the commercial level.
It’s not every day that the breeding of pedigree sheep and alpacas ultimately leads to a franchise’s international expansion, but that’s the story for Imogen Mann and commercial drone franchise BirdsiVideo. Well, at least part of it.
It was “purely selfish interest” that motivated the owner of a 200-acre mixed farm in southwest England to research unmanned aircraft systems, aka drones. “I wanted to be able to check a few hundred livestock twice a day more easily,” says Mann from her home in Kingston St. Mary. “I looked into installing a camera on my own remote control plane,” but further investigation ultimately led her to Carmel, Indiana-based BirdsiVideo, a commercial drone services company specializing in data collection, inspection and fleet management for the energy, telecom, real estate and yes, agriculture industries.
That’s when Mann’s other professions came into play. In her family, she says, “We’re either lawyers, farmers or pilots—I’m the only one who’s all three.”
It’s that combination that convinced BirdsiVideo CEO Josh Kneifel that Mann could be a strong partner, resulting in the signing of a development agreement for Mann to grow the franchise in the United Kingdom.
Imogen Mann is leading BirdsiVideo’s franchise expansion in the U.K., where she wants to see its agricultural use grow.
“Her aviation law background, the agricultural connections, her knowledge of the industry—I could tell immediately that she’s been watching this for awhile,” says Kneifel of Mann’s impressive and diverse resume.
Mann, who at 14 joined the Royal Air Force Cadets, was on her way to a career flying commercial aircraft when what she calls a “slightly dodgy right eye” altered her route to that of private pilot. She later received her master’s degree in aeronautics and went on to become a business development analyst for an aviation company. “After the airline, I switched to law and ended up having a focus on agriculture,” Mann explains, adding she was admitted as a solicitor (attorney) of the Supreme Court of England and Wales in January 2007.
The U.K. market, with its large number of wind farms and primarily overland energy structure, coupled with an agriculture industry using 72 percent of the land, is ripe for drone applications, Mann believes, though first the laws and regulations need to catch up with the technology.
Current regulations are “pretty parallel” to the U.S., but Mann notes the Civil Aviation Authority still needs to address issues related to flying drones beyond visual line of sight.
There are also privacy laws to contend with, and Brexit, she adds, continues to present obstacles as the aviation industry awaits the ramifications of the U.K.’s exit from the European Union and the possibility of a non-negotiated withdrawal.
Though the challenges can’t be ignored, Mann is excited about BirdsiVideo’s entry into the U.K. and positioning the brand as a pioneer.
“The technology is being evolved at a rate that it inevitably will happen,” she says of drone use’s wider acceptance. “It’s just getting the framework in place. We want BirdsiVideo to be the number one resource that people think of in the U.K. 10 years from now.”
4,000 licensed pilots
BirdsiVideo CEO Josh Kneifel says commercial drone use is only going to grow.
There are more than 4,000 licensed unmanned aircraft pilots throughout the U.K. and that’s exactly who Mann will look to partner with as operators, starting in England and eventually expanding into Wales and even Northern Ireland and Scotland. “I’ve got a pretty good network,” she notes, also calling out the opportunity to partner with commercial helicopter operators that already do a bulk of the aerial telecom and energy inspections.
While regulations are now a major factor in flying drones, when Kneifel’s business was in its early stages in late 2013 “it was sort of a wild, wild west situation going on,” he says, and BirdsiVideo was among the first businesses of its kind to receive a Federal Aviation Administration exemption for commercial use of UAVs. In 2016 the FAA issued its first round of operational rules for routine non-hobbyist use of small unmanned aircraft systems and there are now more than 120,000 licensed drone pilots with Part 107 certificates, meaning they can operate drones weighing less than 55 pounds for commercial use.
“Since then it’s been a whirlwind,” says Kneifel of BirdsiVideo’s growth following the establishment of the rules. The company has a network of 15 regional franchises in the U.S. and an affiliate network of more than 150 licensed drone pilots.
A former flight instructor, cargo pilot and airline pilot, Kneifel bought his first drone in 2013 and after shooting a real estate video for a friend “I realized this had some legs,” he says.
Now BirdsiVideo provides services such as aerial mapping, infrastructure inspection, crop analysis and thermal infrared scanning to a range of companies in the oil and gas, solar, telecom and farming sectors. Education is still a main focus for BirdsiVideo, both in presenting the opportunity to potential franchisees and demonstrating the applicability of the technology.
“We started at the very early end of the innovation stage and now we’re just turning the corner on the early adopter side,” says Kneifel, referencing the bell curve of technology adoption.
BirdsiVideo drones specialize in crop analysis, aerial mapping and infrastructure inspection, among other commercial applications.
And while franchise interest is strong, Kneifel is also careful to set realistic expectations when he meets with candidates. “Just because you go and buy a drone doesn’t mean you’re going to make seven figures the next year,” he says. “We’re so very focused on educating candidates that this is an emerging market.”
‘We forge ahead’
BirdsiVideo is focused on attracting franchisees with strong business acumen who can execute on marketing initiatives and develop relationships within the industries it serves.
Many owners also get their FAA Part 107 certificate but it’s not required, says Kneifel, and they can choose to hire drone pilots or sub-contract the work. The initial investment for a franchise territory starts at $45,000.
Kneifel says he gets weekly inquiries from all over the world and last year added an international partner in Brazil. Though he’s “not inclined to sell thousands of franchises,” Kneifel says the company will only continue to grow as commercial drone use ingrains itself in broader business operations.
For her part, Mann knows there are plenty of challenges but, “I take the view and Birdsi takes the view that we forge ahead.”