Cambridge Drones took flight last month, and it has been an elevating learning curve for founder Laurence Haslop.
One of the interesting challenges – and it is not a bad challenge to have – is to identify where to focus time and expertise in the drone world.
“Drones are fantastic tools for a variety of different uses. It would be easy for us to offer many services, but we have to decide where to focus first,” he said, and he was not referring to his in-flight navigation software. “I have a real passion for property and construction, no doubt ingrained from a young age.
“I effectively grew up on building sites – which will resonate with many people whose families have been involved with construction throughout their youth.
“Given my experience over the years within tech and construction, it makes a lot of sense for the company to target construction, industrial and agricultural clients initially. If there are clients with requirements in other industries, we can definitely work with them, but the core focus at this stage will be aerial services to these sectors.
“Our bread and butter business will be very important to growth and expansion.”
Laurence and colleagues working at Cambridge Drones have already done the background work to make the project work, starting with certification. The trade’s licenses are approved by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA).
“The PfCO – Permission for Commercial Operations – is the basic license to conduct commercial drone flight operations, but the rules are changing in January 2021, with a new qualification called a GVC, a General Visual Line of Sight Certificate which involves an additional training course. It’s certified by the CAA, and we got that last week – we passed with 95 per cent, which is a little frustrating given that we strive for perfection, however it’s more than respectable.”
It is a slight deviation from Laurence’s previous expertise.
“I spent 16 years in cybersecurity, with the last five years working with start-ups. I have always acted as that bridge between technical and sales parts of a business. It turns out being a tech geek that can sell a product is a skill! In addition to that, I have always been good at working with companies to scale and develop their products and services. The drone market is set to explode over the coming years, and I am especially keen on the drone automation side of things to come. Watch this space.”
He mentions work for nCipher and Thales.
“The Covid shutdown really made the decision for me, as I had the time to put the groundwork in to start the business. As a start-up I put out feelers some months ago through my existing business networks.
“I’d been operating drones for a while so I thought the natural progression would be to gain the commercial certifications and build a strategic plan as a services business. I’m a ‘think out of the box’ kind of guy, always having strived to be on the edge of what’s possible, which is why I’ve made the jump and investment, which was quite a jump.”
An upcoming project which offers just such a challenge is a project to film the installation of the cycling bridge over the River Cam which is due to take place later this month.
Flying a drone over the cycle bridge installation is technically challenging, not least because it is taking place at night, to minimise disruption to the community.
“One thing that excites me is being part of my home town’s history,” explains Laurence. “I just hope the weather holds out on the night the bridge goes in – it can’t be rainy, too windy and it needs the right amount of light for the camera, given its a night shoot.”
Laurence’s go-to drone is a Mavic 2 Pro, with a 20MP sensor, capable of 4K video. He has used more expensive equipment but the DJI Mavic 2 Pro does what is required, although the drone has no lighting rig.
“There’s lights on each rotor arm to identify orientation and location, but no illumination light as standard. The drone is definitely a good workhorse for the jobs we aim to do,” he says. “For anything that requires more lift or accuracy, we would send up one of the bigger drones that has a higher accuracy rate.”
And what about getting permission to do the flight?
“There’s an FRZ – a flight restriction zone – around Cambridge Airport which is a two-nautical mile boundary around the airfield that restricts the use of drones, but permission is obtained manually from local air traffic control, as it’s not on the NATS system like Heathrow or Luton.”
NATS is the UK’s leading air traffic services provider.
“For Cambridge it’s permission on request, you call up and let them know the plan, date, time, altitude and your qualifications.
“After careful consideration of the scenario, they decide on whether to provide you the permission to fly in their air space. Usually they say yes if you have done your planning correctly, unless there is something else happening in the area.
“This is in addition to checking the NOTAM’s– Notice to Airmen –which also details upcoming flights in the area. Usually, we strive to provide 21 days notice to ATC. Being a drone operator involves a lot more work than people realise.
“It is not just putting a drone up, flying them around, and returning to the landing zone. In fact most of our time actually goes into the planning of the flight and processing of the data, not the flight itself. This is something we always try and make clear to clients who don’t always see the work that goes on in the background. With any flight, the key is really to make as many people ‘involved’ as possible, as that eases the legal requirements.”
How does that work?
“With uninvolved people, you have to be at least 30 metres from the take-off and landing zone and 50 metres up in the air.
“If people within these distances are given a safety brief and agree to it, I can effectively do what I want while considering safe use of the drone. The camera can film at 90 degree angles, it can be pitched up and down and is mounted on a three-axis gimbal to maintain stability, so there’s lots of scope.”
Although it is an exciting project in terms of publicity – and the Cambridge Independent will be the first to publish both the video and photographic results – drones can do a lot more.
“The sectors which are important are construction, agriculture and industrial,” says Laurence.
“I can do digital mapping, surveys, thermal mapping – which means we can checkthe operation of panels on solar farms very quickly. It can map 30 or 40 acres of solar farm and identify any weakness in the solar panels from differing thermal footprints in a fraction of the time it takes on the ground.
“With a wind farm inspection, you collect the data required by the client so they can do much more of their work remotely.
“I have a client who mentioned a very different and interesting use case to me the other day. I am going to keep that one under wraps as per our agreement, but just when you think you’ve found the limits of what drones can be used for, something else comes up. The only thing I say now is if what you are doing involves large areas or heights, think about using a drone.”
Then there is the business side: Laurence is working with Ed Ilsley to provide services across a larger region to include Northamptonshire.
“Ed was in a very similar situation to me. He was involved with lighting and rigging, and when that business dried up with Covid, we were both drone enthusiasts with a lot more time on our hands to think about life choices and how we could follow our passion.”
With such healthy agriculture and construction sectors in the region, Cambridge Drones looks set for a high-flying future.
“We’re doing a lot of reaching out and would be very keen to work with local businesses to deliver success,” says Laurence with a smile.