There are a myriad of resource designed to help users of all sizes utilize drone technology in a variety of commercial applications. Events, websites, webinars and whitepapers are just a few of the formats that provide users and potential users with a better sense of how drones can enable a variety of tasks to be performed in faster, cheaper and safer ways. However, what’s becoming more and more essential is to explain in great detail what those efficiencies look link for specific users or applications, and some format for doing so are better than others.
Talking through that specific detail for civil engineers is exactly what Brett Hoffstadt set out to do when he wrote Success with Drones in Civil Engineering: An Accelerated Guide to Safe, Legal, and Profitable Operations. In the book, he details what it means to build, grow, and sustain a safe, legal, productive, and profitable operation with a drone. He also identifies the major risks and concerns that drones bring into an engineering organization, discusses the key features and qualities of drone hardware and software you need to consider in your selection process and talks through what it means to sell the idea of a drone as a profitable asset. Those are just a few of the insights he shares over the course of the book though.
Brett has already explained why he decided to write a book about drones for civil engineering, but we wanted to learn more about his process and discover the context around many of the insights he discusses in the book. We caught up with him to talk about his career, what kind of engineering professional the book is targeted for, why it’s essential to identify the key people with an organization to run a drone operation, what he’d say to anyone who was hesitant about working through the challenges that come with drone adoption and much more.
Jeremiah Karpowicz: Tell us a little bit about your background. What drove you to become a dual-degree aeronautical engineer?
Brett Hoffstadt: As far back as I can remember, I always loved things that fly. When I was 11 years old or so, I wanted to get into radio-controlled aircraft. But my father said I was too young (and he wanted me to work up to it), so he gave me the balsa wood and tissue paper airplane kits with rubber band power. Those kept me busy and happy for many years. Eventually, we graduated up to R/C aircraft with gas engines which I built and flew throughout my high school years. When it came time to pick a career objective after high school, aeronautical engineering won over music (my other big hobby at the time) because my analytical brain told me that would be a more practical career pathway. While it hasn’t been as predictable or stable as I imagined, it has been tremendously exciting and rewarding. Probably more stable than a musician’s lifestyle, although sometimes it’s hard to tell.
Can you talk about some of the large, complex, and innovative projects that you’ve worked on in your career?
My career received a priceless jump start in college when I got accepted into the co-op engineering program as an undergrad at Purdue University. Multiple assignments with McDonnell Douglas in St. Louis, Missouri (which later became the defense side of Boeing) led to a long career in the aerospace and defense industry. Through these assignments I’ve worked on large, complex projects in flight simulation, wind tunnel testing, aircraft performance, and flight testing on many of the nation’s notable fixed wing and rotary wing military aircraft. The most complex projects were as a project manager on the V-22 Osprey tiltrotor. These really stretched my abilities on the technical, logistical, and programmatic integration of complex projects.
Looking back on some of those projects, are there any that stick out to you in terms of how much simpler, easier or cheaper they would have been to complete if you’d have been able to utilize a drone?
Along my long and winding career, I’ve had some rewarding assignments outside of the aerospace industry. One of these was as a project manager with a high-end IT-based security system firm in San Antonio, Texas. We installed networks of cameras and physical access control devices in schools and military facilities. On tall buildings, the customer (and ourselves) wouldn’t see the view from a camera installed on building roof lines until the end of the installation process. If we could have used a drone to provide an earlier view of this camera angle, I can imagine how that would have helped our customer have greater confidence in our system placement and design. During a proposal phase, it could have helped close some sales or create more customer anticipation by literally showing them their future view. Without a drone, performing this early view with a boom lift or other aerial methods was judged to be too expensive, too time-consuming, or too dangerous.
Now, of course, drones are becoming an innovative tool for security systems and teams beyond the design phase. Their benefits as an on-demand or persistent tool for aerial security surveillance is an exciting application that I can appreciate based on my experience in that industry.
You mentioned that 2014 was when you recognized what kind of potential drones had when it came to changing the way people could work. Have you seen those changes take place in a real way over the past few years, or is it still more about the potential?
Like you and others, I have seen dramatic changes in a few vertical markets such as aerial cinematography, construction, and energy. But I still believe we are just getting started. We haven’t seen the full potential yet – far from it.
I see a lot of similarities between today and the barnstorming era of the 1910’s. People who had some financial means and determination were able to purchase these new inventions called aeroplanes, upon which they did all sorts of things (some dangerous and crazy) to try and earn money with them. Enthusiasm and entrepreneurship were moving faster than the authorities. It’s like the wild west in the skies again!
I’m not advocating that, please understand. In fact, to realize our full potential, we need to foster a diverse yet self-enforcing community, professional cultures, and a viable regulatory structure that gives us a well-defined and safe framework to operate and innovate within. Like other major historical innovations, I believe we are prone to overestimate the near term changes and underestimate the long-term changes. I’ve already been guilty of that myself since 2014, I admit.
What have been some of the biggest challenges you’ve had to deal with when it comes to the successful adoption of drone technology in your work? Do those challenges line up with ones some of your colleagues have talked with you about?
Challenges that I see are experienced by many other advocates and champions in the drone space. A lot of our work is about education. People still need to learn about the technology and how they can benefit from it. They also need to understand when drone uses are for peaceful and innocent purposes, but this requires proactive and persistent communication to get ahead of the problems and misunderstandings.
We still lack a common objective baseline and industry-specific standards for training, operation, and equipment. I see us suffering from a “tragedy of the commons” phenomenon. Everybody wants these things and would benefit from them, but nobody (it seems) is willing to pay for them. The technological capabilities are changing so fast, market needs change as the education and awareness grows, and the regulations are also in a state of flux with a different time scale. All of these dynamic conditions make the job to define standards and common procedures incredibly difficult.
As a result, many people and companies are forced to learn and experiment on their own. This becomes a major source of unnecessary money, time, and risk. The engineer in me wants to eliminate or avoid this waste and inefficiency, which is exactly why I wrote my latest book – to help other people who want to avoid this wasted time and money too.
Yes, let’s talk about your book, as you’ve previously mentioned the many resources that are available to help people sort through those challenges, but that the one you couldn’t find was a book, which compelled you to write Success with Drones in Civil Engineering. In what ways other than format is this resource different than others that are out there?
Every format and resource can have its own advantages and strengths. I use and appreciate videos, podcast interviews, conferences and expos (like yours), weekly email news digests, white papers, and online forums. Those are all great for learning – and I included my recommended go-to list as an Appendix. The advantage of a book is that it gives you the space and flexibility to curate many resources together in one place. It gives you breadth.
Books also provide depth. Besides dry facts and figures, it can provide narratives, nuances, and stories that make lessons more memorable.
I wrote the book as if I was in the hotel lobby or bar outside of a drone industry conference, sitting next to someone who would benefit most from getting the 20% of knowledge and experience that would deliver 80% of the value. If I were sitting next to you, I would also share “inside tips” and stories. Actual numbers about costs and schedules to get a drone program started. The unique risks that most people unfamiliar with drones – or civil engineering – don’t think about. And special deals to get you some of the best equipment or services available. All of that is what you’ll find in the book.
Ultimately, is this a resource that’s geared toward engineering firms that are looking to build a drone program, or to drone entrepreneurs and service providers who want to offer drone services to an engineering firm for a project?
The short answer is both! One of the big questions and complexities of our young industry is the balance between outsourced drone services and building the internal capability within existing organizations. Both of them have value and tradeoffs.
For civil engineers or their directors, they will benefit from a rapid crash course (no pun intended) on UAS systems, terms, and regulations. Then they can think and talk intelligently with their colleagues about drones, and be more effective if and when they seek external sources for drone service providers. Knowing a few key indicators to identify a quality operation will save tremendous time, money, and stress down the road.
For drone entrepreneurs and service providers, they will get a similarly accelerated jump into civil engineering concepts and use cases. The section on project management will raise their credibility and capability when working with engineering firms because this is no time and place for amateurs or improvisation.
Both groups should benefit from the third section on business success with drones. Whether you are trying to launch drone operations as a “startup” in your existing company, or you are the startup trying to sell your drone-related effort to other companies, focusing on the business value of your activity and validating the most important assumptions related to it – as quickly, inexpensively, and safely as possible – are key to success.
Will civil engineers who have no familiarity with drone technology be able to get as much out of this as ones who are trying or looking to adopt the technology for themselves or their firm?
I assume the reader can learn quickly. If someone is really coming into this topic “green,” there is a Glossary of essential terms and a long list of additional resources where they can go for more information on topics mentioned throughout the book. There is also a dedicated appendix for a long list of acronyms. I’ve heard from both engineers and drone operators that they really appreciate that as a resource. I’m also glad to say that your Commercial UAV News and the Commercial UAV Expo are both included in the list of essential resources!
You’ve mentioned that the book is actually three books in one, so what can you tell us about how the book is organized and laid out?
It was honestly a big challenge to balance my goal of getting this book published ASAP while defining the scope of what should be in it. As I collected and organized all of the must-have ingredients for the book, I saw that they naturally fell into 3 categories: systems engineering or systems thinking, project management, and business. I’m convinced that – to be truly successful with drones in a highly demanding and regulated field like civil engineering – a person needs to have thorough understanding and competency in all of these domains. Then it was fairly straightforward to put all of the elements in place within each of those sections.
If people are wondering what are the key requirements and constraints with drones for civil engineering, those fall into the Systems Thinking section. There they will find not only an overview of the system architecture of a UAS but also the safety and regulatory aspects.
The Project Management section steps through each of the ten knowledge areas of formal project management as they apply specifically to commercial drone operations. Anyone who is already a project engineer will gain an appreciation for the unique considerations with drones. Someone coming from the drone world will get an accelerated education into project management. If someone is looking for a way to build experience towards a project management certification, starting a drone operation in your company is a perfect opportunity to build those skills and gain credit for that experience.
The Business Success section focuses on Lean Startup, marketing, sales, and networking. It’s painful to have a great product or service that nobody wants to use or buy. My experience from years of corporate innovation initiatives, online marketing, and professional sales should benefit everyone who is trying to sell the idea of drones, whether inside their own company or to others.
That the book specifically addresses what it means to identify the key people to talk to and work with to run a successful drone operation seems like an especially important consideration. What kind of challenges can arise when the wrong people within an organization are pushing or pursuing the technology?
Oh boy, this could be a long answer… There are many examples distilled into the book. Stakeholder management and Organizational Change Management are an art and science in themselves. I included some key concepts and tools from these disciplines in the book. One effective tool is to classify everyone based on their levels of power and influence on your drone operation. Based on where they fall in a grid of these two attributes, you should adopt different strategies to manage them. It’s a rather analytical and methodical way to approach relationships, and it works well to accelerate your plans.
Another set of warning signs come from the attitudes that you learn about from studying for the FAA Part 107 FAA exam. Those are people who consistently have any of the five hazardous attitudes: machismo, impulsiveness, resignation, anti-authority, or invulnerability.
Then there are the 3 C’s: the clueless, the careless, and the criminal. You don’t want any of those people in key roles within your drone program. If they are already in your organization you may have bigger problems…
This is actually a great question because I have found that often the biggest challenge with adopting an innovation in a large organization isn’t the technology, it’s the people! A successful innovator and plan needs to account for that.
Is the material in the book specifically relevant to operators in the United States? Are there lessons and insights related to logistics and operation that will be relevant to operators regardless of the regulatory considerations in their area?
The book has been written from the perspective of someone working and operating in the USA. However, in the Additional Resources Appendix, I have included key organizations as starting points for North America, Asia, the European Union, and Australia.
It is also worth mentioning that we in the United States can – and should – learn a lot from people in other countries. Many of the best examples and resources in the book come from other countries. There is a hydropower dam project in China that used drones during engineering and construction with amazing results in terms of quality, cost, and schedule. Canada and the UK are home to some leading UAS platform and service providers whose leaders are quoted in the book.
Fundamentally, the principles for safe, professional, and productive operations should be the same no matter where you are. Only one chapter out of 26 is entirely limited to U.S. people and that is the chapter on Part 107 regulations.
What would you say to a civil engineering professional who saw the potential of drone technology, but is hesitant about working through the logistical and regulatory challenges that come with adoption?
As I say in the introduction of the book, if you took a “wait and see” approach on drones because you didn’t think it was wise to be on the bleeding edge of a new technology, you were smart in many ways. There was a lot of painful learning and costly mistakes in the past 2-5 years. The technology solutions and workflow integrations weren’t very elegant either.
But a lot has changed in the past two years since Part 107 came into effect. Those who got a head start and persisted are now at a big advantage. I believe we are at an inflection point for massive industrial adoption, despite the regulatory challenges. When heavy equipment maker Komatsu announced the purchase of 1,000 DJI drones in March 2018, that signaled a wave is approaching. It is imperative for anyone who doesn’t want to be left behind to start working through their particular questions and challenges now. Fortunately, now you can benefit from the related experiences of others. It wasn’t easy to compile and condense so many of those lessons into a single resource, but that’s what people should gain in the book. Thanks for the opportunity to share my perspective on our exciting times.