Few people have been involved with the drone industry in so many different ways as Colin Guinn. From serving as CEO of DJI North America to his role as Chief Revenue Officer at 3DR to the founding of Hangar, Colin has experience in the consumer and commercial sides of the industry that few can match. These experiences are just part of what fuels his work at Guinn Partners, the accelerator and digital agency for startups and established high-tech brands that he founded in 2017.
With Guinn Partners, Colin and a team of long-term experts from previous companies have combined to bring their product development and marketing skills together to form a digital agency for high-tech companies and startups looking to break into new markets. Their State of the Drone Industry is designed to provide an inside look at the companies and trends driving the future of drones, while the Going Beyond Visual Line of Sight report explores the ramifications on key concepts about BVLOS operations that everyone should know. Those resources and videos like The Future of Drone Hardware provide a hint at the expertise the company is able to provide.
To get a better understanding of what else he’s doing at Guinn Partners, we caught up with Colin to ask him exactly that and much more. In the interview below, we asked him about the impact market expectations have had on the drone industry and what he thinks about the notion of drone hardware being a solved problem. To see what he thinks about being the voice of reason and whether or not the drone industry can only take off once BVLOS operations are enabled, read Part 2 of the interview.
Jeremiah Karpowicz: The two core businesses at Guinn Partners are related to the services you offer as an agency as well as a consultancy. What can you tell us about these offerings and how they are or are not interrelated?
Colin Guinn: I would say if there’s a number one, “why do we need to exist?” question, the answer has to do with the expectations that exist for the technology from the people who are making it, and the people using it.
Before I ever started developing drones, I had a drones services company. From 2006-2007, I was working for energy companies, shooting oil wells, shooting commercial real estate, shooting movies, and a bunch of other things. I’ve always had that business, even when I started developing drones for DJI. In fact, having that services company up and running while I was at DJI created a tight feedback loop between engineers and users. We’d be out shooting and using these products on a daily basis for paying customers, and that information would get fed back to engineering in a very deliberate fashion.
That helped DJI a lot, as it allowed them to make validated decisions around product development and what the market was willing to bear. They were able to get a real sense of things like how much a certain user would be willing to pay for something, what features would be worth an extra $100 at retail or not, etc.
Having a nuanced understanding of these expectations and realities on both sides of the technology is what it all comes down to for us, and for the services we’re able to offer for our clients.
Let’s talk a little bit about those expectations, because the expectations that exist for individual companies are different from the expectations of the market as a whole, aren’t they?
The expectations of people, in general, have totally changed how companies release products, and that goes far beyond the drone market.
One thing I’ve noticed, and it started happening a couple years ago, is that no one finishes their products before they put them out. The biggest companies in the world seem to have just accepted that’s how it works now. That’s a big contrast to the way things used to be done. When the PalmPilot came out, it actually worked. It didn’t do all the stuff a smart phone does now, but it did what it was supposed to do. Now though, you just have a bunch of unfinished products.
What’s interesting about this change in expectation is that it just doesn’t work in the same way for the drone industry, because we’re fighting gravity. Literally. When one of my GoPro cameras freeze, which happens a lot, you pull the battery out, pop it back in, and you’re up and running. When your smart phone freezes, you reset. In fact, some companies have more or less admitted that recent software upgrades for their phones are just about making them work and do what they’re supposed to do. That same principle does not work for drones.
The drone industry should be held to a different standard than the rest of the tech industry. A computer freezing is a minor inconvenience for someone. A manned drone falling out of the sky is something far beyond a minor inconvenience for the person inside that drone and everyone else.
The stakes are clearly different in the drone space, but it feels like the expectations haven’t been adjusted accordingly. What would it mean to balance these expectations with that reality? Do you think it’s possible to change some of these expectations?
There’s so much demand from the market, and I don’t think that’s ever going to change. There are never-ending expectations to come up with drones that feature narrow AI-equipped, has computer vision, are able to operate autonomously, can fly forever and are totally silent…the list goes on and on, and everyone wants to be able to offer the latest, most cutting-edge solution.
It’s kind of a problem, because if somebody came out and said they were going to make something that works really well, but it only does a certain thing, chances are that company would fail. The market has such high demands for all the bells and whistles and to do all these cool things.
It’s the reason that when we talk to drone companies, especially ones that are making actual flying drones, we tell them they have to find a way to bifurcate the technology within the drone that allows it to fly, and make it separate from all the bells and whistles and cool features. That’s something we made a decision on many years ago at DJI.
There are some downsides to doing that in terms of redundancy of on-board systems, redundancy of some of the hardware, but if the DJI app crashes, it doesn’t impact the flying of the drone. You don’t need the DJI Go app to fly the drone. They are two completely separate systems. And I think that’s becoming more important than ever.
The most basic of drone functions needs to be on a separate system within the drone. And it needs to be impervious to all the fancy real-time computing and fancier automation that’s happening. If any of that stuff crashes, that should not be able to impact your flight control.
That’s the best way I’ve come up with to try and balance the need to meet the modern demands of the market without sacrificing the kind of reliability that should be required for anything that’s flying around in the national airspace.
That perspective is an illuminating one since you’re clearly still very focused on drone hardware considerations. Saying that drone hardware is a solved problem might be overstating it, but with so much talk about it being about the data, not the drone, it seems there’s been a conscious shift away from a focus on or even talk about drone hardware.
People do think of the hardware as a solved problem, and that’s the attitude of so many investors in Silicon Valley and elsewhere. No VC’s want to invest in hardware companies, because they all think it’s already commoditized, because drones just work now, so they’re cheap. They want to say that hardware is easy and that there’s no innovation left to be done there.
The reality though, is that there’s one company that has figured out drone hardware, and that’s a big part of the reason they are now a $20 billion dollar company. Sure, there’s an entire segment of the drone hardware market that has been defined, but there are and will be opportunities elsewhere. The hardware that’s being made today looks very different than the hardware that’s going to be made two years from now when we can fly BVLOS.
There’s a huge amount of opportunity with hardware, especially when it comes to doing any kind of critical infrastructure inspection, or energy grid work, where the sensitivity of the origin of data is critically important. There’s just so much opportunity there, and so much room for companies to make innovative products and do really well in that space. There’s a whole new wave of hardware that will need to be created to deliver packages and perform a variety of physical tasks. Very little of that has been developed yet.
What kind of impact has this “drone hardware is done” mentality made on the industry as a whole?
We have a client that has a very innovative piece of drone hardware tech, and it’s honestly the first time I’ve been excited about a piece of drone hardware in five years. But the number of VCs that immediately shut down when they heard they were doing hardware was astounding.
If we want this industry to get to where we know it’s going, hardware is part of that story, and we need support in that realm. It can’t just be about an app for a drone or about data processing options. It’s almost like young engineers are told by teachers and peers that they shouldn’t develop hardware because it will never get funded because DJI won, so they better go make an app.
Yes, there is huge value in apps that can do things like find crop stress. We know that’s a massive area of growth, but if we send everyone to do that kind of work and nobody works on hardware, where do we end up?
If we as an industry could create a new narrative about there being an entirely new wave of hardware coming, and the drone hardware problem not being solved, we’d be in a much better place. Being able to fully realize the benefits of this technology is going to mean that really smart people get the funding necessary to develop hardware that can be as safe as we need it to be in our national airspace.
What do you mean when you say the industry won’t be able to get where it needs to go without this focus on hardware though? How far do those hardware innovations need to go beyond what we have right now?
Think about this drone hardware that is “solved.” DJI knows that the average lifecycle duty of a Phantom 4 or even an Inspire 2 isn’t especially long. If someone uses those on a movie shoot, they might be flown ten times on that shoot, but then they’ll go into a box for weeks or months until the next one.
If we’re talking autonomous drones that are going to be flying and recharging themselves on a continuous cycle, all day every day, the hardware is going to need to be incredibly robust. The wiring, the bearings on the motor, the balance, the propellers…all of these materials have to be different for drones that are being used continuously, without frequent maintenance. They need to be able to take care of themselves.
All of that represents a very different hardware challenge that has nothing to do with the fact that the Mavic Pro flies great. It has to do with creating drones that can actually function like the autonomous vacuum cleaners that they should be acting like.
Do you think the industry as a whole will realize that drone hardware is actually an “unsolved” issue in a definitive manner?
I certainly hope so. I would be really excited if the whole industry and the people surrounding it could make it so that hardware is no longer the redheaded stepchild. If we could all realize that yes, the simple flying camera hardware drone for consumers has been solved and commoditized, but the hardware necessary to do real value creation within enterprise use-cases has not been solved. People should be willing to invest in that problem because a lot of value will be created there.
If we could change that narrative, it would be very beneficial for the entire industry.