Robotic Skies Sees Drones’ Place in Aviation

By S.L. Fuller | March 8, 2017; Reprinted from Rotor & Wing: http://www.rotorandwing.com/2017/03/08/company-profile-robotic-skies/

Helicopter Assn. International (HAI) has been an active member in the aviation industry’s initiative for safe integration of drones into the airspace. At Heli-Expo, it has scheduled several unmanned aerial system (UAS) presentations and its UAS Committee is set to meet on March 8 at 2 p.m. Brad Hayden, a charter member of the committee, encourages HAI members interested in drones to attend the meeting to see what the committee is doing to serve their interests in this up-and-coming market — a market that the FAA has solidified as an aviation market.

If there is any doubt that drones are part of the aviation industry, Hayden does not share them. Raised in the aviation industry, he is now a member of the drone community, too. As the founder and CEO of Robotic Skies, he combines his experience in both communities to develop and run his business. Every UAS shop in Robotic Skies’ global network is, and must be, an independently owned and operated, FAA Part 145-certificated repair station (or air-agency equivalent). That’s the industry Hayden grew up in, he said, and it’s one he knows can deliver quality services. Some service centers in the Robotic Skies have exhibits at Heli-Expo.

“I realized that most companies that would be coming into the [drone market] were either going to be high-tech companies or they were going to be remote/control companies — R/C modelers,” Hayden said. “Those companies don’t have really much of an idea of how to maintain a fleet of high-performance commercial aircraft.”

Hayden grew up working as a repairman and dealer for his family’s avionics sales and services business, Kings Avionics. After completing a tenure sweeping floors and sorting parts as a child, he began working on airplanes under direction of company staff repairmen at age 13. He still works at King Avionics today as its president. (His father still works there, too, as COO.) Post-college, he spent almost 20 years in the high-tech industry. Eventually, he circled back around to aviation and spent some seven years at Aspen Avionics. Hayden said he has a knack for identifying disruptive technologies, learned from his days in high tech, and was at Aspen for the rise of iPad capabilities for cockpits. He helped Aspen introduced its own iPad solutions. Then, he noticed a new technology racing over the horizon: drones.

An R/C aircraft enthusiast himself, Hayden became part of a do-it-yourself quadcopter drone online community. As he was building kits, Hayden noticed how similar the uncertified drone components were to those going into flight displays.

“I was like, ‘My gosh. This is this is going to be incredibly disruptive to aviation,’” Hayden said. “We’re suddenly going to be able to guide these smaller aircraft and collect data — fly these data type missions.’ I knew that eventually it would go into bigger things, which is still in the future for us, like package delivery and firefighting. As I watched this transition, I knew it was just going to be too big for me to miss out on.”

In 2013, Hayden started researching the drone industry and transitioning out of Aspen Avionics. He committed full time to Robotic Skies in February 2014 and signed his first customer the next month. He started out as the only full-time employee at Robotic Skies — while tending to his other responsibilities — and has just now added an executive. Along the way, he has employed professionals in his other business and outside contractors to do some Robotic Skies work. Hayden said he runs Robotic Skies the same way he tells his service centers to participate with the company: stay committed to the shop’s main business and view drone repair as an emerging market.

The company only services high-end commercial systems, which includes airframes worth anywhere from $10,000 to $4 million for optionally piloted aircraft. (Sorry, hobbyists. You’ll have to go elsewhere.) For operators and manufacturers that qualify, there are some 130 Robotic Skies service centers in North and South America, Europe, Asia and Australia. This includes presence in Africa, the Middle East, India and China. The company offers the following services through its service centers or its partners:

  • Inspection and repair services, aircraft on ground (AOG)
  • Airframe assembly, completion
  • Reliability monitoring
  • Hardware and software field upgrades
  • Insurance inspection, post-incident analysis and reporting
  • Sales and distribution
  • Airframe and component testing
  • FAA certification consulting
  • Design engineering
  • Flight test
  • Component test
  • Systems Integration
  • Compliance
  • Training

Of all Robotic Skies’ offerings, Hayden said field maintenance is the most popular. This is despite the fact that the FAA has not issued ongoing airworthiness requirements for UAS under Part 107. Hayden said he prefers customers to act voluntarily, anyway.

“As a maintenance provider, I hate making money off the fact that customers have to service their aircraft because they’re mandated to do that …even if there’s nothing wrong with it,” Hayden said. “But what we’re seeing is that in the absence of ongoing airworthiness requirements on the part 107 market, we’re still getting customers from the manufacturer and the operator sides sign up for our services because they see the value that we bring. Aircraft that are flying are aircraft that are making money. The customers realize that, the manufacturers realize that, and they want to make sure they’re selling quality products. These are fairly complicated systems and are going to get more complicated … To make sure that they’re operating efficiently, they have to be under some type of maintenance program.”

Image courtesy of Robotic Skies

There is no fleet size requirement to become a Robotic Skies customer. Hayden said that the information most important to him is negotiated in the contracts that each customer signs. These include items like turnaround times, pricing, how work is approved, and what maintenance is and is not covered. The company works with each customer to figure out the logistics, so all he or she has to do is drop off the drone at the chosen facility and pick it up when the work is completed. Not only is the customer matched with a service center based on proximity, Hayden said, but Robotic Skies also makes sure to match each customer with technicians that have been trained on the customer’s specific systems. All expectations are set upfront when the customer signs on, he added.

“All of this is an effort to do two things: to make the customer experience as hassle-free and elegant as possible, and to reduce any friction that we might see between the customer and our service center,” Hayden said.

As the drone industry grows rapidly at what he calls “internet time,” Hayden said, Robotic Skies is set to continue its growth, too. He wouldn’t give away any plans, except to say the company plans to scale-up operations. His hope for Robotic Skies is not to build it up and sell it. Instead, he’s choosing to go in with venture capital to grow it for itself.

“We feel like the industry is now at a point where we’re going to start seeing a big pick-up. So now it’s time for us to scale up our infrastructure …,” Hayden said. “You can go into a business with the idea that you’re going to build this business and get it acquired, or you could build a business under the assumption that you’re going to build a really successful business that delivers value to your customers. We’re definitely taking the latter approach and have since the beginning. We want to build a company that has tremendous impact.

“We have every intention of applying everything that we know from maintenance and safety and operational efficiencies and really make them an underpinning of how this market segment can be successful,” he added. “Because in my opinion, this new market segment is going to be what will completely redefine and reinvigorate general aviation.”