In this Digital CxO Leadership Insights video, Amanda Razani speaks with drone pilot and consultant, Michael Hill, who is the regional director of Volatus Aerospace, about drone technology and how it’s being used across industries.
Amanda Razani: Hello. I’m Amanda Razani, and I am with Digital CxO. I’m here with Michael Hill, an FAA Part 107 drone pilot and consultant, among other things. Michael, can you share some of your experience with us, today?
Michael Hill: Yeah, thank you for having me. So, I retired from the tech world six years ago, didn’t really know what I wanted to do, and my middle daughter, Aubrey, was flying little drones around, and she showed me how to fly a drone. I got really frustrated ’cause I kept crashing it into the wall, but I got this bug. And so I just, I bought a drone and crashed it, and learned why it crashed and just kind of grew into it and grew into it. And then I had a client come up to me and say, “Hey, do those take videos?” And I was, like, “Yeah, sure.” I showed him one and they were, like, “We have 200 facilities we’d like for you to start imaging for us.” So, I went out, studied, got my FAA Part 107 license, and then really started to learn how to fly in and around these buildings for these folks. Which now has led me to having flown over 4,000 missions with drones.
Amanda Razani: Wow. So, up until six years ago, you did not have any prior experience or knowledge of drones?
Michael Hill: None. The industry was just starting as it is. When I was younger, I flew some, you know, radio-controlled helicopters and that, but nothing in an avenue like this. So, the industry was just starting when I popped into it.
Amanda Razani: And so, from your account, you kind of just fell into it. You were kind of doing it as something for fun, and then, you had no idea that that would lead you down this path.
Michael Hill: Yeah, it actually was a hobby. I retired and thought, “Okay, you know, maybe this is just a hobby that I’m gonna do,” but the industry has now evolved into a multibillion-dollar industry.
Amanda Razani: Wow. So, as a drone consultant, you’ve accrued experience and knowledge with a variety of different companies across many different sectors. So, how is this technology being used?
Michael Hill: The technology is amazing. There is over 300 different industries that are using drones for one aspect or another, you know, whether it be 3D modeling or façade imaging or search-and-rescue or law enforcement; there’s over 300 industries that are using it. So, what’s interesting is the cameras on these are so advanced, and when you pair them up with various AI-type software, you can analyze just about anything, whether it’s the thickness of a roof or an anomaly on a high-rise or how tight a bolt is at the top of a Telcom tower. So, it’s pretty amazing technology.
Amanda Razani: So, in regards to some of those other industries you were talking about, can you share how drones are being used exactly?
Michael Hill: Yeah, so, what’s interesting, so, I am the director of unmanned operations for the Texas wing of the Civil Air Patrol. It’s the largest search-and-rescue organization in the world, right? So, and we use drones with thermal cameras on them, from everything from erosion control to disaster missions to search-and-rescue missions. So, you know, there’s a lot of law enforcement and first responders that are using them in that aspect, too, you know, to see where hotspots are on a fire, or, for law enforcement, for surveillance or tracking, you know, perpetrators. Then you look at the construction industry, you know, taking a series of videos or images as your project is developing gives them the opportunity to keep eyes on that project, no matter where it is in the world.
You’ve got so many different things. You’ve got drone deliveries, now, that are being done. Dallas-Fort Worth has got several companies, now, that are doing drone deliveries. We’re very fortunate that Dallas was chosen as testing ground by NASA and the FAA, several years ago. So, we’ve worked with them in partnership with other partners, in helping develop the smart city, Dallas, and utilizing drones for any number of things. It’s amazing the different arenas and different industries that are using them and know what they’re using them for, whether it be topographical mapping, thermal temperatures on water, or erosion control. Or animal, livestock, fish and game use them to count deer and find hogs and – it’s just endless what they’re being used for right now.
Amanda Razani: Wow, that is so fascinating to me. So, you were recently at InnoTech Dallas, where you had a big announcement surrounding your drone business and an aerospace company. Can you share some details about that?
Michael Hill: Yeah, so I’m really excited about that. So, as I shared with you, I retired from the tech world, started my drone company, flown over 4,000 missions, sit on 2 of the Texas governor’s taskforces in advising our legislators how drones work. And so, we were recently acquired by an international aerospace company, Volatus Aerospace. They are the largest drone integrator in North America, and they are pushing to be the global leader in everything from small-type consumer and recreational drones to military-grade drones to drone deliveries to – it’s just kind of amazing the company that they’re growing out worldwide. So, we’re really excited about it. I’m staying on as regional director, and helping them on their global leadership team in building out what the next evolution of defense drones, delivery drones – just about everything that you can imagine with drones, this company does.
Amanda Razani: Well, congratulations, that’s really exciting.
Michael Hill: Thank you.
Amanda Razani: I wanna go back, you were talking about some of the different sectors and all of the ways in which drone technology is being used. Can you share, in regard to the future, are there any concepts being considered for future use with drone technology?
Michael Hill: Yeah, that’s a great question, ’cause I do a lot of public speaking about it, and the first thing I tell people is, “If you’ve ever seen the cartoon The Jetsons, that technology is being developed and tested and used right now.” So, we see a lot of it here in Texas; with 1,500 aerospace companies based here, the technology’s evolving and growing just exponentially. So we see Texas as the leader in this, and it’s not so much the – you know, most people think a drone is a toy. They’re not. They’re much more advanced than that. So, we currently have drone deliveries, right now, with several entities, delivering everything from Girl Scout cookies to Bluebell ice-cream to pizzas to hamburgers.
We’ve got people-lifting drones that are being developed and tested, here. You know, they realized that traffic has gotten so bad the next evolution is up, so NASA and FAA is working with industry leaders to develop what’s called “unmanned traffic management,” basically, the rules of the sky. Because this next evolution of technology is coming in the transportation area where it’ll be above, you know, we’ll have medical supply deliveries, food deliveries, people-delivering drones. So, if you scratch the surface on it and you look at what’s called “advanced air mobility,” you’ll see this new technology is being developed. So, easily, within the next five years, you’re gonna see more and more of these type of new transportation vehicles evolve and start to play in our environments.
Amanda Razani: Wow, it’s incredible how advanced we’ve become with technology in just the past few years. So, you talk about five misconceptions in regards to drones, and can you share what those are?
Michael Hill: Yeah, so I do a lot of speaking about this, and the biggest one, the first one is: drones are toys. People think they’re toys, but they’re really not. The FAA classifies them as aircraft. The cameras on them are very advanced. You have got fire departments, law enforcement, that are using them for any number of things. So they’re not toys, okay?
Secondly is the misconception about drone deliveries. You know, people are – they wanna order their pizzas or their hamburgers and they don’t know: Can we do it? Is it happening? It’s being developed. There are a couple companies out there that are advancing pretty quickly in this: one major retailer, and then another entity, and they’re already operating here in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Like I shared with you, one of them is delivering Girl Scout cookies and ice-cream and so the technology is starting to be used, and working with the FAA to get the regulations and all of those things.
So, the next one is: anyone can fly a drone. Yes, you can learn to fly a drone, but you have to learn how to fly it safely, you have to understand what it’s like to have a responsibility to fly in our national airspace, you have to understand is it restricted or nonrestricted airspace – there’s a lot of things you need to know before you even start to fly the drone. So, but you can learn to fly the drone, it just takes practice, practice, practice. Like I shared with you, I’ve flown over 4,000 missions, and I look at it as, if you’re a professional baseball player, you’re gonna throw the ball every day. So I try to fly every day. And my wife laughs at me, because when I travel, I’ll grab a drone and I’ll take a drone with me. Because no matter what city I am in, there may be something I wanna see or fly. So I try to fly every day, so practice, practice, practice.
The next one is, as I shared, airspace rights, right? So, most people’s misconception is that they think they control the airspace over their property. You don’t. From millimeters up, it’s all federally-regulated airspace. Now, depending on how close you are to an airport or infrastructure, those anomalies change, where you’re allowed to fly in certain areas. But the standard rule is you have to fly below 400 feet, 5 miles away from an airport, you can’t fly within 150 feet of a structure unless you have an approved waiver from the FAA. So, that’s a really big misconception is people think they have rights over the airspace.
And then, you know, finally I say: Jetsons versus reality, you know? As I’ve shared with you, if you’ve ever watched the carton The Jetsons, that technology is being developed right now. I mean, something as simple as what’s in our phones, you know, and the things that we can do with our phones, let alone the transportation that’s evolving out of it. So, that reality is growing, and if you scratch the surface, as I shared with you, you’ll see a plethora of companies that are developing this next personal transportation, where we’ll be able to fly around and jet around and all of those things. Easily, within the next ten years, I see that as being, you know, our new wave of transportation.
So, it’s really exciting times. I’m just so, as you see, so passionate about this industry, and it’s just so cool and just amazing.
Amanda Razani: It really is. Real quick, can you tell us, where are you speaking next?
Michael Hill: So, I am next speaking at InnoTech in Oklahoma City and InnoTech in Houston. And I might have those reversed, but the next two InnoTech sessions, Oklahoma City and Houston. I’m gonna dig a little bit deeper into the five misconceptions and myths of drones. Love to have you folks come out. It’s an exciting topic. And typically, the sessions run fairly long, because everybody has a bunch of questions and they wanna know, and I’m glad to have the discussion with people.
Amanda Razani: Wonderful, thank you. Thank you so much for speaking with us, today.
Michael Hill: Yeah, thank you so much for having me.