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Q&A WITH JONATHAN EVANS

INTRO TO JONATHAN EVANS OF SKYWARD

Drones. An emerging tech category bursting with intrigue, wonder, controversy, and opportunity. We recently sat down with Skyward co-founder and aviation professional Jonathan Evans. Evans explains what’s happening in the industry, how drones will affect us over the next ten years, and how Skyward is shaping the future of aerial robotics.

WHAT IS YOUR ORIGIN STORY?

I started Skyward as a professional aviator of about eighteen years. I was originally a Blackhawk pilot for nine years, and that’s where I met our CTO, Marcos Osorno. I then moved to Eugene, Oregon and flew as a medevac pilot for Life Flight Network. I was sitting on duty one day, waiting for the next call to come in, and reading Wired’s “Here come the Drones” by Chris Anderson (June of 2012 issue). It was a visionary piece that painted a picture of an aerial robotics network – one I could instantly envision. Here I saw the nexus of my two passions; aviation and information technology. This inspired me  to start a drone company. I carried that entrepreneurial energy into the MBA program at University of Oregon. This is where I met the first co-founder and fellow MBA student Eric Ringer.

 

WHAT HAPPENED NEXT?

Eric and I joined forces and agreed to give up our summer internships to explore the opportunity of launching a drone company. Things coalesced pretty quickly from there, and we picked up a couple of other co-founders, including our finance professor from our first term, Stephen McKeon. He first came on as an angel investor and advisor, and then decided he wanted to become a co-founder. We experienced a lot of traction early on as we formed our team in an industry that was largely unchartered. It was enough for me to want to leave the program and start the company.

We ended up moving the company to Portland, and we were able to secure our initial angel investment. That was our first big break, as it was a boost of validation. By the spring of 2014 we had managed to meet Voyager Capital. Voyager led a 1.5 million dollar seed round. We were brought to the show, and we were allowed to take our “dream and team” as we call it, into the seed stage, to move further into this field.

WHERE IS SKYWARD TODAY?

This September we released our software for commercial drone operators to navigate the new rules of the sky and manage their drone business. We have users in the US, Canada, Australia, South Africa, the UK and the Caribbean. We’re partnered with NASA on their UTM project, and we work closely with many major players and manufacturers in the drone industry. It’s been quite the ride to go from the cockpit to sitting at the table of aviation history. This is by far the most interesting part of the journey, working with this team of experts to start articulating a new transportation network that we are all going to be experiencing soon. We’ve moved from a headcount of about 10 in 2014 to 25 now, and we’re continuing to grow.

CAN YOU GIVE US A BRIEF LESSON IN DRONES 101?

Drones are a confluence of two technologies: aviation and computer science. The information technology network, the cell phones in every single one of our pockets right now is a personal computing device on the mobile information network. A drone is the most interesting node in the aerial robotics network right now. I often compare this time in history to the Apple IIeE ahead of the internet being wired.

HOW HAS THIS CATEGORY EVOLVED?

It’s a technology that started in the military. Unfortunately the military is a tough brand ambassador for aerial robotics and what the full possibility is for public good. Much like DARPA created DARPA Net, which became ARPA Net, which became the commercial Internet that we all use today. The internet became a completely ubiquitous technology. You see a similar evolution happening with drones – where you have an incubated aerial robotics nascency in the military, and now it’s coming into the commercial space.

The next great iteration of this is about the consumer technology becoming commercialized. For example military drones coming into civilian and commercial applications. You’ll also see lots of firefighting in the military coming out into civilian firefighting. There’s a certain convergence on the new and burgeoning commercial drone market. There’s going to be this whole network of services provided by drone operators on a whole gamete of technology.

HOW DO I GET INTO THE DRONE THING?

You’d probably want to practice indoors using a quad nano, or something in the hundred dollar price range. You may also want to take some time to familiarize yourself with technology and with airspace… you don’t wanna just throw one of these things up in the air! We need to maintain the sense of  responsibility, accountability and infrastructure we trust in manned aviation as we put drones up into the sky.

WHAT ARE 2-3 SHIFTS YOU SEE IN DRONES?

1. We’re going to see an increase in commercial operations and nascent fleets and networks growing, which we’re already seeing in our client bases and networks.

2. We’ll see package delivery coming out in a year.

3. To enable the industry to grow and see enterprise adoption we need rules of the road, insurance, and professional aviation programs.When that’s established and we come out with those building blocks you’ll see enterpriss organizations using that infrastructure as the next shift .

HOW ARE DRONES USED TO ELEVATE CONTENT?

I like to say drones are democratizing the aerial-perspective. My whole career, one of my favorite things was the view from above, honestly it’s what got me pursuing the career in the first place. This aerial-perspective has long been inaccessible to those without power, and resources.  Now a $1,000 drone can give you access to that aerial perspective. Drones empower all kinds of things; aerial videography, search and rescue, firefighting, precision agriculture, conservation land management, foreign species detection.

If you have an expertise and a concern in the world this is a new tool which you can use to apply your intelligence and creativity. We’re interested in putting the tools in everyone’s hands and learning what they do. It’s everything from volcano research, to learning new plays on a football field. Within ten years the use of drones and being engaged in the aerial robotics network will be as common as the use of cell phones. It won’t be one to one like the phone, but you’ll engage services in the aerial robotics network as commonly as we use our cell phones.

WHAT’S YOUR TAKE ON THE PORTLAND TECH SCENE? 

Since drones in particular are a really interesting intersection of aviation and information technology, Portland is a fantastic location. Portland is the corridor of professional helicopter services the size and equivalency of professional airlines, there’s an enormous aviation influence here. We also have a strong foundation of tech excellence led by companies like Intel.

There’s an ecosystem of drone specific technology clustered around Hood River, and Oregon is one of the few states that was given designated test sites by the FAA. That’s brought a lot of focus to the region and industry.  I like to say we sit under the Silicon Sky. We have a special brand of tech culture here in Portland. There’s a growing and rising legitimate tech startup scene here, some real juggernauts which are forging the way ahead.

TO SEE MORE

Stay up to date on Skyward’s exciting developments as they continue to define what’s next in this emerging category. Follow Jonathan and the entire Skyward team @SkywardIO on Twitter or skyward.io/blog for the latest in everything drones!