In our ongoing ‘Dealer Spotlight’ series, we interview commercial drone distributors from around the world to learn more about their drone business, what valuable insights they’ve learned from selling drones and other geospatial solutions, and where they see the UAV industry headed in the coming years. For this latest installment, Waypoint sat down with Chuck Snow of Earl Dudley, a senseFly distributor located in Birmingham, Alabama, who has become an advocate for drone technology.
What does Earl Dudley, Inc. do?
Earl Dudley is an 80+-year-old company that sells, trains, repairs and troubleshoots surveying equipment. That includes GPS, total stations, scanners and optical tooling. We also use mobile scanners and drones as part of surveying tools, and that’s what I head up. I’ve been head for the last five years for the drone side of our business.
What industries and regions do you serve?
I’m based in Birmingham, Alabama, but we have offices across the Southeast. We focus on the surveying industry, but also DOTs, universities and civil surveying firms. Civil firms are the big ones for us.
How did Earl Dudley come about? How did it come to life?
That goes way, way back before my time. When the company started out, there was a big need here in Birmingham because not a lot of survey supplies were available in this area. What you find with any industry with tools that operate at a high level of precision is that they must be repaired, and they must be certificated. So, we do that all the time, and we’ve been doing that for 80-plus years.
When did you start offering drone solutions and why?
My now-boss called me back in 2014 and said he wanted me to look into this drone thing. I basically told him drones were toys, it wasn’t going to work and hung up on him. I was very naïve. We had a good relationship, though, because I used to calibrate and certificate my mapping systems with Earl Dudley every year when I had my own company. He called me back two days later and said, “Chuck, are you coming down here or not?”.
I spent probably three months researching, looking at drone companies who had been out there for a long time, who had great backing, how many units sold, ease of operation, quality of data and so on. senseFly quickly got on my radar.
So, I read all I could and continued researching, then I called several companies to come in and meet us. I called them all myself and was a little bit arrogant because I didn’t believe the capabilities. I was not a believer of drone technology, but I called these three companies and said, “this is who we are, this is what we do, if you’re interested in us becoming a dealer of your products, you need to come to Birmingham, Alabama.” And all three companies came.
We had some really smart surveyors help set up a course for these companies to fly their drones through. We knew our accuracy’s within a quarter of an inch on all our targeting, X, Y and Z. Then we spent three days with each company and flew the courses three times in different times of day. Then we processed the data. senseFly’s team showed us how you could look in Pix4D and verify the data. Not only that, but we actually went out and verified the data in the field, too. We cross-checked everything, and the data was exactly what they stated. We were getting within an inch, which we felt really, really good about.
So, we fell in love with senseFly, and it’s all history after that. Everything worked out well, and we’ve been a distributor ever since. I’ve sold many senseFly systems out there in the Southeast, and they’ve been very, very successful.
From your perspective, how have drones evolved from when you first started selling them to now?
It’s quantum. It’s quantum leaps in five years.
The sensors and the technology are better – that’s the biggest thing. This allows for better quality data that’s more accurate and more consistent. As a surveyor, you’re always fighting to get better data. As the technology improves, it helps keep the data survey-grade, and you get that better data every time.
What type of value do drones provide your customers?
The eBee is lightweight, it’s safe and it’s easy to fly. It’s no big deal for me to go out and fly these things because I’m a pilot, but surveyors? How do you have something that’s simple enough for them to add to their toolbox, gives them super accurate surveyed data that’s easy to assess, and a tool that’s easy for them to use in every sense? You just can’t top that kind of value.
Are customers initially as skeptical about using drones as you once were?
Every customer is like that, but that’s where I have an advantage—because I understand. I’ve been there. It’s still like magic to me, and I’ve been in this industry for five years. If they’re GIS people and understand the science behind photogrammetry, they’ll say there is no way.
I spoke to someone who attended the Pix4D User Conference. We went over some science of photogrammetry, and he said, “Chuck, why are we getting better results than we’re supposed to?” I said, “You know what? That’s exactly what I say.”
If you fly one-inch data, you should be able to get three times the ground sample than your accuracy should be, right? So, that’s three-inch data. Well, guess what. I fly one-inch data and get one-inch data accuracy all the time.
For these customers who were originally skeptical but now use drones regularly, what changed their minds?
The ROI has something to do with it. For example, a couple years ago, I was in Atlanta performing a demo for one of the largest dirt movers there. It’s a giant company. I did a demo for them where we flew an eBee for a big project they were working on. We then processed the data – same day, of course.
After the demo was over, I asked the guy on the project, “What do you think your ROI would be for something like this?”
His answer: Today.
That means the eBee’s abilities gave this company their return on investment in one day for one project. He was a true believer of drones after that.
How do you see the drone industry evolving?
The big ones, for myself and senseFly, would be advances in beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) operations. eBees are lightweight, so they’re safe, and there’s a low liability.
I’d also like to see improvements in battery technology so we can fly longer. Sensors will continue to get better, too, but I always scratch my head about that because they’re so good now.
What have you learned through distributing drone technology that you never expected? Any interesting revelations?
How accurate it is, just blows me away. I never expected the quality to be as good and for the tech to change so fast.
Old cameras were never able to measure that four- or five-inch difference between the top and bottom of curbs. I used the Aeria X camera during a demo with a customer, and we were able to accurately measure the distance between the two—from XYZ top of the curb to XYZ bottom of the curb. That’s amazing.
Surveyors and engineers measure top of curb and bottom of curb to design flow lines. Now my guys can design off drone data. We can combine the data sets with 3D information, bring it into AutoCad or Digital Surveyor and do design work using 3D data instead of 2D.
Do you have any customers or industries that you serve with drones that you never expected?
Well, I never expect any of them, but accident reconstruction is definitely one. I had a policeman back in 2015 who I sold a few eBees to. He has since retired from the police force and become an expert in accident reconstruction, traveling all over the United States. He goes to court all the time for pretty big cases. For example, a half-mile wreck, a train accident, things that are serious. He’ll throw an eBee in the air, map a mile, process all the data, put it together, create videos and measurements of all the details, then tell the story about what happened and why in front of a courtroom full of people.
The defense industry is another surprising one that I didn’t think about during my first year. I didn’t realize it, but there’s a big use for drones out there, and I’ve sold a bunch of eBees to them. I’ve had calls from soldiers in the field who can’t even tell me where they are. What they can tell me is to get in touch with their office and send them an eBee pronto. They use these drones to map villages before they go in along with other hot areas to keep their teams safe.
Where do you see drones best fitting in the equipment toolkit of the modern surveying professional? In other words, what type of work do drones suit and what other equipment can drones complement or even replace?
I’ve mentioned big companies, but most of my customers are one- to five-man survey teams. For them, surveying a 50-acre quarry is not only dangerous, but it would take several people a couple of weeks to complete. The eBee allows that one surveyor to go to a 50-acre quarry and 30 minutes later, drive away with a survey. It allows that one person to get into survey markets they wouldn’t be able to do without drones. Whether it’s 100 acres, 200 or 500, they can throw up an eBee and knock out the survey on a single battery and drive away within an hour.
That’s a three- to five-guy, two- to three-week conventional survey job that can be done in an hour with even better data. It allows these surveyors to have new revenue streams, to get them in new markets they would never have been able to get in before.
What extra value does your business provide to drone customers? What do you sell or provide in and around the drone solution itself?
We provide a high level of training and support. With a team of about 50 people, we have several who are capable of solving drone-related issues for our customers. If there’s an issue with combining scanner data with drone data, or GPS data with drone data, total-station data with drone data, we’ll come up with a solution for that.
We also have our own mobile mapping machine. Between that, the scanners, the drones and our team of experts, we provide our customers with the ability to bid on projects they otherwise would not be able to do.
What is the regulatory landscape in your area? How has it changed over time and how do you see it evolving in the future?
BVLOS. It was difficult at first, but it has gotten better and better.
I am personally trying to work with my guys to get a BVLOS waiver, so I can provide the information to my customers on how to obtain these for themselves because I have the experience. I know what it takes to get that. And if I do, then I’ll be able to provide that to all my other customers. I may not get that clearance until next year, but I’m working on it. I want to provide this documentation to all my customers so all of us can have BVLOS. That would be really cool.
Do you have any lessons or advice for potential drone buyers? What do you think they need to know to succeed?
You know why people are skeptical? You know why they get frustrated? It’s because they go online, buy a drone and don’t get training. They don’t have support. They don’t have repairs. You need all those things together to get the most out of this technology.
If you want to be a professional and get survey grade information, you need a quality tool, you need support, training and repair, or you’re not going to be successful. I’m talking about really making money in the survey-grade-mapping-tool world. You need all those things.
That’s great advice, Chuck. Thanks for taking the time to speak with us today!
You’re very welcome.