Pittsburgh is home to a plethora of tech leaders, from Google to Uber, to Duolingo. But, did you know that this City home to a company that maps construction sites with drones? Yeah, drones for construction!
Nowadays, most people are familiar with drones as novelty toys and as something used by the U.S. military. But, few may know that drones are being used in other industries. For construction, Pittsburgh based Identified Technologies offers managed commercial drone solutions. To find out about how drones are being used in construction and to learn more about Identified Technologies, we interviewed their Founder and CEO, Dick Zhang.
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Ben: Drones are relatively new to our everyday culture. Sure, we’ve had remote-controlled flying toys for years. But, it really wasn’t till the early 2000s, when advances in electronics allowed for the use of lighter materials and cheaper manufacturing cost, that drones, as we know them, started showing up everywhere. Today, most Americans are aware of the novelty drone quadcopters, and most are fully aware that the U.S. military uses drones for a variety of reasons.
But, many don’t know that drones are being used by other industries, such as construction. To learn more about how drones are being used in the building structures, we connected with Identified Technologies.
Mr. Zhang: Identified Technologies is broadly about driving visibility in the construction workflow, which just by nature is a very opaque business. And we do it with what we call a managed commercial drone solution.
My name is Dick Zhang, founder and CEO of Identified Technologies.
Ben: Thanks for talking to us today, mind explaining, a what you mean by managed drone solution?
Mr. Zhang: A managed solution means typically when you’re trying to put together the workflow for using drones in your business, there’s, you know, multiple parts of the process. I won’t go into too much detail, but you know, the planning, the aviation, the actually flying, that data processing massaging, data manipulating, reporting, the whole thing. And so, the whole concept of a managed solution is that the workflow to use drones as a business tool is either automated or the service is provided for you as part of the subscription.
Ben: How do you map a site?
Mr. Zhang: So the way our clients will map sites is they have a drone that they’ve procured from us, they’ve got a handheld tablet, a piece of software on that tablet, it’s remarkably simple actually. If it’s the first time they’re flying a site, they literally, with your finger you’re going to click click click click a square around your site on the google maps. You tell it, fly to 200 feet, 300 feet, and the drone, you hit go, and the drone will literally take off, it’s gonna fly this long mower data capture pattern. Do it all by itself. You’re literally there just watching. And then it comes back and lands. And that’s it.
Ben: That is really interesting. Can you talk a little bit more about that data as you doing the lawn-mover feature; how the data is being turned into rendering? Is it just being turned into raw data or, is it live rendering.
Mr. Zhang: Sure, the raw data that’s captured from the drone is actually just GPS information and photographs. And then part of, again, the managed solution, one of the steps is the post-processing and turning that raw quote unquote data into 2D and 3D renderings. And it’s a remarkable process actually; it’s basically, just a lot of geometry that is happening. But you can create really photorealistic models from all these, yeah, from all these post-processing. And so it’s that 3D information that is fitting into various management reports, and that’s how construction management is making decisions now. It is all data-driven, instead of, again, an opaque process and this guesstimating process.
Ben: How do you do the 3D part of that?
Mr. Zhang: The science of turning many pictures into a 3D model has been around for a long time. Sort of the special sauce, if you will, of this part of our workflow is that we can turn a lot of photos into a really high-quality model very quickly and automatically. So, this is nothing secret about it; that’s just the nature of our software. It works very very well.
Ben: So, is it like, some of the stuff like CAD is using now like AutoCAD is using for its rendering? Or like video game technology uses the same stuff.
Mr. Zhang: Yeah, and actually all of our, sort of, data outputs from that processing workflow drop seamlessly into, you know, AutoCAD Civil 3D, all those industry-leading 3D programs.
Ben: That’s pretty sweet. Like Arc GIS and that kind of stuff.
Mr. Zhang: Arc GIS, oh yeah. You’re on top of it.
Ben: I have used a few of those things in my life.
Ben: How many drones do you have in your fleet?
Mr. Zhang: The number is now over 100 and we are deployed on 1,000 sites. We are now deployed on a little over a 1,000 sites in Canada, U.S., and a little bit in South America. We’ve captured hundreds of thousands of images via drone so far.
Ben: Has there been a dramatic increase in the creation of drones in the last year or in the last couple of years? What do you attribute to your growth?
Mr. Zhang: Yeah, I would say probably that there are two key catalyzing factors that led to two key inflection points with the adoption here. The first was around the neighborhood of five years ago is when cellphones had, you know, reached serious maturity in terms of manufacturing – scale, quantity, cost – and so, what a lot of people don’t realize is that all the sensors and the brains that drive all these off the shelf drones, it’s all the same stuff as the cell phone. And so before, 10 years ago, 5 to 10 years ago, cell phones were way more expensive to manufacture, therefore drones were way more expensive to manufacture. Now, cell phones are cheap; drones become cheap to manufacture, that’s where manufacturers started putting in so much effort to making drones. That was the first catalyzing factor, that probably happened 5 years ago, and that’s when all the hype started happening for these drones. The second catalyzing factor, up until about a year ago, to legally fly a drone for a business you had to sit your butt in an aircraft for 30 or something hours and get an actual pilot’s licenses. A year and a half ago, the FAA, the government organization that regulates all this, released a new set of testing procedures and now it’s basically a driver’s license test. It is way less invasive, less time, less money. And so, it’s very simple now, relatively speaking, to get your certification to do this for business.
Ben: You mentioned early that you have an automated feature now that it is doing a “law mover effect” so they don’t have to manually pilot the drone. Is the license needed even if you’re letting the drone fly itself to capture data in a lawnmower pattern autonomously?
Mr. Zhang: The license is needed if you are going to put a drone in the air for business. Even though the drone does everything automatically, you still have to have the certification from the US government to ensure you can launch and supervise it responsibly.
Ben: Right now your website says 100 acres in minutes. Is this still true? Is that an average rate?
Mr. Zhang: It’s a good approximation. With the right conditions, you’re probably talking in the neighborhood of about 10 minutes to capture data on 100 acres. It’s really remarkable speeds.
Ben: You’ve talked a little bit about how the regulations have changed, what else has changed? Now that this stuff is more available, is your competition changing? What’s changed?
Mr. Zhang: Yeah, so I think all of the typical characteristics changes you see in that natural adoption bell curve right, we have been seeing over the last 3 or 4 years. And so 3 or 4 years ago, you’d be lucky if you’d talk to someone about or even have a conversation about using a drone for business. And then a year or 2 ago, the kid Johnny, down the street, got one for Christmas and everyone is starting to get acclimated to it. And now we are in a place where people realize it’s a tool they are going to have to use to keep up with the competition. And people are starting to come to us to ask for it, which is really remarkable. And so I would say we are on the bell curve where we are just starting that inflection point upwards and working our way up that curve. And we will probably be in the middle chunk of that adoption curve for the next few years.
Ben: That sounds good for you right?
Mr. Zhang: Yeah, the timing is good!
Ben: I’m trying to understand a little bit more about your mapping tech. How has rendering effect changed in the last couple of years?
Mr. Zhang: If you want high-quality rendering, you are still talking on the order of hours. But, that has been a major improvement over the last few years. We might of gone from 15 hours down to 5 hours. So, major improvements there on multiples not just percentages of 10 to 20 percent. I think the vision you are portraying here is a vision of the next inflection point on the technology. And there have been some tested limitations of this. You have to give up on quality if you want something that is fast, unfortunately. There’s just no way to physically do it. But, we have tested and we have seen others test the implementation of literally stitching in real-time, instead of over hours. It’s pretty cool stuff.
Ben: Let’s talk a little bit about the competition. Is there a lot or is it just emerging?
Mr. Zhang: I would say there is certainly competition developing over the last 3 to 5 years. I think the bell curve for new companies predates the adoption period by a year or two. We’ve actually seen a lot of competition companies pop up and a lot of companies close up shop. They’ve tried to execute, but haven’t been able to. And so, we’ve learned our lessons from them, but then our philosophy is always been you must know the customer better than they know themselves. And so you see a lot of businesses start with people who that are experts in drones, but don’t know how to make that useful for somebody managing a construction project. Our motto has always been, know the customer better than they know themselves.
Ben: And what do you think your ideal customer is?
Mr. Zhang: Our ideal customer has some large involvement with site work kind of project. Site work being defined as a big hospital, a big sports stadium, housing complex. Also, defined as a big highway that we are building through Kentucky. And when I say involvement, usually it’s the person building it; sometimes it’s the owner of the project like DOT or a private owner, and then sometimes it’s a subcontractor coming in doing some work for them.
Ben: So, a lot of big infrastructures.
Mr. Zhang: Yeah, big infrastructure big site work.
Ben: You talked a little bit about Johnny has a drone. A couple a years ago Johnny was the only one. Is there something you’d like to tell the public, with regards, because drones are now everywhere. And we have them and they know about them in the military; they know little Johnny’s on the streets. And your industry is new. Is there something you want the public to know to help them understand or feel better about technology?
Mr. Zhang: Yeah, I think the way to think about it is that it is similar to the point and shoot camera in the sense that at first, a drone can feel very obtrusive, might be the right word. Really, it’s is not the actual device itself that can cause damage, it’s the person behind the sticks. And so, as long as the person with the equipment has good intentions, is there for their own business, I think it’s a wonderful piece of technology, just like the point and shoot camera. As soon as you put somebody behind the sticks that has bad intentions then just like anything else, that’s when things go wrong.
Ben: Do your drones, your drones can go back and forth. Do your drones have a height cut off point or some kind of safety feature that’s included or is that part of the licensing?
Mr. Zhang: So, physically the drones can climb miles into the sky, legally you can only operate 400 above ground, ground elevation, for standard operations. Of course, you can go to the FAA and apply for specific, special operations, permissions to fly higher or farther. But, for standard operations, you’re flying 400 feet above the ground.
Ben: How did you go from being an analyst at Goldman Sachs to moving into the drone business? Seems a bit different. I know you said, know your customer base, but what’s that?
Mr. Zhang: That’s a good question. I worked on Wall Street; I worked at pharmaceutical ops; I was trained as a mechanical engineer in Philly. So, nothing to do with what we do here at IdentifiedTechnologies. Really where it started was I had a few friends that were doing research on drones; I saw it, I was hooked on it, had to do something with them. And then it was here in Pittsburgh I met with a construction superintendent, just a friend of a friend trying to learn about things. And we did a quick demo of the drone. And I showed him a few of the photos – at that time it was just photos and videos of this site and building that he was working on. Just some photos and videos and he said, “Dick, I need you out here every Friday for the next 65 Fridays; I’ll pay you, and I can have a contract in your hand today”. I was shocked, and it was from that experience – you know, we have the contract in hand for 24 hours, within 24 hours – I thought maybe there is something here. And so that’s sort of where the business began.
Ben: How did you come to Pittsburgh from Philly?
Mr. Zhang: I came to Pittsburgh for Alpha Lab Gear.
Ben: I’d like to talk a little bit more about clients or customers of yours. How are you empowering your clients? How are you creating something different for them?
Mr. Zhang: The highest level, at the very top, decision making and management in these businesses is very opaque. And to paint you a picture of why, imagine you are running a site the size of Central Park or San Francisco Bay, right. You’ve got equipment chewing up 40 gallons of fuel every minute, you’ve got 100s of people, 100s of acres of activity, just so many things going on. And you somehow have to keep control over all this, right. So, at such an expansive scale, site data is the only way to defensively make decisions and manage. The only challenge right now is to decisions with site data because it’s expensive to get, it’s expensive to capture, you know, via helicopter, there’s people, vehicles, that kind of thing. And even if you capture it, it is very difficult to consume, and that’s just a lack of internet and software technologies being available for construction. So site data is the key to managing this opaque process, it’s difficult to consume today, and so the site data and the analysis that we deliver for our clients is helping deliver major impact of their top and bottom lines. We’re talking avoiding 5 million dollars in additional risk on a new project. We’ve talking avoiding 2 million dollars of write-off on your balance sheet at the end of the year. We’ve talking fronting 10 million dollars of cash flow 2 years earlier in project for critical payments. So, major impacts to the P and L and balance sheet for our clients.
Ben: Is that because you can show them current infrastructure because of the data you are capturing? using like infrared or something like that?
Mr. Zhang: Yeah, that’s part of it. And so, really where it all goes, there is these sets of management reports that are created from all this data. And it is those reports, tracking production, tracking our inventory, quantities, tracking our equipment utilization, it’s all that, is what enables businesses management, and ultimately enables, again, impacts on those P and L for our customers.
Ben: Are there other things that you think people should know about Identified Technologies?
Mr. Zhang: It’s been extremely exciting. The business has grown 4 or 5 x year over year for the last 2, 3 years. It’s been out of control here in a good way. I am very grateful to Pittsburgh, there were many resources in the city, that the city had to offer to enabled us to get here where we are today. The last thing I’ll add is that we are always hiring. If you are ever interested in working in this young fast kind of company, always feel free to get in touch.
Ben: You guys have a pretty chill office.
Mr. Zhang: Oh, another thing people should note, is I’m about to pick up my first puppy ever.
Ben: You’re getting a dog!
Mr. Zhang: I’m getting a yellow lab. She’s 7 weeks old. We use to have an office dog and he’s since moved on, but we are about to fill the office dog position again with this yellow lab.
Ben: Thanks for letting me come down.
Mr. Zhang: Yeah, it was good to meet you. Good to have you. Terrific.
To learn more about Identified Technologies visit: identifiedtech.com
The interview, podcast, and video were created for the Owl Me Not project run by Ben Wonderful. The Owl Me Not project seeks to simply explain that which is unknown, whether it’s an idea or an innovative business. Owl Me Not has partnered with IHeartPGH to produce interviews and videos on topics related to Pittsburgh, including a series on innovators. The project is currently in development, but the latest video can be found here. Feel free to reach Ben about the Owl Me Not project via email.