Uavonic is the most significant player in the field of unmanned aerial vehicles in Slovakia. We sat down with Marek Zvara (Marketing Manager at Launcher) and Lucia Surmova (Marketing Manager at Uavonic) to talk about everyday challenges they face with the drone business and where they see the future of the industry as well as to reveal the story of the company itself.
What has been Uavonic recently working on?
Lately, we have been discussing a switch from a product focused Uavonic to a service focused one, which means that services will, eventually, be our main product. The hardware—drones and the UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles)—will be another stream of our business.
Why this switch of focus?
We have eleven drone pilots. And with that amount of pilots, there is a really huge bunch of possibilities of how to provide different services. I think it’s the highest number of pilots in one company in the whole of Slovakia and the Czech Republic. That is the reason we provide services for a range of companies in different fields such as wine production, agriculture, wood manufacturing. Besides that, we also focus on golf resorts, specifically on turf management.
Drone business is a green field in Slovakia. We are the first pioneers here, in this country, and that is interesting. This is the area which is going to develop. If we talk about the hardware, about the machines, it is something we are not able to compete in with China or other regions where there are all the producers and plants. But we can compete in services and software.
How did Uavonic start? What was the first idea?
One of the co-founders was a drone enthusiast, it was his hobby. After a lot of self-produced drones and lots of piloting, he decided to transform it into a business. The industry is developing and rising, and the unmanned technology is the future. As mobile phones in the past—without cables, it felt like sci-fi. Two years ago, when you told someone there would be a car without a pilot in the near future, everybody would be surprised. And today, the topic is right on the table. Eventually, we are bringing something from the future:)
You have grown quite fast in the recent years. How did you manage that?
We invest into manpower. Qualified manpower. And that is the reason we also launched the academy. Most companies have 3-4 people, maybe 1-2 pilots and 1-2 drones, which is limiting. As we have already mentioned before, we have 11 pilots.
The other thing are the regulations. There have been some restrictions for the last two years, but we have all the necessary certifications and licenses now. We provide the service officially, which is not that common, gently said. That is the main difference if we talk about our competition.
The whole drone ecosystem is really turbulent as the legislation has changed completely lately based on the EU. European Agency for Safety in Aviation (EASA) is responsible for the whole legislation in aviation. If they publish a new regulation, all the national agencies have to implement it.
The one published in August 2015 has completely changed the rules; currently, people are not allowed to use drones to take pictures or to make videos until they have a license. The current situation is that you have to have a permission to execute any aerial services, you have to have licensed pilots and I have to say it is not easy to become a licensed pilot. You also need a special permission which has to be published especially for the area and the date when you want to take pictures. Otherwise, it is illegal.
So for each project, you have to have a separate permission from the Ministry of Defense?
Not only for the project, but also for the specific area and for the specific time range. There is another thing – all the pictures need to be checked in advance, before publishing, by the Ministry. It means that if we take some pictures, we have to send them to the Ministry and they say “OK, no problem, no violation of the national security, you can use it.” Otherwise you just can’t use it. And if event organizers want live streams, it is quite difficult to arrange, especially within cities.
You are then the only ones who have all the permissions in Slovakia right now?
More or less. There are some smaller players, but there is no database to check that out. As the legislation is quite new, everyone is trying to handle it in some way. We are probably the first company that has all the necessary licenses and legislation as we started quite soon. We might not be the only one, but we definitely are the first one as far as our information goes.
You said you have eleven pilots. Do you train them at your pilot academy?
Most of them are pilots from real life aviation. Really skilled pilots are a question of hundreds of hours of experience.
Is the academy opened for the public as well?
It´s open for public, definitely. Whoever wants to be a pilot, whoever wants to start, the door is open and everybody is invited.
Are you the only one with the academy in the region?
We are probably the only one, yes.
If you look back, what have been the greatest challenges you faced in those two years when building the company?
To define the scope of services, where to target our focus.
The other thing is that it is still difficult to imagine all the possibilities how the drones can be used, what all those situations can be. People are not able to imagine that it´s possible to do something in a different way with the support of a drone.
For example, wood stock measurements. Normally, it´s a huge pile of wood and two or three people measure it manually, working on it for two weeks. We are able to do it in about 2-3 hours of a drone flight with a good software and a few hours of computer work.
Or a 3D picture of a building – at first, we have to do hundreds of still pictures of an object, and then here, in our offices, we are able to make up a complete 3D model of that structure. All of these services are the added value of Uavonic, we are not just drones and pilots.
What do you think is the most crucial when working with technology like yours?
In terms of what?
We use special parachutes, everything is doubled and redundant just in case, e.g. there are 8-rotor UAVs, not only 4–rotor ones. If you work in the field, we use specific protective helmets, shoes, everything. There is no space for an error in terms of safety, as a lot of times, we fly the drones over expensive structures or in some cases over inhabited places.
Have you experienced an accident?
Accidents happen, that is also why we fully support all the regulations related to safety. We have experienced accidents, because if you fly as frequently as we do, it is inevitable. But because our safety regulations for pilots and UAVs are so strict, even beyond the official regulations, we did not harm or even endanger anybody.
You are based here in Bratislava, Slovakia, right?
Yes, the headquarters are here, and we have an office in London. There is a separate team focused on Great Britain as it is a different market than Slovakia. It is differently developed with different services and different needs.
Are there any plans to expand to other markets?
Nowadays we are setting up the new branch in Czech Republic and we are thinking about Austria.
For the kind of services you provide, you need the best, very skilled people in the field. Where and how do you look for them?
We are a bit lucky here because at the beginning, it was just a hobby; everybody heard about drones, everybody wanted to try them and work with them. So now, we have a lot of applicants, therefore, we can really focus on quality and skills.
References are very important; many of our employees are also friends who got hired based on a recommendation. Just like a small family. Everybody knows everybody from the past. But in the future, as we’ll grow, we’ll have to come up with professional HR recruitment.
What are the qualifications and skills you look for when hiring people?
If we talk about pilots, we need people with previous experience in aviation or RC modeling. Of course, there has to be a technical background and technical thinking as well, it’s really a high technology.
How do you see the future of drones?
Today, we cannot predict, we cannot even imagine what might happen in the next five years. Have you seen the YouTube video with drones playing table tennis?
The future of drones is closely bonded to the battery cells; it is crucial for this industry to develop better batteries. For example, we don’t use the usual patrol engines because of the vibrations; using electromotors, we are able to eliminate the vibrations. As we all know, the problem with batteries has to be faced by everyone, even the Tesla cars. It is very important to have better batteries.
For example, our biggest drone uses a 4 kg battery for 20 minutes of flight. Fortunately, we have such huge amount of batteries that we change it immediately as the drone lands.
Do you also do development in some areas?
We have special development for almost every machine we sell in a project, because every machine is created for special work and should be adjusted for the work. For example, if you are flying in industrial areas, it can happen that you have certain interference, and this can affect the ability to fly the remotely operated UAV. We are capable of adjusting such a machine for flying in this area.
We also cooperate with the Faculty of Informatics in Bratislava as well as the Technical University in Kosice and its Faculty of Aeronautics. It was a famous aviation school in the Eastern Europe in the past, which later transformed from army academy to public aviation. They have run an innovation department with some research in navigation and autopilots, which is especially interesting for us.
We are also a member of UAVAS, the Association of Unmanned Aircrafts in Slovakia, which aims to influence the drone legislative process in Slovakia. The association is also important to connect the whole industry together and to educate the public.