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The Inventivity Pod
Building Better Drones
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Unmanned aerial vehicles started out as a military technology, but now have applications in fields like agriculture, surveying, search and rescue, pipeline monitoring, emergency response, infrastructure inspection, and disaster relief. Trevor Perrott, CEO and co-founder of Censys Technologies, explains what it’s like to start and run an aerospace startup company, and its market niche in Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) drones.

 

TRANSCRIPT:

 

Intro:

Inventors and their inventions. Welcome to Radio Cade a podcast from the Cade Museum for Creativity and Invention in Gainesville, Florida. The museum is named after James Robert Cade, who invented Gatorade in 1965. My name is Richard Miles. We’ll introduce you to inventors and the things that motivate them, we’ll learn about their personal stories, how their inventions work, and how their ideas get from the laboratory to the marketplace.

Richard Miles:

Unmanned aerial vehicles started out as a military technology, but are now used in agriculture, surveying, search and rescue, pipeline, monitoring, emergency response, infrastructure inspection, and disaster relief. Welcome to Radio Cade . I’m your host Richard Miles. Today, my guest is Trevor Perrott, CEO, and co-founder of a UFA company called Censys Technologies in Daytona Beach, Florida. Welcome to Radio Cade, Trevor.

Trevor Perrott:

Thank you very much. Appreciate the opportunity and the platform.

Richard Miles:

So, I was getting a little bit of research on UAVs and I’m going to let you correct me to see how much, if it’s I , I get right or wrong, but UAV’s or drones is a lot of people refer to them now. And this dictatology has surprisingly been around a while in one form another, going back to the mid 19th century, 1849, when the Austrians used balloons loaded up with explosives to attack Venice. And then the concept was further developed also during war time, world war one, world war two, but it wasn’t really until the 1990s and two thousands that UAV’s started taking off so to speak. So now, we’re at the point where Amazon can make drone deliveries of small packages, consumers, and I’m guessing one day my pizza and beer will arrive the same way in the backyard, should be great. But my point is that this has grown to be an incredibly competitive market. So tell us where Censys is positioned in the market. What are your current line of products and how do you plan to grow and succeed and what has got to be a huge and rapidly growing market?

Trevor Perrott:

Well, the only thing I’m going to correct you on is that Amazon still can’t deliver packages. At least not at mass market. They’ve got some limited approvals to do some trial runs, but there’s still quite the problem still exists. And proving, we call resilient communications, resilient, UAS operations. A lot of those mass market opportunities hinge on something that we call it, BVLOS, which is actually an acronym that stands for Beyond Visual Line of Sight. So BVLOS, kind of slurring it a little bit then to BVLOS, that’s kind of where Censys position. We’re in a very small segment of companies that has onboard detect and avoid technology, which what that does is our drones are able to look across the sky and identify potential collisions and then avoid those collisions before they encroach what’s called a near miss. So, what was that to about a 4,000 feet or so is generally what we call a near miss. I think a lot of people kind of struggle with that spatial understanding that 4,000 feet is not a lot when objects are moving at hundreds of miles an hour. So it sounds big, but I promise that’s actually really close and the three dimensions, so where we’re at is aggregating all those technological pieces together. So mass market package delivery isn’t going to happen until communications are reliable and collisions are extremely unlikely, mitigated, almost in full . So that’s where we’re at.

Richard Miles:

So Trevor, just so I understand this correctly, it sounds like your line of UAVs are built and designed for much longer journeys than say some of the UAVs that people are used to seeing now that like say a construction company will use to fly around a building or even a farmer will use to survey of field and then critical to that is obviously the communications the entire time. Who are some of your clients? I don’t need company names, sort of like sectors or types of companies. What are the end users look like for your line of UAVs ?

Trevor Perrott:

So far, we’ve been selling a lot into the energy industry vertical, which includes the enterprise energy companies, as well as you can imagine, those enterprises have dozens of industrial service providers. So there are two main clientele in that market segment. We also very similarly, when you look at other verticals, construction or engineering firms, corporate agriculture is another big vertical. I think one of the things that I answered in the questionnaire is that the biggest thing that impresses me every day is that just application after application, after application keeps coming around , we just sold the drone it’s going to be used for low atmospheric weather research, which is something we had not done before. We’re selling several to validate different types of communications equipment. So it’s not necessarily performing a data acquisition mission, as you would think of it like taking pictures or video, it’s more proving that you can actually communicate in a reliable fashion.

Richard Miles:

Got it. So this year 2020, which we’re recording this episodes have been a tough year for a lot of companies, but for you all, it appears that it’s been pretty good in the sense that you’ve hit a couple of big milestones. I saw you got a grant from the Florida Israel innovation partnership, and then also significant investment later in the year from the venture fund. Tell us, what does the grant that you got for the Florida Israel partnership? It was to develop a communications platform, right? Something like that. Give us a few details about that.

Trevor Perrott:

Sure. So the grant was a little bit about the program. It’s an into stimulate economic activity between Florida and Israel. And we had an existing supplier that made a piece of communications hardware that we were using in the UAV. But some weaknesses with the current state-of-the-art are different frequencies will get blocked out by different things. For example, some frequencies get highly absorbed by vegetation because vegetation contains a lot of water. Other frequencies do not do well with terrain. They cannot bounce over Hills and mountains. So what we’re doing with mobile ACOM is developing a resilient communication system. That’s closer to frequency agnostic. And what that means is if you have frequency, A, B, a nd C, the same information is being shot down all three, but on the receiving end if you got a third of the message on frequency, a, a third on B and a third on C , we can actually rejoin all of those pieces and still get the information on the other side. So it’s just a way of reducing data loss over long range communications. Which are going to be key to making UAV’s stay for i n commercially viable.

Richard Miles:

Tell me what the partnership looks like. Do members of your team, are they in Israel or vice versa or the Israelis over in , Daytona Beach? Is this real time limited? Is this an agreement that you’ll work together for a certain amount of time, or is this indefinite where you’re working on a product development or software development that will eventually result in some sort of end use?

Trevor Perrott:

The end goal here is that our teams in Daytona Beach and Mobili Comms team is near Tel Aviv and Israel. And we’re kind of, co-developing what will eventually be a communications product. So this is not just R and D for fun. And it’s R and D to commercial lots .

Richard Miles:

Trevor, if you could just, for the benefit of our listeners, what are some applications that either you’re doing now or you think are possible say in the next couple years that are intuitively obvious to people in terms of applications of UAVs or drones.

Trevor Perrott:

There’s really starting to be a huge opening and environmental applications. So a lot of people don’t realize this, but the petroleum industry has tremendous problems with leaks in the pipelines. And it’s not just fluids, it’s gases . So how can you cost effectively patrol millions of miles of infrastructure and get an idea for where our methane leaks coming from? How much is it leaking? What’s going to be the cost to fix it. The current workflow is drive a truck down the right away and look for defects. That doesn’t sound that expensive, but when you carry that over, as I said, millions of miles, that’s one that I think is really interesting to see. So there are certain payloads, we call them sniffer payloads. They literally have air pass through them looking for different compounds. And from empirical data, you can kind of draw a line between, okay, if I saw this many parts per million at this distance, from the pipeline, then the leak is approximately X pounds of methane an hour.

Richard Miles:

Wow. That’s fascinating. Does this sort of capability, even in theory, could you do it over an underwater pipeline as well as a way to detect leakage? Or is that a little bit beyond the horizon at this point?

Trevor Perrott:

So underwater applications, there’s a lot of challenges. First of all, underwater communications is just a pain. You typically get stuck using extremely low frequency communications. And as you can get information from A to B, but you can’t get very much. So the higher, the frequency, typically the higher, the data rate, the lower, the frequency, the further away you can speak, but the less you can send at a time think morse code versus a phone call to kind of give you an analogy. So gas leaks, underwater, the gases do not disperse the water on the same way they do in the air, different fluid rules if you will.

Richard Miles:

Trevor, let’s talk a little bit about the company, your development of it. I noticed in August, you got a pretty significant investment from a venture fund in Florida. What part of your day, what part of your week is spent now talking to investors and as opposed to your engineers, is that a big part of your job now is finding that capital as your company starts expanding?

Trevor Perrott:

Well, I believe I’m probably in the minority of CEOs where as part of the transaction that you’re referring to, we got a couple of new directors that are just absolute all-stars and have really lightened my load in the pursuit of other sources of capital. So that freed me up, the name of the game for me is racking the revenue number as high as I can. And one of the things about this kind of a business where it does take investment capital to get it going is that capital gets capital is the name of it. So if you can get the investor capital, then you can get the revenue. If you get the revenue the nation, you have more investor capital. And then the, so goes the engine, but kind of like a pull start on a lawnmower if you never get the first spark. And it’s kind of hard to, because of the turnover.

Richard Miles:

Well , you are in an enviable position because the common complaint from a lot of startup CEOs is that here you are spending 90% of your time in design development, doing that first prototype, and then boom, you make it big. And all of a sudden that CEO has got to be on the road, hustling to get the resources, to develop the company and keep going. And it’s a little bit of shock because it’s a different world entirely. So the fact that you have some board members that can help you do that is fantastic because otherwise you would hit a sort of design and production bottom up pretty quickly. If one person is trying to do it all. I’d really like to explore a bit about your development as an entrepreneur, because clearly it sounds like you know what you’re doing and learned quite a bit. You’re a relatively young guy. Of course, the older I get, everyone looks a little bit younger to me. So you’re probably not as young as I think you are, but you started and founded and running a mid-sized company now. Tell us about your journey as an entrepreneur. I know you grew up in a small town in Illinois in the middle of a cornfield as he put it, and your dad was a carpenter. Your mom was a teacher and you learned how to mill metal from your grandfather. So tell us about that experience growing up, how you think it shaped you in terms of who you are now growing up in that hands-on environment. And bonus question is, were you a good student in school? So I know it’s a big question, but lets start there.

Trevor Perrott:

Let me hit the bonus question first, if you measure by my grades alone, I was an excellent student, but if I’m being honest, I would say, no, I wasn’t. And what I’m getting at with that is I would feel that generally speaking, I was blessed with a pretty sharp mind and I never had to study, never had do this, just did not have to put in nearly as much effort to yield the same result as some of my classmates. And I’m not saying that to boast. I’m saying that as when I got to college, it kind of kicked my butt because I went straight from high school into engineering school and it was night and day. So coming back to the other points that you asked about the hands-on environment, I think was very essential to who I am. It may terrify some people, but I’m going to say it anyway. You would be amazed at how many people will not just get into engineering school, but graduated, still having never changed the oil on the car. And what I’ve learned is that that basic skillset of having to fix things, having to build things, whatever is not something that’s natural. So in the business context, I’ve had to be extremely selective about the people that they come into the organization. And a lot of it has been focused on. Have you ever built something before? Have you ever had to do the colloquial square peg in the round hole problem and were you successful? So, the nice thing about being in a cornfield I guess, is that you get to experiment with a bunch of things that you wouldn’t be able to do in the city environment. I’m a piro at heart. I love to blow things up. And I think doing that in the country is a blessing you can’t pick up in the study environment.

Richard Miles:

Are your grandfather and father still living?

Trevor Perrott:

My father is, my grandfather passed a few years ago.

Richard Miles:

Had you already you started the company before your grandfather passed away?

Trevor Perrott:

About a year before he died. Yes.

Richard Miles:

Alright. I’m sure he must’ve been very proud to see that sort of hands-on training come to fruition. Number of years later.

Trevor Perrott:

You got to hear about several failures and that first year, how much prompting was there? I’m not sure.

Richard Miles:

Well, grandparents are usually good at hiding their worries. So maybe he was worried, but in the end you certainly proved them right in starting and running your own company, Trevor, what have been your biggest surprises? What were your expectations when you founded the company and then what would have been those big surprises ? Is there anything you’ve looked back on and said, man, I was totally wrong about that. And then if you’d like to share any big failures early on, and what did you learn from them?

Trevor Perrott:

So cards on the table, this is the first venture back company that I have been involved with. And I would say the biggest weakness that I walked in with that I think I’ve turned into a strength is I was actually really weak in finance. I did not have a lot of understanding about how to control and articulate financial mechanisms to get a particular objective accomplished. I kind of have taken myself to school a little bit on corporate finance, a lot of reading, a lot of textbook greeting on corporate finance and one of the most important lessons, curve balls, that I’d say hit me definitely the first year and a half of the company is you have to be extremely judicious on who you allow to advise you. Because one of the things that I’ve learned is that I was actually getting fed a lot of what makes perfect sense, but it’s still not true about how to start this kind of a company . The best example I have for that is that the first business plan I ever read from this company said, I’m going to need about two and a half million dollars of capital. I’m going to need three years and it is impractical and hazardous to try and do it a different way. And what I found myself getting into was we raised capital $25,000 at a time. And we were in this perpetual cycle of a little bit of revenue, a little bit of investor capital and the peace meal, very, very nearly killed us. So I think that the big lesson for me is you really got a stick to your guns about there is a minimum amount of capital you need to get going and don’t put your customers on the hook if you can’t get a hold of it. So that’s something that was definitely a learning experience for me .

Richard Miles:

So one thing that founders of companies get asked to do, and certainly a successful companies is to speak to students and you probably already have had that experience. But if you haven’t, you will soon, whether it’s a bunch of bright high school students or engineering or business students in college, what would be some pearls of wisdom that you would dispense if you have somebody similar, like it’s say a first-year engineering student at some university is saying, wow, I really admire what you’ve done. I want to do something like that. What would be your advice from that angle? Say a bright 12th grader or a freshman or sophomore at an engineering or a business program at a university?

Trevor Perrott:

Well, believe it or not, I don’t have a whole lot of great things to say, because to do the kind of company that I did, it was very capital intensive. The things we sell are expensive, which is good, except you also need a lot of capital to build it in the first place. So what that really means is I think I commented to you in the questionnaire that you got to do things like take a second mortgage on your house and max out your card. And I do not come from a bunch of money, but I’m the son of the teacher and a carpenter. Now I know there are people in this world that are far worse off than I am. Well , let’s just say we weren’t sitting on 2 million in cash to put into a business endeavor . So you have to walk into this and you have to really, really ask yourself, will I literally bet the farm to do this? And if the answer is no, then don’t start, don’t waste anybody else’s time, including your own, because you can always make more money, but time when it’s gone, it’s gone. So some of the risks that I took or so large and still continued to be pretty big actually, then I’m just not so sure that it’s for everybody. And I think our culture, we like to glorify entrepreneurship a lot, like universities have entire centers of entrepreneurship established. And I think that we really have to be more honest culturally with entrepreneurs. Like one of the comments that I also made is that founding CEOs are not overpaid. If they take all of those risks and then they end up absolutely killing it, extremely high risk, extremely high reward. I just think we have to be more honest culturally with entrepreneurs. And what really goes into that because a lot of times entrepreneurs are so busy that they never sit down to tell you exactly how high the stakes were.

Richard Miles:

Those are great observations, Trevor, and got me thinking you’re right. There is a way in which popular culture and university programs and so on have kind of made entrepreneurship seem safer than it is, or like less risky than it is. And they hype the exciting part of it, right? But not the potential downsides. And it also strikes me too, that there’s this continuum between risk tolerance, where you’re willing to try new things, but also kind of gut confidence. Right? I imagine you wouldn’t do something like take out a second mortgage unless you had high confidence in the product, and the idea you’re developing was really solid. You didn’t just take a flyer and like, eh , maybe this work may be a wall and I’m guessing you told yourself, I know this is going to work. I just got to find the path there.

Trevor Perrott:

Yeah. The thing that has driven me to really keep my foot on the gas is every now and again, I’ll see a video clip of a guy hanging out of a helicopter, working on a power line. And I know the stats about how risky his job is. And I just shake my head and say, there has got to be a better way. There has to be. And there’s 8% of every seat we put in the ground is lost to something preventable, poor irrigation, some disease that we didn’t know about that ended up eating the whole field. If the world’s food consumption is going to double between now and 2050, how the hell are you going to solve that problem? If 8% of what you plant now is lost . So there’s a lot of very, very global, very, very real problems that what we’re working on will solve. And sometimes I have to set my own team down and say things like we are going to have a lot of problems this week, but we are paid to solve them. We are paid problem solvers . So the way I tried to describe it as my job is ultimately leading people into a love affair with problem solving. Because if you do not have this passion to just go from one problem to the next to the next to the next, it will overwhelm you.

Richard Miles:

That’s a great quote, I love it. Leaving people in the love affair with problem solving . I remember talking to another CEO once of a startup company. And he said that he had to strike the right balance in sharing updates on the company, how it was doing with the employees, but not too much because what he found was if he, every day sort of gave an update, like here’s our cashflow , here’s our burn rate. They were getting totally stressed out and they couldn’t concentrate on the work anymore. So he decided I need to dial back on the transparency for their sake. So you’re honest with them. You tell them where you are, but you don’t necessarily have to share every single up and down every single day, because you don’t want the people under you to have unrealistic picture, but you also need to give them that room to focus. I imagine that happens with you as well, right? You don’t want them to be too distracted by everything that comes across your desk .

Trevor Perrott:

Absolutely. I have two co-founders and one of the growing pains of 2020 has been listen, guys, I’m not trying to hide anything from you, but for you to be effective and do the role that the company needs you to do, I can not bog you down with every single issue that comes across my desk, nor do I want you to bog me down with every single thing that comes across your desk. Ask yourself, do I need him? And if the answer is, yes, I need him. Then you’d call every time. But if you don’t then handle it yourself, that’s been something that in our core team, we’ve really had the work on this year, especially with all the moving parts. You talk about that I’m in an enviable position in a lot of ways. That’s very true, except we are still expected to perform. Our customers still expect us to be there. The product still has to work right. The revenue has got to be where it needs to be. There are very real things where the buck stops somewhere. And I guess that’s what me.

Richard Miles:

Trevor, one final question, you certainly have gotten off to a great start. Where do you see the company where to see Censys Technologies? Let’s say in five years?

Trevor Perrott:

Well, in five years, I want to be one of the companies that was responsible for mass market adoption of commercial drones. I want to be in that large middle ground between not really quiet household like Amazon yet, but people see our logo. It’s not novel. We’re trying to build a multi-billion dollar company here and that’s no small feat is going to take more investor capital. It’s going to take a lot of wins on the commercial front to get there, but I truly believe we can get there that there is a well , that is deep enough for that condition to be true. I always ask myself, okay, this thing that we’re about to go do, if we got 1% of 1% of the total market share, is it still a big number? And so long as that answer is yes, then we go forward. I just think that I can lead an effort where we control a few percentage points of the market. And if we do that and you’re talking in billions, how many people are happily employed because of that? How many people aren’t on the unemployment line because of that? How many people then die in a helicopter this year? Because of that, there’s some very real metrics that I think we can put a dent in.

Richard Miles:

Well, I’m certainly off, like I said to a very good start. And I think it strikes me that you benefit highly from being in a highly competitive market. Because as you said, you can’t rest. I mean, the market demands certain things and your company needs to have that revenue and so on. And it’s a market accountability. That’s I think going to make you grow. That’s where I take back what I said earlier. Maybe you shouldn’t spend any time doing motivational speaking at all because that’s usually the one sign , right? When a CEO has gone wrong and they become a celebrity CEO and they quit running their companies, you probably shouldn’t do that yet. But Trevor, thanks for being on the show today. Really appreciate your insights and wish you the best of luck.

Trevor Perrott:

Well, I really appreciate the invitation again, man . Thank you so much. And let me know when the podcast goes, live.

Richard Miles:

Will do.

Outro:

Radio Cade is produced by the Cade Museum for Creativity and Invention located in Gainesville, Florida. Richard Miles is the podcast host and Ellie Thom coordinates, inventor interviews, podcasts are recorded at Heartwood Soundstage, and edited and mixed by Bob McPeak. The Radio Cade theme song was produced and performed by Tracy Collins and features violinist, Jacob Lawson.

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