Did you know that drone use was commonly employed as far back as the Vietnam War? This was the simple fact that sparked a million dollar idea in 15-year-old Aonghus Stevens.
Now, at age 23, Aonghus sits as Chief Technology Officer of Australia’s largest drone service company. We caught up with the young entrepreneur to discuss his big idea and its rocketing success. But we’ll let him tell you all about it…
THE UPSIDE: Can you tell us how your company came about?
Aonghus Stevens: I first got into drones in 2009. I was in year 10 at school and was reading about the Vietnam War; that’s when drones were first seriously used. I did some research and saw that drones were being used a fair bit in the US for agriculture. For a bit of fun, I thought I’d reach out and see if a few companies would let me sell their products. It kind of snowballed from there.
“I started a business and was trying to sell half a million dollar drones without an ABN number and using my school email address.”
TU: You were so young; whom did you plan on selling your drones to?
AS: I hadn’t really figured that out yet. I was still using my school email until a prospective customer told me that it seemed a bit ‘dodgy’!
My dad got involved and helped me out quite a bit. He saw a lot of potential in drones and we ended up getting exclusive supplying rights in Australasia for 14 companies. Our drones started at $30,000 and went up to about half a million dollars. We did around $1 million in revenue in its first year.
TU: What would you use a half a million-dollar drone for?
AS: One of the drones we sold was to environmental groups searching for wild life and poachers. That drone has an endurance of about 16 hours and can travel to about 180km.
TU: Can you tell me a bit more about the technology you’re using?
AS: As a business we sell data outcomes to clients. To get that data outcome we use different technologies, whether its photos, videos, infrared, or laser. Every drone has a different payload and does a different thing. For more bespoke things like infrared or laser, the drones have to be a bit more tailored in their design.
TU: What would you use the infrared or laser drones for?
AS: The infrared can be used for renewables like solar or wind tower inspection. Solar is a good example because you can’t see a ‘dud’ solar panel with a naked eye, but you can see it with an infrared.
Lidar is highly accurate 3D mapping. It has this cool capability that uses laser scanning to show the surface model of a densely forested area.
So for mining, for example, if you’re doing revegetation, you can actually see if there is erosion under the tree line. The time saved from this kind of technology is incredible. What might take 6 guys one month to survey can be done in a day with a drone. The cost savers on paying us for just one day are quite significant.
TU: How quickly is the technology changing?
AS: In the lower end of the market where we work with real estate and insurance the technology moves quite quickly because of the lower value offered. There’s not too much difference in them in terms of the image capabilities, but what really changes is the battery life. There’s quite a bit of movement in that space with companies out of China, so the rate of development is quite significant.
In the higher end of the market development is a bit slower but when you’re spending half a million dollars on a laser scanning drone, you’d hope it was a little bit slower! (laughs)
TU: Do you have training programs to train the people who are potentially being replaced by your work?
AS: We have relationships with a couple of training companies training people in an actual certificate in drone use. We operate drones, but we’re not a drone business – we’re a data business. So getting people from non-drone backgrounds is good for us and we like to train people.
TU: You’re quite young and you’ve done a lot of this on your own. How is that in the industry?
AS: It used to be quite difficult because it wasn’t really an industry. Even today we’re making the industry along with some others. When we first came into the industry we’d spend our first few hours with a client educating them on what drones were, whereas now we’re educating them on how to use drones effectively within their business. They know a lot more about it.
As for being young, people trust me on the technology but they might not trust me on the business side. So in terms of executing the project, they’re happy for me to do that but when it comes to paying a significant amount of money, they’re happy to do that if there are other people in the room (laughs).
“I love working with drones, it’s really interesting, but I see myself doing something else in the future.“
TU: What would you be doing if you weren’t working with drones?
AS: That’s a really good question. I’ve just finished a Bachelor of Science at Sydney University, doing biology, and I’m in my second semester of Masters of Applied Finance. I’d be doing something finance related and that’s probably what I’ll do after drones. I love working with drones, it’s really interesting, but I see myself doing something else in the future.
TU: What’s the best piece of advice you could give your 15 year old self?
AS: Oh goodness me, what would I say to my younger self?
I think the thing I found most funny as I’ve gotten a bit older is seeing how clueless I was when I was younger. I started a business and was trying to sell half a million dollar drones without an ABN number and using my school email address. So I think the advice I would give to myself, or somebody else who’s young is to just do it. Don’t be afraid of it, because it all figures itself out.