Dick Zhang’s original plan for his startup, Identified Technologies, was to sell commercial drones. But a shift over the past year from a hardware-based model to a software-based one has proven a shrewd move for the young CEO and the company’s place in the drone industry.
The East Liberty-based company, founded in 2013, helps construction firms map out large work sites using self-piloted drones. With Identified technology, the area to be surveyed is programmed into a tablet, and the drone takes photographs and collects data, reducing the time it takes to survey a site before digging begins, sometimes cutting that time by 70 to 80 percent.
The Alpha Lab Gear alumnus realized that in addition to having a drone they could fly over a job site, construction companies also needed to be able to analyze the data his drones provided.
“That was a real need in the marketplace,” he said. “Like with any startup, we needed to be solving a problem people cared about.”
Rather than waiting for reports from a plane or putting boots on the ground to do the work, the client gets a 3-D map of the area in a matter of hours.
“For these big construction companies, their business is the dirt on the ground and the dirt they move,” Zhang said. A very large site can take weeks to fully survey, and moving the necessary pieces of equipment into the right areas is delayed until enough information is available.
“What we hear from clients is that they’re amazed by how much data they can capture so quickly.”
Blairsville-based contractor Bentley Development has used Identified’s drone mapping system on a large surface mining project in Somerset County.
Phil Shumaker, Bentley's vice president of operations, said Identified’s tech allowed the company to significantly reduce the time its survey team used to spend mapping large projects.
“In the past, it could take three to four weeks to capture and analyze the progress using traditional methods,” Shumaker said. “With Identified, we were able to map 180 acres in a couple of hours and receive the data the same evening.”
Identified has raised $3.5 million in venture capital in three rounds of funding. Zhang says being based in Pittsburgh has allowed Identified to tap into top talent in the robotics industry. And the with the recent boom in the Marcellus Shale, Zhang and his colleagues could drive just outside the city and get feedback right at job sites.
“We were able to interact with so many people in the construction industry, it was invaluable to get boots on the ground and learn directly from people in the field.”
In addition to construction companies, Identified’s software is used by energy companies to get data on difficult-to-explore sites like well pads and mines. And in 2015 the U.S. Golf Association called on the company to help them map trees and the rest of the terrain at the U.S. Open in Oakmont ahead of the tournament.
But it was a decision by the Federal Aviation Administration in August of 2016 that really paved the way for wider use of Identified’s automated system. A change to Part 107 of the FAA rules governing small unmanned aircraft lifted the requirement that drone operators be licensed pilots.
“Just to hit the ‘go’ button you had to prove you could fly a small plane,” Zhang said. “That really inhibited development.”
But now the test to receive a license to operate a drone is more akin to the written exam for receiving a driver’s license, making it much easier for small companies to use drone technology in their everyday workflow.
Zhang says it appears that as the practical applications for drones become more apparent, other rules are likely to evolve as well. “The trend from everything we can see is that regulations will become more reasonable and more fitting with the technology.”
He believes that the industry will continue to focus less on the building of drones and more on the practical applications, just as Identified did.
“It’s going to become less about the drones themselves, because there are a few vendors that build them for amazing price and quality, but now all the industry’s attention is shifting toward related hardware and services,” he said. “We’re moving away from the hardware, and to the solutions.”
Moving forward, Zhang said he wants Identified to continue to help clients gather as much data as possible from work sites. Its latest product, Truck IQ, is like a Fitbit for heavy equipment like trucks and bulldozers. It gathers data from the vehicles and combines it with the drones’ data to make sure work is being done as efficiently as possible.
“These companies only have the information they can see in their rearview mirror, they’re reacting to what happens,” Zhang said. “Now we’ve opened up the front end, so they can look through their windshield at what’s in front of them.”