Taking Flight With Up Sonder

We had the opportunity to interview Derek Waleko, CEO and founder of Up Sonder, the startup paving the way for affordable drone services.

Q: Can you tell us a bit about yourself and Up Sonder?

A: I’m the Co-founder and CEO of the Los Angeles-based drone services marketplace, UpSonder.com. Businesses use Up Sonder to book qualified drone pilots in their direct area for aerial data on projects in the real estate, oil & gas, and the architecture, engineering, & construction industries.

I have a love for the sky and am an FAA certified commercial drone pilot. Before turning my hobby into a career, I traveled the world living in Paju, South Korea; Barcelona, Spain; and Manhattan, New York. My travels led me to investment banking where I learned about what made a good company and how successful management teams operate. All of which has provided valuable insight I keep with me today with my own company, Up Sonder. Originally from Texas, I grew up on my family's ranch raising cattle and attended Texas Tech University where I met my wife, Sandy. Today I live in Los Angeles with her and our daughter Waverley and son Thatcher.

Q: When was Up Sonder first launched and what gave you the idea for it?

Up Sonder was first launched as a company in October of 2015, and our marketplace for drone services went live in March of 2017. I first came up with the idea on my family ranch in Texas. One day my mother, who has a debilitating illness that restricts her movement, ran out of her medication. I thought to myself this is something a drone could solve--flying out to get her medicine. A future where people rely on drones is coming and the impact they bring could be bigger than any piece of hardware we have seen before.

Q: More and more companies, including Amazon, are getting into using drones and seeing more benefits in doing so. What do you think the benefits of using a drone are over the more traditional methods of providing the services that Up Sonder offers? Are there any drawbacks? If so, how do you deal with them?

Simply put, drones are democratizing aerial data and transport by making everything less expensive. Just 10 years ago, oil and gas companies that wanted aerial photos would have to hire a helicopter, and real estate agents, and a camera crew for thousands of dollars. Today with drones you can get the same photos for a few hundred dollars. The price savings are enormous. Everyday drones are taking to the sky across the world saving businesses millions by gathering data and transporting materials at a fraction of the price that it cost before. 

The challenges my industry faces are with regulations and flight times. The regulations are falling in our favor as there is strong support from the FAA, White House, and the private sector. It is not a matter of if, but when. Up Sonder sits on the CTA (Consumer Technology Association) Drone Policy working group addressing federal and state drone regulation.

Regarding flight times, we are developing the “if-Network” in marketplace 2.0 that will allow 3rd party drones to extend flight times. “if” stands for infinity flight. We are working to interconnect rooftops by fitting them with wireless drone charge systems. Right now we are developing/fine-tuning the low-cost precision navigation that can be used at scale. Amazon has the same problem as the rest of our industry - radius restrictions due to poor flight times. Today, if Amazon could send you your online order via drone, you’d have to live within 20 miles of a fulfillment center. Not many people do. Companies, like Amazon (AMZN) and others like Uber (UBER), Domino’s (DPZ), etc. that will use autonomous drones to service their customers, will tie into Up Sonder’s infrastructure (if-network) and be able to extend their flight range, as well as manage routes and recharging. This allows for more customers to be served and fewer drones in the sky reducing drone clutter because now a single drone can do more.

Q: Where and how do you find pilots for your drones?

A: Up Sonder has built a network of thousands of FAA-certified drone pilots across the United States that are available for hire on our marketplace. Whether a company hires a pilot through our website or asks us for assistance for bigger projects, 100% of our missions go to our network of drone pilots.

Up Sonder has put in years of effort to grow our pilot network and is proud that we can service virtually any location in the United States. All of Up Sonder’s pilots have passed the FAA Part 107 Test and are fully certified to fly drones for commercial purposes.

Q: With a company that is as technologically reliant as Up Sonder is, safety and security are often areas of concern. How does Up Sonder ensure the safety and security of its drones and clients?

A: Safety, security and legality are things that are top of mind for Up Sonder. This is why all of Up Sonder’s pilots have passed the FAA Part 107 Test and are fully certified to fly drones for commercial purposes. To ensure the safety and legality of our drone operations, Up Sonder verifies all of our pilots with the FAA. Up Sonder also verifies each drone is registered with the FAA.

Before we fly every mission, Up Sonder goes through a rigorous process to check airspace authorizations to determine the ability to fly a particular mission. We also follow all FAA regulations on commercial drone flight, which are laid out under Part 107 rules.

Additionally, every time our pilots put a drone up into the air for commercial use, we require that the operation be covered by insurance to ensure the safety of all involved.

Q: What do you think was the greatest achievement that Up Sonder has accomplished thus far? Were there any major roadblocks? If so, what and how did you overcome them?

I am incredibly excited that Up Sonder now has FAA-certified drone pilots in over 800 cities across the United States that can provide drone service to businesses. Because of this, Up Sonder is well-positioned to meet the growing demand for drone services. To give context to that, in 2018 the number of commercial drones increased by 170% and the global market for drone services is expected to grow by $55 billion in the next 5 years!

Up Sonder is also incredibly proud of our equity crowdfunding campaign on Republic that makes us the first drone services company that offers its pilots and the general public a chance to own equity in a drone startup. We believe everyone should be able to benefit from the coming drone revolution. This is why we are raising money through a platform like Republic, which itself is on a mission to democratize startup investing. 

One issue for the drone industry as a whole is regulation. Drones are disrupting a part of this world that hasn’t been disrupted in decades, the sky. While a lot of progress has been made in recent years, there are still a lot of questions about how to properly integrate drones into controlled airspace. To err on the side of caution the FAA has applied strict parameters on how drones can operate, for instance not allowing flights that go beyond visual line of sight or over people without a special waiver. But a time is coming soon where these restrictions will be removed. The FAA, the Department of Transportation and the drone industry are all supporting and working together to make this a reality.

Drones are no more dangerous than birds and weather conditions but unfortunately sensationalized news reports make them seem more dangerous than they are.

Q: With more investors, what do you hope to do differently, change, or improve?

Overall, we have big plans for the drone services industry. We want to build a marketplace that offers drone services with just a few clicks of a mouse and that can adapt to autonomous drones in the future. We want this marketplace to unlock the power of drones for both businesses and individuals.

Regarding our investors, it means the Up Sonder family is growing. We are extremely excited and proud to see the hundreds upon hundreds of investors that support us. I am looking forward to communicating with our investor group and leveraging their networks and talents. It’s an open-door policy for our investors. They are going to see it all with frequent updates and notifications. 

Q: Is there anything else you would like our readers to know about Up Sonder?

Up Sonder is working on the second generation of our marketplace (2.0 - “if network”) that can meet the increasing demand for autonomous drone operations. This will include

  • Simple one-click access to autonomous drone services, everything from deliveries to inspections.
  • A network of charging stations to power autonomous drone operations with the initial starting locations built directly onto our members’ rooftops. Our vision is to ensure all smart homes of the future are part of the Up Sonder autonomous network.
  • A proprietary precision landing/positioning technology, currently in testing, with low-cost RTK GPS that makes it possible for a fleet of autonomous drones to use the charging network to increase flight times and service more customers.

Q: How can interested investors learn more?
A: Up Sonder is currently conducting an equity crowdfunding campaign on Republic. Find out more at Republic.co/up-sonder.

Disclosure: Startup Watch is a platform TalkMarkets provides for startup company executives to discuss their companies in depth. TalkMarkets provides a suggested list of questions but the format ...

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Danny Straus 3 years ago Member's comment

So if I invest, what kind of return could I expect?

Derek Waleko 3 years ago Member's comment

While our campaign is now over you can see more details about this here: https://republic.co/up-sonder

Adam Reynolds 3 years ago Member's comment

So do you think you will end up competing with #Amazon? Or being acquired by them? $AMZN.

Derek Waleko 3 years ago Member's comment

Adam, Up Sonder is taking a different approach to drones than Amazon. We are not creating or operating delivery drones, but we are developing a charing network to power drone deliveries. Also, we are providing drone service to various industries from energy to real estate, something Amazon is not doing.

Terrence Howard 2 years ago Member's comment

Any updated on how your company has done? Planning on another crowdfunding campaign?

Adam Reynolds 3 years ago Member's comment

It sounds like a very cool company. Are you accepting more investors to your crowdfunding campaign?

Harry Goldstein 3 years ago Member's comment

@[Derek Waleko](user:100678), how much are you looking to raise in total, and how much have you raised to date?

Derek Waleko 3 years ago Member's comment

We just finished our equity crowdfunding campaign on Republic. It brought it over $360,000. For more info, go here: https://republic.co/up-sonder

Harry Goldstein 3 years ago Member's comment

That's very impressive. Congratulations. Does that mean it's too late to invest?

Ayelet Wolf 3 years ago Member's comment

I have to admit, startups rarely impress me this company found a real need, and has an ambitious plan in plan. It also looks like they've already raised quite a bit in their crowdfunding campaign. I'll definitely be taking a closer look.