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16 min read

Ep. 3: Making Automation Work In The Real World

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Reese Mozer is the CEO of American Robotics. He's the brains behind the only FAA-approved autonomous drones. His technology is being leveraged today in agriculture, defense -- and construction. 


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episode 3: 

Making automation work in the real world

With Reese mozer

Reese joins us today to talk about how the drone technology he and his team have developed is leveraged in the construction and aggregates industry. We'll also discuss his thoughts on where automation currently stands in the industry. 

Tune in, or read the transcript below, to learn more about how automation and drone technology are impacting the construction and aggregates industry (transcript edited for length and clarity). 



Drones and robotics are new to the construction industry.


Can you give us some background about American Robotics and what your company does?


Reese: My name is Reese Mozer and I’m CEO and co-founder of American Robotics. We've developed a fully automated drone system that's capable of continuous unattended operation. Drones have been talked about for a long time as a potential tool for all sorts of industries, including the construction space. 

When we looked at all these potential use cases and in markets, we found a pretty glaring problem and that is people just don't have time to be drone pilots to the level that's required to make this technology useful. Everyone has other things to do. They have their normal jobs, and going around and flying drones and processing data, and doing all that other stuff is really not practical. So we developed a system to solve that problem, which is the Scout system. 

We've automated  everything that's required to do what the drone is there to do, which is not just flying to be this kind of cool toy, but this system product is here to do a job, which is to collect data, process that data, analyze it, and give you some sort of information. 

All of those steps have been automated with our technology. You only have to focus on what.comes out of that data, which is the point of drones to begin with. 


Your company works in a couple different industries -- agriculture, industrial defense, and we know from last season on the podcast talking with David BoArdman, that you work with his company, Stockpile Reports in the bulk materials industry. 


Is that the only way that your drones are being leveraged right now in the construction space, or are there other ways that you're seeing the technology being utilized today?


Reese: In general, it's still pretty nascent. With automated drones there were a number of challenges that had to be met. We only met very recently to actually make this a reality. 

One category is making automation work in the real world, which there's a whole conversation around that -- long story short: it's really difficult and that's what we've been spending the last five years in research and development, trying to make that system reliable for people in the real world. 

The second part is to get it approved by the FAA to actually function this way. So without getting into too much detail about FAA regulations and bureaucracy, the default rule is that a person has to be looking at the drone any time it's flying, so until that was overcome, automated drones weren't really a reality.

American Robotics in January of this year became the first and still is the only drone manufacturer that's been given this approval. We're in a really unique place right now where we can start to deploy this technology with initial customers in the construction space. 

Customers, like David Boardman and Stockpile Reports are some of our great early adopters of this technology in the bulk material space. We're also seeing this technology being requested in other industries that we work with, like the energy space that has a construction element to their project. So for example, large solar farms. A request we're seeing pretty frequently now is “we want this system to monitor the construction phase of a new solar farm.” 

Once it's built, then actually monitoring the operation of the solar farm. I think you know there is really an endless list of markets and use cases, and I think that can actually be one of the challenges here. We want to make sure that we give enough attention to each one of these use cases. It's going to be gradual over time that you start to see this technology adopted by more and more customers.


With the Scout system, which is the autonomous system approved by the FAA, you're able to remove the human element that has been present in the past. 


What does that mean for the clients that you work with, especially when you compare that with drone systems that are not autonomous and require that human element?


Reese: Simply put, one is practical and one isn’t. Drones have been a nice little experiment for the past decade. But if we actually want to see these things scale and be implemented to the extent that they should be, which is pretty much daily use across all of these assets over the world, I mean, we're not even close to that yet, but that's where this is going. 

Automation is required because people don't have the time to sit around and pilot drones 24/7. They have other things to do. This is meant to be a supplement. This is meant to be a tool that makes people's lives easier, not harder. 

Automation and everything around that topic is really key to making this work.


I've heard you say that you know that automation is required to scale and for growth. As you're entering new industries, are you getting pushback or questions about replacing the people that do that work now? 


Taking bulk materials as an example, are people out there actually measuring stockpiles? What happens to those people? Do you view this as an opportunity to reskill or to elevate talent within organizations, or maybe remove a vendor that people have been working with to fly autonomous drones, non autonomously? 


Reese: I think it really is a supplement. It is an enhancer to what people are already doing. If you take the example of people walking around and measuring stockpiles, those are the same people that are going to be interpreting this data because they know it best. Right? Our system automates a collection and processing analysis, but it still requires a human to interpret that and then act on it.

The topic of robots replacing people is something that's been common for a long time and it's understandable. It's tough to remember that they're good at very narrow, well-defined tasks. But as far as replacing what happens in the complex real world, that's still very much science fiction. 

This is a tool to make people's lives easier.

A lot of the use cases we're looking at if you take the example of monitoring stockpiles, you know that that happens periodically. But what our system represents is the ability to do it, likely tenfold in terms of frequency and accuracy.

In many ways it's not something people are doing, apples to apples, today. It’s giving people a new tool. 


I love the idea of actionable data. A lot of data that gets generated today sits in a spreadsheet, collecting dust and isn’t leveraged by organizations.


What is the type of data that customers expect to come out  of a system like yours?


Reese: First off that, that's one of the reasons why we're trying to be diligent in the number of use cases and markets that we attack. Because we do want to validate every single use case and make sure it's actually being used and not just sitting in a spreadsheet somewhere. 

When you think about the potential use cases, the list is really long.vI think it's helpful to imagine it, and a useful phrase is, a digital twin. I think what this system represents is - and to use your analogy - a smartphone gives you real time access to all of your text messages and emails. And other software alerts. We want to do the same thing for physical assets. That's what this system represents. It represents digitizing the physical world. To put it simply: tracking and managing where your assets are everyday. 

You know all the use cases that come out of that, but it's about giving you that awareness of: this is how much I have in a stockpile. This is where my equipment is. This is where our problem is. This is where a leak is. I: think you know the use cases that come out of that are pretty obvious.


When you think about the customers that you do work with today, what's the breakdown? Are you largely working directly with companies? or do you oftentimes work with third-party vendors that are offering this service, this robot as a service to their clients?


Reese: Mostly it's the former. Typically we're working directly with customers.

Stockpile Reports is a unique case. They really understood this technology before we met them and were looking for it and had the infrastructure set up to be the service provider to their customers. But in most cases, we are required to work pretty closely with our customers to understand all the things that we were talking about. That's how we like to do it.

We want to make sure that we're not dropping off half of a product to an end user, and typically that requires some pretty close engagement right now. I think as this system matures and then the use cases mature and we gather this large portfolio of case studies, I can see more of a service relationship forming, but we'll see. Right now it's about making sure that we get the relationship right with our initial set of customers.


Last mile visibility is at the forefront of challenges in the trucking and construction industry. It generates a lot of interest in the consumer sector. Suppliers or contractors want to know where the products are, And more and more technology is focusing on this. 


Do you view this sector as being similar -- that it started with consumers and is translating itself into a more commercial setting? Or are you seeing the innovations really happening at the commercial level? 


Reese: I think it's a bit of both. The inspiration and the frenzy in many cases around the drone space started in the consumer sector. It was born out of a hobbyist mentality. Or a hacker mentality, and that worked uh well in the consumer sector. But the threshold for what is good enough in the commercial space is quite different. That's what a lot of people got wrong -- they kind of oversold tech that wasn't really useful early on in the drone space. It's important to recognize the pretty clear differences between a consumer drone product and a commercial drum product. And, the tech requirements are just higher.

In the commercial sector right now a lot of the innovation is coming because that's where it's needed. 


When you think about working with new clients or people that are reaching out to you and don’t even know where to take the first step, do you have any recommendations for them  as they are thinking about whether this could be a helpful tool.


What are some of the conversations they should be having internally? Who should they be talking with on their team to figure out if now's the right time to think about expanding into this area?


Reese: We're always happy to have conversations with folks that are interested in it and that may be a good fit. Internally, you should ask yourself. Is this a fit for us? There are certainly use cases and there are settings that this technology is overkill. It's actually not the right thing for you.

I probably should have done this earlier for the audience, but just you know to give you a visual, it's a drone combined with a a base station of this large hangar that lives on basically a permanent basis, wherever it's going to operate. It'll operate ten times a day, every day, and that has a tremendous amount of power. But it can be overkill in certain situations. Either the area that you're surveying is too small or you know you're just not going to be there for that long. I think if you're looking at the construction space, a small construction job, probably not necessary for a system like ours, But if you have a massive construction site, that's going to be there for multiple years, that's where this system is going to shine. So you have to ask yourself some logistical questions up front. How big is my site? How frequently could I imagine or do I want to have this data on my site. Those questions will help point you in the right direction.


Working with clients, what should they expect thirty or sixty days in, and then a year in? What do you use as parameters and guidelines for what to really expect coming out of this system?


Does it take a while to build up the data that you're getting? Will you get reference points along the way that can influence their business decisions?


Reese: It depends on the use case. If we have been involved in a use case, or if it's something new for us, then you know that's going to be a learning experience for both sides. If it's something we've done before, then not only do we have experience, we'll probably have some software that's already written. It's going to depend a little bit on that.

Typically with any new customer, the initial engagement is one to three units, where they get to learn how the automation works. They get to integrate the software into their workflows to train some of their folks, and then it becomes a conversation of how is that going to scale across all of their assets? And with a lot of the customers we work with, especially in the energy industry, the capacity is in either the hundreds or thousands of units. So we're working with customers right now to prove out what the system looks like for them. With the goal of deploying this, for example, across every well pad in the United States and in the world. So that's where we're heading with a lot of our customers.


Your company is the only one approved by the FAA, correct? So as companies are evaluating if they need this fully autonomous solution, there's really only you to go to, which is a great spot to be in.


But if they're thinking about leveraging drones in general, there are a lot of companies that are playing in that space.


What are some of the ways that you think about trying to make sure that a customer is getting the right fit for their specific needs? and not another tool that they're going to be paying for and not really getting a ton out of?


Reese: I think everybody in your audience is going to be in the industrial commercial sector, and so within that realm, 90% of all markets and use cases within that sector require an automated system, which means at the moment they require us. Without any further analysis it is likely that the solution they require is ours, just by pure statistics. 

But, again, it goes back to how big is your need? I think a nice rule of thumb is if you're looking to collect data on a daily to weekly basis, for at least a year, over the same site, then you should probably look at our solution. That's a good starting point.

I would encourage people to be open minded, because like we said before, they may only be collecting data on whatever asset we're talking about once a month right now. That doesn't mean that's what it should be. That just means what has been done before because that's the labor capacity they had. Imagine if you had a daily assessment of your assets. How would that change your business? Start asking those types of questions.

People are starting to think about much more in the construction space. It's also a good time to do some investigation, because I would have to imagine that it does take a little bit of legwork to figure out if this is going to be the right system. So if it's in the back of your mind now, start forming those conversations early so that you can be set up.


With construction, which is so seasonal, you've got to be thinking about these things now.


Reese: Because our system is automated, we structure the sale of our system through a subscription fee. So this lowers the cost to our customers. The upfront capital cost lowers the

risk. You pay an annual subscription fee, especially for the data that the system collects, which lowers the barrier to entry for customers to try out the technology.


So much of the construction industry right now has relied on the human element because things change so quickly and things progress rapidly, or deteriorate quickly.


When you think about the application of this technology, how do you think about accommodating those inevitable changes that are going to happen in that industrial sector that you can't avoid?


Does the system allow for those changes? How quickly is it to be able to pivot when you've got this set up and ready to go?


Reese: As far as installation, it's meant to be installed in a location, for a long period of time. It just works better that way. But the system, you can change at any moment. Where you are imaging? At what altitude? What frequency? What resolution? That's the power of it. That’s all from your computer or your iPhone, and you could be anywhere in the world. So it's really flexible and customizable from that perspective. If your construction site changes or you want to look at this side of it versus outside of it, that's as easy as a couple of button clicks. That's what the system is supposed to do.


OK -- every podcast guest is getting our rapid-fire questions … Here we go! What is the biggest challenge that your business is up against today?


Reese: It's growing our manufacturing capacity and our operational capacity to meet this incredibly wide array of opportunities. It’s a really exciting problem to have. The whole industry was gained by that FAA approval, which we got, and lots of great things have been happening for our company since then. Right now we're really in a growth phase to try to meet all this demand. It's fun, but that's definitely our main challenge right now.


In terms of where you see the industry going in the next five years, do you have a prediction of of where you think this technology will be then?


Reese: That's all I do -- think about those things! I think the best way to answer that question is for people to imagine the scale of what this technology represents. Every asset, every mile of rail track, every construction site, every solar farm, every bulk materials yard are all eventually going to be monitored on a daily basis by automated systems. In the next five years... well we're at that inflection point right now.

The next five years are about execution to get there and I think we're going to start to see that hockey stick growth. In the commercial sector, it's going to be really exciting. I think it's going to unlock. We're going to be gathering data sets that have never been gathered before. I think it's going to unlock opportunities that we probably haven't even thought of yet. I think the technology that we're on the verge of right now is also one of those things that could be really appealing to the next generation of professionals, especially in the construction and agriculture space where there hasn't been that technology. 


If you could give any advice to someone who's thinking about coming into the industrial space, or even into the agriculture space, what should they get ready for? What should they be excited for?


Reese: I think it's a fascinating time to be in the industrial space. We're all about to get a lot more toys to play with, whether it's automated drones in the air or autonomous robotics on the ground. Everything's about to get a lot more intelligent. A lot more advanced. I think it's a fun time. 

One of the things that really draws us to this business is solving real world problems that matter. For all these industries that we rely on, which is no different than social media or something of that nature, we get excited about increasing the efficiencies of the construction industry or the mining industry or the energy space. It’s really going to make the biggest impact whether it's environmental or supply chain or economics. This is really where the next battle is going to be fought. And it looks fun. We're excited for it.


When you think about where you go for industry insights, whether that's technology or you're doing research about the different sectors that you serve, where are you going for that?


Reese: At this point, we're at least in our space, pretty much the bleeding edge. So we don't look to the news too much from that perspective. When we want to learn something new, typically directly for or with our customers, we're trying to get into the details of, of you know, the value proposition and the return investment for particular use cases, it's going to be tough to find in research that's really going to direct conversations with our users.


If you could see someone else interviewed on this podcast, who would that be?


Reese: That's a good question. I think there is going to be a teaming of autonomous drones and ground robots. There's been some talk about that. I wouldn't say too much action yet and I think that's because both disciplines are still trying to find their own way. But as things get more and more automated, you're going to sort of see that ecosystem come together. 

I would look to some of the ground robot companies like Boston Dynamics, who are doing things in this space.