UASUSA takes flight
Skip Miller doesn’t know where drones are going, but he’ll be along for the ride
by Tommy Wood on
LONGMONT — Skip Miller never set out to be an entrepreneur. In fact, it took him more than 40 years and four businesses to realize that he’d been one his whole life. The headquarters of UASUSA LLC, his company that manufactures and sells commercial unmanned aircraft systems, or drones, is adorned with trophies of companies past.
Miller proudly points at a Boulder Beer coaster on which a cup of coffee sits (he helped build the brewery from the ground up), and to a photograph of the paper napkin on which he drew the design for his first drone, the Tempest. Colorado small businesses are less likely to change health insurers for the upcoming year, even as they anticipate continued price increases, according to the second-annual Delta Dental of Colorado Small Business Survey.
He never got into any of his businesses — craft beer, land surveying, consumer products, now drones — with the thought of getting into business. He started with a vision and let that carry him.
“I just begin,” he said.
That, Miller said, is true entrepreneurship. You need more than capital and a business plan. You need a vision and the ability to ride it wherever the market takes you.
Entrepreneurship is more than just capital and an idea — it’s applying a vision in a way that no one has before and seeing it through, even if you have no clue where it might go.
“Jobs was an entrepreneur,” Miller said, holding up his iPhone. “The Wright brothers were entrepreneurs. They had no idea that we’d be going down to the Denver airport today to get on this giant thing that they would look at and say, ‘There is no way that can fly.’ They had no idea, and they started all that.”
UASUSA is growing exponentially — its revenue more than doubled over the previous year and is projected to do so again. Its growth is based on the idea that the commercial drone market in 2016 is where the smartphone market was in 2007, or where the airplane market was in 1903, and that, like Steve Jobs and the Wright brothers, UASUSA is the bellwether of its industry. There are nearly limitless applications for commercial drones, and once again Miller started a company without even realizing it.
A team from the University of Colorado’s aerospace engineering department contacted Miller six years ago because of his expertise building and flying model airplanes; Miller is a world champion remote-controlled airplane pilot. Skip Miller with one of his company’s unmanned aircraft. Jonathan Castner/For BizWest
The CU team was working on a project called VORTEX2, which studies supercell thunderstorms. Professors Brian Argrow and Eric Frew, the project leads, originally built the storm-chasing aircraft themselves, but they realized that they needed something more heavy-duty, beyond their production capabilities. Enter Miller. After he built the Tempest drone for Argrow and Frew, the three realized the vast potential for commercial drones, and they spun the project off into UASUSA.
“It’s a great example of CU generating spinout companies and working with them to create jobs,” Argrow said.
It seems like destiny that Miller’s latest company — and potentially his most successful one — involves designing, building and manufacturing aircraft. Miller’s father was a lifer with American Airlines as their head of airplane maintenance, and he groomed Miller to be an aeronautical engineer. As a kid, Miller chased down and collected the model airplanes that his dad flew.
Then he started building aircraft of his own; rudimentary stuff at around 4 years old, and more-advanced planes soon after. Miller built the first aircraft that he was proud of when he was 7 or 8. It was free-flight, no remote control, all balsa wood, tissue and a sticky substance called dope.
“Not the kind of dope you think,” he laughed.
It flew perfectly, up, up, up … and never stopped. Miller had put too much fuel in it, and it disappeared into the sky. The aircraft he builds now don’t have any balsa or tissue in them — kevlar, fiberglass and carbon fiber, instead — and they have more practical applications than a kid’s passions.
• CEO and founder: Skip Miller
• Employees: 14 locally
• 229 Airport Road, East Hangar Longmont, Colo., 80503
• Products: Commercial unmanned aircraft systems • 720-608-1827
Miller can go on and on about the uses for his drones. There are the agricultural uses, such as monitoring soil content and crop health, or searching for lost livestock. They can inspect power lines, which today is a dangerous job for low-flying manned flights. You can affix them with thermal sensors to look for lost hikers, and they’ll cover ground that regular search parties never could. Perhaps the most interesting application is that they can be programmed to follow herds of animals in Africa to monitor for poachers.
The drones can have magnetometers in the wings, LiDAR sensors for 3-D mapping and multispectral sensors. Miller doesn’t know which of these will take off, but he knows that something will. UASUSA is casting as wide a net as possible so it can stay at the forefront of wherever that is.
“The hole in the market was all of the market,” Miller said.
It seems as if the only obstacle in UASUSA’s path is the limits of its engineers’ imaginations. Well, that and the FAA’s tight restrictions on commercial drone flight. The government is concerned about amateur drone pilots — whom Miller calls “idiots flying where they shouldn’t” — interfering with manned flights. Pilots of helicopters or low-flying planes can’t see or hear approaching drones, but Miller said that his drone pilots can see, hear and avoid any manned flight.
“All the rules are being based around what’s going on inside the full-sized cockpit, and it really should be based around what’s going on on the ground,” he said. “We have an observer, and we have a pilot in command, and the pilot in command understands the regulations.”
During the 2013 Boulder floods, for example, Miller asked the FAA for permission to fly his drones over the affected area to gather data that he said could have benefitted Boulder for the next 20 years. They said no. As frustrating as that is, Miller understands that federal regulators often accept radical new technologies at a glacial pace. He chuckled as he relayed an anecdote about the first cars, back when automobiles shared the road with horses and buggies — someone had to walk in front of the car with a red flag to warn approaching horse-drawn carriages.
Miller wants to cooperate with the FAA to come up with safe and sensible regulations for commercial drone flight, and he’d be on regulatory panels if he wasn’t so concerned with running his business. And, slowly but surely, the feds are coming around. Argrow and his team at CU have received clearance to fly over 100,000 square miles of the Great Plains.
“We have by far the most certificates of authorization of any public university,” Argrow said.
Miller, too, sees how the perception of drones in changing. A few years ago, he and his wife were watching 60 Minutes after a Denver Broncos game. The program ran a story about Amazon’s new fleet of delivery drones, and, at first, Miller laughed at it. “Those guys are so full of…” he said to his wife, before trailing off. Then he realized that this was the best thing that could have happened for UASUSA. Amazon was changing peoples’ perception of drones.
But they weren’t pioneering the industry like the entrepreneur who never tried to be one. Miller had a vision and a market, and he’s pushing those into whatever the future of the drone industry is.
“I don’t know how big it is,” Miller said. “I know it’s huge.”