Startup Has a Higher Purpose in Funding a Flight School for Drones

8/12/14Follow @bvbigelow

[Updated 8/19/14 1:40 pm. See below.] The motivation for a Kickstarter campaign that San Diego-based Spark Aerial began last week is made almost comically manifest following a short introduction that includes some spectacular outdoor video shot from remotely operated drones.

It is a compilation of out-of-control drones, careening and crashing into rooftops, trees, lakes, and chasing their operators with buzzing multi-rotors in full-throttle roar.

As founders Radley Angelo, Kurt Selander, and Austin Hill explain, Spark Aerial intends to raise $5,000 to create an online “flight school” and Web-based resource for wannabe drone pilots and aspiring aerial cinematographers. As they explain, “Our goal here is simple: we want to teach the world how to have fun, fly safe, and capture amazing content.”

[Updated to show Spark Aerial reached goal] Spark Aerial exceeded its $5,000 target with more than three weeks remaining in its fund-raising campaign, according to a statement yesterday. The free video training series (with some premium content) is intended to emphasize flight safety, and would move from such basics as taking off for the first time to advanced piloting maneuvers like the buttonhook sweep, which enables a video camera to remain focused on one place while the drone circles around.

Spark Aerial logoThe founders, who are all recent graduates from UC San Diego’s Jacobs School of Engineering, say you’d be surprised at how often new drone owners try to fly their unmanned aircraft into fireworks shows and over football stadiums, outdoor concerts, parades, and other no-fly zones.

Perhaps more importantly, though, Spark Aerial’s Kickstarter campaign itself serves as an example in the use of rewards-based crowd-funding as a key tool in strategic marketing—a niche that San Diego-based Velocity Growth, which advised the campaign, was created to exploit.

“We looked at the training services campaign as an opportunity [for Spark Aerial] to reach some new customers, create some new sales and marketing channels, and as a way to establish them as an authority in the drone sector,” says Josh Baylin, who became the CEO of Velocity Growth about two months ago.

Baylin, who was previously an investor and Wall Street analyst, is taking over from founder Jeff Belk, the former Qualcomm executive who announced the formation of Velocity Growth in February. Belk conceived of Velocity Growth as a for-profit accelerator that provides expert guidance to startups specifically for rewards-based crowd-funding campaigns offered through websites like Indiegogo, Ramen, and Kickstarter.

“Velocity Growth makes money off of its strategic consulting, planning, and marketing services related to a company’s campaign,” Baylin says. The firm “makes more money should the campaign exceed its goals, thus aligning our interests with those of our clients [and] partners.”

If Spark Aerial can meet or exceed its $5,000 fund-raising goal, CEO Angelo says it would use the funding to complete development of the training videos, animations, and other educational materials it has planned for its online flight school for drone pilots. With 27 days remaining in the Kickstarter campaign, donors already have pledged more than half of that.

According to Angelo, there are currently no licensing requirements for UAV operators, who generally fly below 400 feet under rules established for radio-controlled flight established by the Academy of Model Aeronautics. But Angelo says federal aviation regulators will eventually have to move to some type of a DMV-type of licensing model, especially as the number of drones zipping over neighborhoods and schools increases. DJI, a Chinese-based maker of quadcopters that are especially popular for use in aerial photography and videography, is reportedly shipping close to 12,000 Phantom 2 UAVs a month.

Baylin says what he likes best about Spark Aerial’s campaign are the new opportunities that are emerging with other UAV venders and service providers.

“Already, we’ve been able to start a dialog with 3D robotics and DJI because they understand the importance of getting people to fly safely,” Baylin says. “We’ve actually been able to unlock some different channels and customers that weren’t available before. This is as much about business development as it is about the campaign itself.”

Such experience can be valuable for inexperienced startups, Baylin says, by forcing founders to think beyond “the PowerPoint pitch deck” that is sometimes the explicit goal of some startup accelerator programs.

“By forcing a company to sell a product, you nudge them to realize what it takes to create a full-on business,” Baylin says. “These guys already are thinking about how to reach new customers, how to acquire and serve those customers.”

Educating drone pilots online, in fact, is almost incidental to Spark Aerial’s core business, which provides aerial cinematography and other UAV services on a contract basis for media companies like the National Geographic Channel and government agencies like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

In this way, the crowd-funding campaign helps to raise Spark Aerial’s visibility and build some name recognition for itself in the fast-growing UAV community. In other words, branding becomes an added value to the crowd-funding campaign.

Bruce V. Bigelow is the editor of Xconomy San Diego. You can e-mail him at bbigelow@xconomy.com or call (619) 669-8788 Follow @bvbigelow

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