November 20 2019

My First Day at Skydio

Skydio

Fritz Reber joined Skydio this week as our new Head of Public Safety Integration after 25 years of service with the Chula Vista Police Department, where he served as Patrol Captain and Unmanned Aerial Systems Commander. Of course, we couldn’t be prouder or more honored to work with someone like Fritz. Here’s what he had to say about coming aboard.

Today was my first day as a full-time employee with Skydio. I have been working with Skydio over the last several weeks as a consultant and jumped at the chance to be an official member of a team that absolutely reeks of genius and innovation. I really believe that Skydio is going to change the industry, and the opportunity to come along for the ride is a dream come true.

I first became interested in the potential of drones as a close-quarters tactical tool for first responders. There are more than a handful of Chula Vista PD Detectives who have had one of my Tiny Whoop drones fly over their head, blowing papers off their desk, as their annoying Lieutenant Reber demonstrated the potential of flying indoors and clearing rooms with drones. Never mind that they were busy trying to solve a case.

In my five years on the Chula Vista Police SWAT Team, I learned the value of knowing what was in a building before making entry. It was the mid 1990’s, and robots, as difficult as there were to operate, were seen as the next great tool to give the operator something they were begging for — to see the future. Because, when you really think about it, knowing what’s behind the next door, or down the next hallway, is like seeing the future — a future with the potential for deadly consequences.

There have been many tools developed to go places where people can’t or shouldn’t go first. But drones offer the most exciting possibilities for an ultimate solution that routinely saves lives. In fact, the concept of Drone as First Responder (DFR) was born out of the desire to see what is happening at an incident before first responders arrive. DFR is just another variation of the concept of using drones to see the future. And it was my search for tactical drone solutions that led me to DFR.

It was 2016. As the UAS Team Commander I found myself online looking for indoor drone solutions when I found Cape. I reached out via email, received a response and then a demo from Kabe Termes , and the rest is history (https://unmanned-aerial.com/chula-vista-pd-hits-1000-drone-missions). It was my connections with Cape that led me to Skydio, or rather that led Skydio to me. I had heard of Skydio when their first product was released. I knew it was expensive, but didn’t know much else. I never saw one in real life and Skydio fell off my radar. In May of 2019, I received an invite for a phone call with Skydio CEO Adam Bry and Enterprise Product Manager Brian Richman. The call lasted an hour and they essentially just picked my brain as a cop about what I’d want or need in a drone. I knew that there was no way anyone could make a single drone that met every need I outlined, but I threw everything out there that I felt first responders wanted in a drone solution anyway. They patiently listened and asked a lot of good questions. I didn’t expect much to come of it, but it was refreshing to have a company at least ask. (After looking up their bio’s, I actually became hopeful).

It wasn’t until August of 2019 that I thought much about Skydio again. That was when James Ferrandini, Product Manager at Skydio, brought a couple of “top secret” Skydio 2 prototypes to fly with the CVPD UAS Team during their training one day. The goal was to get some good video of the Skydio 2 in action as a potential tool for first responders. The hastily planned visit was met with the usual amount of skepticism and underwhelming enthusiasm that police officers are famous for. It wouldn’t be the first time that the hopes and dreams of “game changing” technology were unceremoniously smashed to bits by the harsh reality of a street cop who just needed to get the job done.

The entire team was patient and gracious as they went through the motions to provide James and his photographer the footage they needed to show off the Skydio 2’s capabilities. It seemed at the time we all had no idea what we were really seeing. I watched as the drone dodged and weaved its way through tree branches; avoiding cars, people, and road signs as if it had an inherent desire for self-preservation. It seemed alive with an instinct for survival. I left that day thinking about what I had seen. It wasn’t until the next day that it really sank in. I was witnessing the next iteration of drone technology that would finally yield a truly useful tool for the average cop. Vision positioning systems were the first big breakthrough that made drones hover in place. Skydio 2’s object avoidance technology was the next necessary step to turn the drone into a tool anyone can fly with ease. Skydio 2 offered the potential for wide-spread practical use by first responders in everyday situations. And as every cop or firefighter knows, everyday situations are often the most deadly.

So, after waking up the next day realizing that I had witnessed something different and potentially transformational, I reached out to Skydio’s Public Safety Lead, Guillaume Delépine. Guillaume eagerly took my call and we spent quite a bit of time talking about something Guillaume already knew well enough, that Skydio 2 was different. Guillaume, as many may know from his well-read story on LinkedIn, took a leave of absence from Harvard Business School to join Skydio. Guillaume is annoyingly brilliant, confident, and humble at the same time. I found him far too nice and approachable for a Silicon Valley genius, and his understanding of public safety and their operational needs were impressive for someone 26-years-young who had never worn a badge. I was even more hopeful for Skydio’s potential after meeting Guillaume.

He asked me to join him in Sawgrass Florida where he was showing off Skydio 2 to attendees at the CopTech Conference. He wanted help talking to first responders, to better understand their needs, and how Skydio could help them. I assumed he was going to pay my way, but I didn’t ask if I was going to get paid on top of my expenses. I was willing to do it for free if only for a trip to Florida to fly drones with other cops. As a retired consultant there is quite a bit of “build it and they will come” mentality, so giving away advice and labor for free was something I was already used to. Guillaume, (who did pay me to attend and never would have dreamed of asking me to go for free), finds it one of the funniest stories to re-tell that I flew to Florida with a relative stranger with no expectation of compensation. In any case, the feedback and reaction I observed in the attendees there reflected and supported my own first impression. I knew then that Skydio was going to change things for the industry.

So what does the future hold for Skydio 2 and public safety? At this point the functionality and benefit that Skydio 2 provides first responders is every bit as much “potential” as it is real. Make no mistake, Skydio 2 offers real value today to public safety. Its ability to avoid obstacles means that agencies can deploy them widely, to pilots with limited experience, and go places and do things that it would take pilots on other platforms hundreds of FPV flight hours of training to do (if even possible). Admittedly, there are several current functionalities that Skydio 2 does not provide yet, like flying in lowlight/darkness, and flying through doorways and windows. It lacks a thermal option, and has no HDMI out. Therefore, Guillaume and I will be working with a select few agencies to pilot project the platforms in actual daily operations, highlighting the current abilities and learning of new ones. The product development input we receive from these agencies will be used to improve the Skydio 2 of today, and the Skydio solutions of tomorrow. The goal is to formalize and institutionalize the information exchange between public safety and Skydio, to allow end-users to assist in the design and development of the drones they need to do their job. All of this is in support of Skydio’s ultimate goal, to become the best drone in the world for public safety.

I shamelessly admit that I see Romeo Durscher, (former) Director of Public Safety Integration at DJI, as the trailblazer for how a drone company reaches out to first responders. I’ve met and worked with Romeo just enough to feel I can call him a friend. He is a great ambassador for a great drone company (let’s be honest, the world’s best drone company). So Guillaume and I will look to his example among others who have proven the importance of bridging the gap between the company and the cop/firefighter. It’s the hope of all first responders that robust competition means better products, solutions, and capabilities to do what’s most important — saving lives.

Finally, I will say that Skydio 2 the drone, is a perfect metaphor for Skydio the company. The company has a very deep bench of incredible talent and vision and has a culture that is eerily like the very feature that makes their product unique and transformational. As an example: Guillaume and I will often highlight the Skydio 2’s collision avoidance capabilities during demos by asking pilots to fly the drone directly into one of us as we stand still in the open. Rather than stopping before striking us, alerting the pilot of the obstacle and waiting for further direction, the Skydio 2 gracefully and silently slides on by as if the pilot was a poor aim. Inevitably the pilot will turn the drone around and try again, feeling it was pilot error. Again the drone will slide on by, continuing forward effortlessly past the obstacle. It is this behavior that is symbolic of the attitude of the Skydio Team. I believe the genius that is Skydio is that the team doesn’t see problems and obstacles as something to fear, with the potential to halt forward progress. Instead, they are something to help guide the way forward, and are embraced as essential to what makes Skydio different. This attitude and culture I know will serve Skydio well, and more importantly, will serve the efforts of public safety well going forward. I am honored to be on the Skydio team and look forward to working with Guillaume, under leaders like Adam, to make a difference.