By Eric Wright
No doubt, most of us have heard of Amazon and UPS’s experiments using drones to deliver consumer goods or of classified military targets being attacked with sophisticated weaponized drones. Perhaps over the holidays you had a chance to visit Disney Springs in Orlando to witness a show, the first of its kind in the United States, which consisted of 300 drones lighting the sky in Christmas patterns, all choreographed to original Disney holiday arrangements. It is more than a curious trend; futurists see drones as a technological distruptor with almost limitless applications.
However, what’s making drones popular is less about the commercial interests or military applications and more about the simple joys of manning a motorized toy: according to the Consumer Electronics Association, the drone business is making remarkable gains. In 2014, U.S. sales rose 52 percent from 2013, and in 2015 it jumped another 62 percent. That same year, world sales hit 4.3 million units, worth about $1.7 billion, which represents a 167 percent jump in sales over two years. Trade association figures show that 700,000 units were sold in the U.S. in 2015, generating $105 million in revenue.
It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that one of the industry’s rising stars in the fast-growing drone racing sector and FPV (first-person-view, flying drones with cameras which can be seen live on virtual reality headsets) was one of GrowFL’s 2016 Companies To Watch. For Tim Nilson, the Founder and President of GetFPV and Lumenier, drones began as a passing interest, then grew to a focused hobby. But, like the enthusiasts from the early days of motorized cars and airplanes, his passion to perfect the technology behind and propelling the device has helped him carve a niche in this global industry.
Making a Different Type of Music
Nilson, a Berklee College of Music (Boston) grad, cut his teeth on a successful software startup that converted music into ringtones for cellphones. Sony Music acquired the company, and placed Nilson at the head of technology, complete with a corner office on Madison Avenue in New York. There he directed over 100 programmers, who developed platforms to merchandize Sony’s galaxy of stars.
Living the life on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, his professional direction was dramatically altered when he watched a now famous YouTube video made using a drone flying around New York City. Nilson told Rotor Drone Magazine, “I was stunned. I’ve been a technologist my entire career and seeing that one video immediately drew me into the hobby.”
Recognizing how complex the technology was, Nilson started a website, FPVManuals.com, to share the information needed to build and fly FPV systems. At the same time, he was working to solve some of the problems that plagued operators, like vibration from the motors which caused video images to be distorted. Experimenting with every available product, eventually he solved the problem by having his own parts made in China.
That was where his manufacturing and sales business started, out of his apartment in New York. Not wanting to adulterate the mission of FPVManuals.com, he launched another commercial website to sell his products, GetFPV. Nilson commented, “I thought it was a pretty ingenious name: GetFPV is a place where you can buy all the parts you need, but it’s also a place where you can ‘get’ FPV – meaning ‘you understand it.’”
Downtown New York was not the ideal location for testing new drone equipment and his two-bedroom apartment couldn’t handle the growth his new company was experiencing, so he made the fateful decision to leave Sony and the city to pursue the new venture. Having seen a documentary on Sarasota and later upon visiting there, he fell in love with the area and moved his family to the Suncoast. Soon, the operation he was running out of his garage was spilling over and he moved to a 5,000-square-foot facility in a small industrial area in North Sarasota.
His burgeoning staff includes people answering phones, processing and shipping orders as well as a bank of engineers and designers that keep his company ahead of the technology curve as the industry evolves. Soon after the first move, Nilson built a 24,000-square-foot space adjacent to his first facility to accommodate the meteoric rise of the company.
Staying On the Cutting Edge
Today, GetFPV has become the leading online retailer for multirotor and FPV equipment, a position which Nilson has no intention of surrendering. Though the heart of the business is GetFPV, the future is focused on Lumenier, his design and manufacturing company producing state of the art/industry, airframes, motors, propellers and batteries.
Initially Nilson concentrated his efforts on building leading- edge airframes, but soon ran into a frustrating reality: as soon as his company had developed the latest and greatest frame, a competitor would copy it and he’d have to start over. Nilson decided to pivot his focus towards the powertrain side – the motors, batteries and propellers.
To control supply chain and quality, he opened a 15,000-square-foot factory in China, a hub for drone parts worldwide. The design and engineering is completed at the Sarasota facility.
Keeping Customers Happy
Most drone makers don’t manufacture their own motors and certainly not to Lumenier’s exacting standards, which gives those producers the option of dealing with an American manufacturer. “Customer support is very important to us: responding to emails and making a personal connection with people on the phone. Also we maintain our product stock right here on our own shelves, so we have total control over our inventory,” he said.
It is probably the connection that Nilson has with enthusiasts that provides the greatest competitive advantage, however, because most of his customers want to equip their drones with on-board cameras engineered to provide the remote- control pilot an experience that used to be reserved only for the most daring pilots. “It really providesthe feeling that you are flying,” Nilson said. “You can go anywhere you want to go with the same view a pilot would have if sitting inside the airframe. The freedom it provides to an FPV hobbyist is mind- boggling. You can do what you always wanted to do, which is to fly, while you are sitting on the ground.”
As cameras and sensors continue to shrink, the future for small, affordable drones will continue to produce more demand and with it, the market for savvy entrepreneurs like Tim Nilson.