Expanding into Asia: a perspective by FairFleet – an EU drone start-up
GNSS.asia builds stronger ties between the GNSS industries of Europe and Asia. We support European GNSS firms with their endeavours in Asia’s promising markets. To learn from their experiences, struggles, and needs, we bring you the story of the Munich-based drone start-up FairFleet – an insider perspective from Dario Manns, Chief Innovation Officer, Pilot-in-Residence, and one of the co-founders!
Interested to share your GNSS SME’s story on Asia? Write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org!
Please, give us a brief introduction to your company. What is FairFleet’s competitive advantage?
FairFleet is a full-service partner for professional drone services, providing optimal supervision for both customers and pilots worldwide. Our services range from insurance and licensing of professional drone pilots to post-production of aerial photography, i.e. the evaluation of imagery for surveying and inspections, or the creation of automated analysis reports for agriculture, real estate, and insurance. We work closely with regulators from a wide range of countries as well as with industry to create a long-term future-proof framework for professional drone services.
What makes FairFleet unique is the innovative business model which allows for immense scalability. In simple terms, think of Uber but for drones. We do not build a large in-house drone fleet for our clients which would mean high upkeep costs for both hardware and personnel as well as considerable operational hassles like training and certification of pilots. Instead, we offer a globally available and scalable on-demand fleet comprised of more than 2500 experienced and certified professional drone pilots with their own equipment in 72 countries worldwide.
As an additional differentiator, we position ourselves as a one-stop-shop for all UAV services. Instead of only providing raw aerial images and leaving it up to the client to do any post-processing, we collaborate with best-in-class software solution partners to deliver an end-to-end solution of the highest quality. Our ultimate goal is to ensure the smoothest customer experience possible. Thus, once the client has selected a specific service package, providing the address, flight date, and special requirements, we take care of the rest of the workflow.
How does FairFleet make use of GNSS technologies? Are there any innovative GNSS-based applications that your company developed or became an early adopter of?
The drones we deploy are navigating mainly using GNSS. For flight planning, standardisation, and scalability, it is essential to be able to use these technologies, for example, pre-determined GNSS waypoint flight routes. Without these, flying drones would still be manual, and fairly speaking, nobody wants that. Also, GNSS-enabled imagery metadata allows photogrammetry and other processing workflows we use – in other words, turning photos into maps and even 3D-models.
We have a particular edge in the area of beyond line of sight (BVLOS) drone operations. This application of the UAV technology is just beginning to enter the market with the most recent and relevant example being the delivery of blood samples for Coronavirus testing in Poland. We, in contrast, have been doing BVLOS for around three years now. In the beginning, FairFleet pursued a rather German careful approach making baby-steps to avoid even the slightest hiccup. Safety is paramount, and we consider ourselves experts in this area.
Galileo provides higher accuracy and dual frequency. How did that affect drone technologies? What are new potential applications using Galileo that you can foresee?
Better accuracy provided by the new generation of GNSS like Galileo already had a major impact on the drone industry with the full potential of the novel technology to be showcased in the upcoming years. More precise flying means safer flights under various challenging conditions like piloting in urban environments or proximity to the inspected objects as well as BVLOS operations. For instance, a rather old-fashioned manual approach for wind turbine inspection is now streamlined with the use of specialised drones. This makes the process not only more efficient but also safer since it no longer requires climbers-technicians to risk their health or even lives. Besides, now it is possible to get better data in terms of quality, localisation, and precision. When combined with a scheduled repetitive check-up approach, this allows for unprecedented levels of granularity of predictive maintenance – a very promising technological and operational advancement. The higher accuracy provided by Galileo is a great enabler in this regard.
From experience thus far, what are the most prominent differences between entering and expanding into the Asian market compared to Europe and North America?
Our current challenges in Asia somewhat resemble what we have experienced in Europe. Both continents are comprised of numerous countries, each with its own language and regulations. The use of English for business globally greatly reduces communication barriers. Nevertheless, compared to the USA, where English is a standard language, in other parts of the world, interactions prove to be not as smooth and effortless.
What makes Asia particularly stand out is that multiple countries there have a very different approach to flying regulations in comparison to the standard practices in Europe or the USA. It took some time for us to understand and get used to this new ruleset.
Another noteworthy factor is the difference between European and Asian cultural norms. Therefore, when doing business in countries like Japan or China, it is crucial to remember the local traditions and make one’s best effort to honour them.
Interestingly enough, in contrast to the rather conservative attitude to cultural aspects, with a few exceptions, Asian markets generally have a rather lenient approach to the regulation of privacy. As such, for example, processing of a contract for inspection of a bridge built over some private property would on average happen considerably quicker in Asia compared to Europe.
Well-developed IT infrastructure is another clear advantage of several Asian counties like South Korea, China, or Japan. For instance, a rapid expansion of 5G networks enables nation-wide coverage of high-bandwidth internet connection. The resulting lightning transfer speed allows to capture and send data faster than ever before. In many cases, this enhanced speed is extremely valuable for our clients which subsequently increases their willingness to pay for our services.
As you have mentioned earlier, FairFleet’s business model is to a large extent based on building fruitful partnerships. One of the main goals of GNSS.asia is to facilitate the establishment of such mutually beneficial cooperation between Europe and Asia. This is done through a matchmaking of various industry and institutional players from an extensive network of contacts as well as by organising thematic international events. With this in mind, what are the areas of relationship development that FairFleet is struggling with the most, and, hence, which form of help would you like to receive from GNSS.asia for mitigating those difficulties?
Generally, the experience was rather positive throughout Asia’s regions. By now, we already have drone pilots in India, Korea, Japan, Australia, etc. and operations are mostly running smoothly. In some countries, such as Bhutan, aviation authorities can be somewhat hard to reach out to and work with at the beginning. This becomes prominent when, before rolling out any operations, we try to make sure that we would fly 100% legally in the respective country. For this, we contact the authorities asking for guidelines, required documentation, and generally any helpful tips and recommendations. Unfortunately, the response time is sometimes very long, and the reply itself is not always comprehensive. This is to a large extent because some governments do not fully understand our business model and are somewhat sceptical towards us at first.
For this reason, I believe that introductions to the right people who are prominent local decision-makers or connectors would be highly useful for the success of our firm. Additionally, workshops explaining the power of high-accuracy GNSS-enabled drones in general and FairFleet’s business model in particular would go a long way towards helping us to establish a beachhead in new markets. These conclusions hold not just for private contracts but even more so for public ones. This is because governments might overlook us in favour of local contractors without the understanding that we also employ a local workforce but can deliver a more efficient and holistic solution than most of our competitors. This is where we believe GNSS.asia is providing an extremely valuable service offer.
How did COVID-19 affect your company, both on internal and external levels?
Our company managed to face the virus pretty successfully. Internally, the switch to the “home office” mode was quite easy. We’re a young, agile, and fully digital company. When it comes to the external operations, those had to be stalled and postponed in certain countries like Italy and Malaysia due to the strict movement restrictions. This is because some part of our services, such as air imagery for the real estate market, fall under the “non-essential” category. At the same time, such operations as inspection of critical infrastructure like power lines continued as usual.
While we have not experienced any losses to our existing business but mere delays of closing dates, we have also managed to secure a number of additional contracts. This is because due to the pandemic, many of our clients are temporarily unable to send their personnel to their distant facilities for check-ups. We, on the flip side, can promptly dispatch a drone pilot who can capture an asset’s digital twin – a digital representation of the object that can be turned into a map or 3D model accessible online for subsequent analysis. As such, having experienced the convenience of remote inspection, our clients might decide to keep this extra service subscription even after the global pandemic is over.
Interested to bring your GNSS SME’s story on Asia? Write to us at email@example.com!
You can learn more about FairFleet on their website.