Wisconsin Aviation’s new drone division takes off

Wisconsin Aviation has launched a new drone division aiming to provide services to companies in real estate, construction, insurance, agriculture and other data-driven industries.

The Watertown-based aviation service company has a “long list of potential clients” it already caters to with chartered flights, corporate flight management, aircraft sales, maintenance and more, according to Trevor Janz, head of marketing for Wisconsin Aviation.

“As a leader in general aviation in Wisconsin, people are looking to us for drone services,” Janz said, adding the company’s 36 years in business and “top-of-mind” status with large companies sets it up for success in this space.

Chris Johnson is the chief drone pilot and certified pilot instructor at Wisconsin Aviation. He led the charge with developing the drone division launched last week.

According to Johnson, many small one-person operations have sprung up in recent years. There’s a relatively low barrier to entry, he said, because the FAA commercial licensing requires only that individuals pass a written test — no hands-on experience needed.

Wisconsin Aviation has the advantage over these small competitors, he said, both because of the existing brand recognition stemming from the company’s history of leadership in the aviation industry, and because of a client list that includes the Green Bay Packers and big-name corporations located between Madison and Milwaukee.

He says many of the big companies already served by Wisconsin Aviation will need aerial footage, either for structural inspections, layout, mapping, media or other purposes.

Johnson also teaches a course at UW-Madison on commercial drone piloting. He says his students will provide a skilled pipeline for hiring drone operators for Wisconsin Aviation, describing his class as “a really long job interview.”

The course involves teaching students the basics for drone operation as well as industry cases for data gathered by these machines. Johnson says two graduates of this past summer’s class will be his “go-to” people when it comes to providing these services.

As for this fall’s incoming class of 20, he says some students are already emerging as “go-getters and leaders.”

“A lot of it is customer service,” Johnson added, noting the best candidates aren’t just safe pilots, they’re also the most “bright, personable people.”

As part of the course, the students pursue projects which all involve using drone-captured data for specific applications. According to Johnson, the local customer service contacts they build through projects are invaluable.

“That creates a relationship,” Johnson said. “It starts to seed interest for drone services around the community… at the same time, it’s seeding talent.”

Johnson also pointed to another service as setting Wisconsin Aviation apart from the less-established competition: helping other businesses build up their own internal drone programs.

These “exploratory pilot programs” are helping large insurance and utility companies understand the value of data gathered by drones, Johnson said, as they build out internal training programs and standards protocols.

“That’s what I will focus on in my day-to-day work,” Johnson said. “If you want to build your own department, there’s a very lengthy checklist of things to implement — that’s where we differentiate ourselves.”

See an earlier story on Johnson’s drone course: http://www.wisbusiness.com/index.iml?Article=387456

–By Alex Moe