Spotlight On: Richard Nichols, Airwards

We recently had the opportunity to talk to Richard Nichols, founder of Airwards – the online awards platform recognising and championing the impactful use of drones. Richard finally has a moment to take a breather after a busy Winner’s Week, so we decided to catch him for a chat about the work behind Airwards, how the idea came about and where he sees the industry heading.

What is Airwards?

On the very top level, what the Oscars do for films, what BAFTA does for TV, I want Airwards to be doing for drones. There’s so much positive work going on, both inside and outside the industry. We’re identifying these positive user stories, recognising them through an award and championing them to acknowledge the work that they are doing. We want it to be an acknowledgement that what a company is doing is innovative, is responsible and is having a real-world impact.

How did you get involved in drones?

I started my career at AgustaWestland (now Leonardo). I was there for three years, really enjoyed it, but I wanted to move up to London, so I joined my old business partner and we started Vitamin London (a digital agency). We were right at the forefront of the app and responsive website revolution, which was amazing. After leaving that a few years ago, I ventured into freelance work helping start-ups with their strategy operations. While doing this, by chance I met a guy – Joe from VisualSkies – who at the time was doing some work for Rolls Royce. I talked to him more and more, and got involved with the company. I loved seeing how this technology was being used from their side: videography, photography, lidar scanning and especially 3D modelling.

I guess around that time, I was thinking about my experience of recognition in the digital world, and I was wondering – is there something like that with drones? There are a couple, but they are sporadic, vertical-focused, and nothing like I had seen in other industries. So that’s where the idea came from. Then covid hit, and I thought, right, I’m sat on this idea, why not try it?

How did you get it started?

So probably about April 2020, I started reaching out to a few people. I spoke to my immediate connections through the defence industry and people were super-friendly. The fact that we had the ethos, the vision, and that we are not-for-profit made it an easy decision for people to want to get involved.

How did you decide on the categories?

It was tough. I think it was about two months of work. Last year, I started off with 120. We cut it down to 80, down to 50, again talking to people involved, and eventually got it down to 23 main categories and 7 people’s choice (30 in total). The Oscars, I think, have 28 categories. There are some that we missed out, there are some that we had to merge, and we didn’t want to try to do everything. One of the first things I did was to get in touch with everyone who I might consider competition and just say – Hey, I’m Richard, this is what we’re doing – I’m not trying to step on your toes! It was really trying to make sure that it was about fostering collaboration, rather than competing.

How many submissions were made?

We had just over 200 in total across all 30 categories of people’s choice shortlist and main category submissions, and after whittling down it came to about 100, a fantastic response for our first year!

Are there any particular projects that stood out?

Total cop-out: all of them. Teaching kids to code in drone, preventing wildfires, rescuing fawns, BVLOS, dam inspection, even the anti-drone projects. The two-way communications blew quite a few judges’ minds. Having expert judges look at use cases and say “I didn’t know this was happening, and I’d consider myself someone who’s been in the industry for 15 years!” was fantastic to hear.

That’s what I loved the most, is that if you’ve got experience in a particular vertical, you’re able to say – This was my favourite, because it’s my background, my history. Everything else is cool, but for me that has a real personal attachment – So yeah, sorry for the cop-out, but there definitely isn’t just one!

What was the most difficult part of pulling it off (especially during a pandemic)?

The remote working we were kind of used to by that point, so that side of things didn’t really have as much of an impact. Probably for me it’s been finding corporate partners – and that’s probably a very obvious one to go for – but it’s been entirely self-funded this year. Getting to really know projects that are going on and trying to talk to so many people around the world was both hard and rewarding. Being able to connect with some of the big people in drones is almost as big a deal as winning for a lot of the people involved.

What are some big areas you see as being ‘up and coming’ in the drone world?

I think autonomy and having constant data flow, that is going to be where businesses see the value, particularly in survey and inspection, reducing the time frames of finding a problem, live in real time, and finding a fix. Those two, and obviously BVLOS (Beyond Visual Line of Sight), so not having to have someone constantly within eyesight of the drone.

What’s the plan for next year?

We’re going to keep the general structure and idea, but refine it so it doesn’t put as much pressure on the judges. And vice-versa for the entrants. But fundamentally the categories, judges, process, being online – everything else is going to stay the same. We have some huge plans however on championing each of the winners and getting their stories infront of the industry and public – so watch this space and our website + social channels.

And what’s next for you?

I think we’ve pretty much got a process for next year, and we’ve talked to a few of the judges, but I want to collate all their feedback, and we’re still getting feedback from entrants. There’s been a period in June where we’ve given people a break from Airwards, but expect to see us back with a bang in July gearing up for our Year 2.

Find out more

For more about Airwards and to see this year’s winners, check the official website: https://www.airwards.online
You can also find Airwards and Richard on LinkedIn.

View from Above: The Daylight tool and why lighting matters

The DronePrep team are excited to share that we have just released a host of cool new features on the DronePrep platform, including the important buildings dataset and a railway buffer zone. But perhaps the most exciting tool, particularly for photographers or those just looking to snap a few shots while out flying, is the Daylight tool.

The Daylight tool displays not only sunrise and sunset, but also where daylight and shadows fall at different times of the day, throughout the calendar year.

How do I use it?

Make sure the map is in 3D view (button on the left), then click on the light bulb icon under the search bar on the right-hand side of the map display. Choose the date and time, then simply move the slider to see how sunlight affects the map, or hit the play button to watch a time lapse. You can also tick the “show shadows” box to display those all-important shadows – stay tuned for our next update, when we’ll be adding 3D-buildings (and their shadows).

What’s the big deal?

We love the Daylight tool, and if you still haven’t tried it, you might be wondering why. To demonstrate the significance of mapping natural light, we asked our pilot in residence and aerial photographer Chris Gorman how he prepares for a photoshoot. Chris took this shot of Stonehenge during the summer solstice in 2018 (due to lockdown restrictions, access to the stones is prohibited this year).

“This image was summer solstice 2018, the only solstice in recent years to actually see a perfect sunrise. As a photojournalist and picture editor, I’ve seen a mountain of pictures of the solstice over the years, which are all pretty much the same. Usually silhouettes of people with the stones behind, people cuddling the stones, etc. As a newly qualified (PFCO) drone pilot it occurred to me that the scene had never been photographed from the air. Working out where the sun would rise was my first challenge. All I had to go on was that in the UK, the sun rises in the North East. So I roughly planned my image with this in mind. Without the use of actual precise information, I wouldn’t know the exact position of the sun until I arrived at 4.45am. This is where DronePrep’s Daylight tool would come into its own. The image is shot HDR (High Dynamic Range), this is 6 frames exposed one stop apart and then blended together resulting in an image as the eye saw it. The final image was published in the The London Evening Standard, Daily Telegraph, The Times, The Daily Mirror, The Guardian and The Daily Mail, The New Zealand Herald and many more.”

 

– Chris Gorman, The Big Ladder Photographer.

Like the new Daylight tool? Tag us on social with any pictures or videos. We’d love to hear feedback on the new features, if you have ideas or comments, get in touch through the usual channels below.

DronePrep attends G7 Technology Showcase

Last week we had the unique opportunity to take part in the G7 Summit Technology Showcase. The event was a chance to demonstrate the best of innovation, technology and talent from Cornwall and across the UK.

As part of the G7 Summit which took place last week in Carbis Bay, Cornwall, DronePrep were invited to the G7 Technology Showcase, a 4-day event highlighting the latest tech developments emerging in the region.

The event offered a chance for Cornwall-made innovation projects to shine. Exhibitors included organisations from a wide variety of industries: from lithium mining, to agriculture, to space exploration.

DronePrep joined fellow drone industry pioneers Skyports and Flylogix in showcasing drone technology.

DronePrep’s Co-founder and CTO Claire Owen had the chance to talk about our UKRI-funded projects with Royal Mail and the NHS to carry out drone deliveries in the Isles of Scilly, and to discuss the future of autonomous deliveries. There was also the opportunity to demonstrate the DronePrep platform to operators and industry representatives.

It was a fantastic opportunity to find out what’s going on both within and outside our field. We’re really on the cusp of this massive revolution in technology, and it was great to see first-hand how these businesses are putting Cornwall, and Great Britain, on the map.

– Claire Owen

Special thanks to Gail Eastaugh, James Fairbairn, and Sam Healy of The Cornwall Development Company for hosting.

Review of DJI’s Mini 2

When he isn’t busy helping landowners set up access policies, DronePrep’s Christopher Walker is an avid drone pilot and is always keen to try out new tech. Christopher recently had the chance to fly DJI’s Mini 2 – the successor to the Mavic Mini and a popular choice for beginners and experts alike. Here are his thoughts on this compact, feature-loaded mini drone.

I hope the sunny Bank Holiday weekend gave many of you the chance to dust the cobwebs off your propellers, charge your batteries and take to the skies! We haven’t had the best flying weather these last few months, and lockdowns have certainly put a spanner in the works, but it looks like that could now change. The restrictions have limited all of us in some way or another. To me, and other hobbyists, it was not being able to go out and fly my drone, and I have had a longing desire to get back out there since last year!

Having mainly used DJI’s range of Phantom drones over the years, this was the first time I got my hands on one of their other products, the Mavic Mini 2. One of the first things you’ll notice is its size (or lack thereof). A friend of mine used to have a Mavic and I was thoroughly impressed with how compact and portable that was, but the Mini 2 takes lightweight to another level

I’m sure the majority of pilots would agree: it’s better to have a smaller, less powerful drone with you most of the time than to have a slightly bigger, better one at home that rarely makes an appearance out of its case… With the specifications from this dinky drone, you have professional 4K quality photos and videos from a device that fits in your glove compartment …and is about the same size as the battery from a Phantom drone.

After a bit of research into the key differences between the Mini 2 and its predecessor, there is hardly any noticeable difference just from looking at them side by side. The real change lies within the device itself, which features extensive upgrades to specifications and technology. The Mini 2 is faster, stronger, has better range, a better camera and offers a lot more in terms of flight features.

The original Mini was capable of capturing video at 2.7k resolution at 30fps, but the upgrade has boosted that up to 4k for the Mini 2, as well as having x4 zoom, meaning you can capture your footage from a much safer distance. You are also now able to take photographs in either RAW or JPEG format, whereas JPEG was the only option you had for the Mini.

One of the other major differences is the integration of the OcuSync 2.0 transmission within the remote control itself. This enables the drone to fly up to 10km, as opposed to 4km previously, due to the stronger resistance against signal interference – which makes for a much safer flight.

A big stand out for this drone is, of course, its portability. Weighing just under 250g, the Mini 2 falls under the CAA’s A1 category, which means it won’t require a Flyer ID to operate. For those new to drones: most pilots in the UK need a Flyer ID and an Operator ID (£9/year) and need to register their drone with the CAA (I would still recommend taking the free online test anyway for flying safely).

Another noticeable difference for me was the noise levels. Flying the DJI Phantoms, I would quite often attract a small crowd, pointing upwards at the drone, even when it was close to its maximum height. The Mini 2 is much quieter – so much so that when I tried to engage my 1-year old son’s attention with the drone, flying safely around him, there was no reaction at all and he was quite content to carry on with his picnic as if nothing was happening.

I was hard-pressed to find many, if any, faults with the Mini 2, but although minor, I did run into a few teething problems. Despite my praise on its size, this was also its downfall.

I had set the drone up and was ready to take-off from the lawn, but found that the motors would start and then immediately cut out… I realised that even with the lawn having recently been mowed, the grass got in the way of the propellers and wouldn’t allow for a successful take-off! I had to look for a flat surface to take-off from and ended up putting a piece of cardboard on the ground to use as a take-off/landing pad. A minor inconvenience, but one worth considering if you are planning to take off from rough terrain.

As for software, be sure to check which app to use. DJI has released a variety of different products for the UAV community in the last decade. With several apps available to choose from – each one specific to the drone you’re using – it can seem confusing at first. After downloading the ‘DJI Go 4’ app, I was unable to find the right model on the app and I couldn’t set the drone up. I soon realised that this was the wrong app and I needed ‘DJI Fly’ instead.

With an incredibly reasonable price (about a third of the cost of the last Phantom 4 Pro), this drone is absolutely ideal for hobbyists and beginners alike, giving them the opportunity to capture professional-quality footage. It’s compact, easy to fly and above all else, it’s a lot of fun.

What are your thoughts on the DJI Mini 2? We would love to see your footage. Tag us on Instagram @droneprep.