Saturday 18 January 2020

Pilot confident his drone-training business can ascend to new heights

Pilot Mark Prendergast has fulfilled his lifelong dream of becoming an entrepreneur

Safe Drone founder Mark Prendergast says companies are increasingly interested in the potential of drones. Picture: Mark Condren
Safe Drone founder Mark Prendergast says companies are increasingly interested in the potential of drones. Picture: Mark Condren

Aine O'Connor

Roles in the Air Corps then in Aer Lingus presented Mark Prendergast with the opportunity to follow his entrepreneurial dream. And, although the workload is heavy, the experience of running his drone-training company Safe Drone has been even more fulfilling than he had hoped.

"Aside from maybe a farmer way back on my dad's side there were no entrepreneurs in my family, but I always wanted to know what it would be like to run your own business," he says.

Originally from Cork, Prendergast remembers being in a language summer camp as a youngster when four French jets flew overhead. A fascination was born and after school he applied to join the RAF and US military but because he wanted to stay in Ireland he joined the Air Corps. "The flying I did in the Air Corps was some of the most exciting I ever did.

"The surveillance equipment and radar fascinated me and then when drones came along I bought a second-hand one and tore it apart to see how it worked. I realised it was going to be a huge market even with the very limited technology as it was then." By that time Prendergast was working as a pilot with Aer Lingus, for whom he still flies, and when they were looking for someone to offer training on drones, Prendergast stepped up.

He soon saw an entrepreneurial opportunity and set up a drone service company. "This was back in the days when it was harder to fly the drones, so people who needed aerial imagery would come to people like myself who were able to fly them," he says. "A few years ago I recognised that while my skill was in flying the product that I was offering wasn't great, because I didn't know how to make the best use of the data I was capturing."

He then realised that his real skills lay in education. "I'd been an instructor in the military and in Aer Lingus and I enjoyed teaching so I set up Safe Drone as a training academy to create professional drone pilots. We are the only ones to have been authorised by the Irish Aviation Authority to run their syllabus of training, which is important because there are a lot of places you can't fly a drone unless you have an IAA permit."

The company performed better than Prendergast expected. "I had a lot of drive and determination but I was conservative in terms of how well it would go. I did my business plan round a cost base that was really, really low. I got good deals with suppliers, found the location and just launched - and by 'launch' I mean launched the website. The first phone call came about two hours later and I was really surprised."

Having a small target market can work both ways. "Getting business has been one of the biggest challenges. The market for us is very, very small so we need to have a very targeted marketing strategy. Google Adwords works best for us because the market is so small it is almost like direct marketing. A lot of it has been word of mouth too, because interested people are in a community that is into drones. From there it has kept going and going and we have had courses every month since."

The other main source of generating business is going to shows, especially those that focus on agriculture and construction.

The initial market for Safe Drone was mostly individuals. "Photographers and videographers were the first kind of customers because putting a camera on a drone was one of the first uses for them," says Prendergast. "But as people see more uses for them, and also the regulations have settled, so companies are more confident in investing in drone training. They're a flying data tool. What interests companies is the amount of data you can capture, the speed at which you can capture it and the safety element.

"It has so many uses because it offers an elevated perspective, in construction or agriculture for example huge amounts of data can be collected quickly, safely and cheaply and models can be created."

Work that would have taken weeks for surveyors and engineers can now be achieved with much greater speed and lower cost. For that same reason drones are of great use to government agencies. Safe Drone has worked with county councils, Irish Rail, Geological Survey of Ireland, Irish Waterways, Teagasc and others. The unmanned element is also key for safety. "Drones can be fitted with cameras but also microphones and sniffing and sensing tools. In Japan after the tsunami they sent drones into Fukushima to assess the situation with no risk to people. In the same way large multinationals who use chemicals have safety-response plans and drones are part of that."

Initially, Prendergast was in business on his own, but then his business partner Theodore Prince came on board. "We had met years ago at a drone test and I liked him and then we just happened to cross paths at a time when the workload was too much for me. He was very knowledgeable, we had the same background in aviation and the military - he was in the US military. I trusted him and asked him to come on board."

People who want to train with Safe Drone come in for two days and the course is based on the syllabus that the IAA prescribes.

"Once they have done the training there is a handling test. We're the only ones doing any practical training in terms of drones. It was a very conscious decision to find a location where I could do that training which is why we went with Westmanstown because we have space for it."

Prendergast is optimistic about the future. "The drone market is currently very small but in 2019 the European drone rules will come out and that will level the playing field so a permit issued in Ireland will be valid all over Europe," says Prendergast. "There will be opportunities in the UK even with Brexit. There is a lot more people can do with drones, they just don't realise it yet so it is about creating a vision for other people.

"In the meantime I have the day job that has me flying across the Atlantic about three times a fortnight. It's a personal challenge because I have a wife and three young kids. I suppose it is a bit selfish on my part that I'm trying to fulfil my ambition but my wife, Paula, has been very, very supportive.

"She sees how enthused I am and the confidence I'm getting, and there are some rewards and we benefit from those. I don't get to see my friends as much as I would like, and I miss out on some things, but when you have passion it's not really sacrifice."

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