WILMINGTON, Del. — A 2016 report from PwC priced the emerging global market for business services using drones at $127 billion. Drone sales are expected to eclipse $12 billion in 2021, a Business Insider report suggested in August.
There’s a startup in Delaware looking to get a piece of the action.
Founded by the husband and wife combination of Theophilus and Suzanne Nix, Drone Workforce Solutions is a drone education, training and staffing company that just graduated its first class of 12 pilots in December thanks to a grant from the Department of Labor.
The business, ran out of the Emerging Enterprise Center on the Wilmington riverfront, has added a second school in New Jersey and has its sights set on much more than 12 students at a time.
“What we want to grow this into is to be the premier staffing placement company for drone operators in the country,” said CEO Theo Nix, a lawyer by trade whose day job involves providing counsel to DowDuPont.
The 10-week program offered by Drone Workforce Solutions involves totals around 70 hours of education. In that, there are 14 hours of on-site flying, around 10 hours of data editing, which shows students how to edit and create images captured by their flying drones. Instruction is also offered on compliance with the various rules for flying drones in accordance with the Federal Aviation Administration.
Time is also devoted to teaching students how to build a drone from scratch and about the parts that makeup the pilotless aircrafts.
“We want them to understand what this machine does so when things happen they can troubleshoot,” Nix said. “We think they make a better pilot when they can do that.”
DWS is basically like going to college and costs a similar amount to a semester of education at many post-secondary institutions. Nix said the cost for the program is $5,000 to $6,000, and students can purchase a top-quality drone for $1,500, as well.
Nix, a Wilmington native whose father, Theophilus Sr. was the second person of color admitted to the Delaware bar after Louis Redding, said he was proud of the diversity of the first graduating class. Out of the 12, seven are veterans — “I have a passion for vets,” Nix said. Two are black, and one is paraplegic.
“I think it’s important that vets get hired,” Nix said. “I think it’s important that women have an opportunity. I think it’s important that kids who are languishing have an opportunity. And I think it’s also important that African-Americans and Latinos also get an opportunity. Diversity is really important.”
Once out of the program, pilots have a range of options that include working directly for DWS, being hired out to companies for long and short-term gigs or working for themselves.
“The way we set this company up is to allow them to decide their own destiny,” Nix said.
Gabriel Cruz, who previously worked in retail training corporate employees how to use Google products, is out to decide his destiny now after finishing the program and getting his license.
“It was pretty easy,” Cruz said. “But, at the same time, I got to a mindset of understanding patience. Flying a drone isn’t as easy as just picking it up, flying it up and all that. There are a lot of precautions we have to take when it comes to safety.”
Regarding his future, Cruz said “the sky’s the limit,” in a way that didn’t appear a pun was intended. He said ideally he’d like to use his skills for inspection work in fields like agriculture, insurance and law enforcement.
The various uses for drones — which sometimes make headlines for their safety and security issues — is what got Nix, who has his license, interested in the business despite a background that wasn’t really steeped in technology.
“I’m not a gamer. I’m a capitalist,” Nix said. “I work in a global world and I saw where drones were heading from the military use to the commercial, civil use.”
Other than his law background, Nix, whose family features nine graduates from Wilmington Friends School, has been connected to businesses like funeral homes and has dabbled in real estate investment and other workforce development programs.
“I have an entrepreneurial bent,” Nix said.
But Nix’s problem, right now, is capital. A 60-person waiting list is growing and needs to be taken care of. Nix was one of eight startup businesses that pitched to a live audience in the fall at the culmination of the second cohort of the SPARK Challenge, a three-phase startup boot camp that provides entrepreneurial education and puts entrepreneurs like Nix in the same room with angel and impact investors.
“Imagine a world where drone technology can change the world and solve problems,” Nix said to the audience during his pitch. “When you look at the drone landscape today, you will see that there are about 50,000 or so FAA-certified operators looking for a home … but nowhere to do work and nowhere to get paid.”
Nix laid out a plan to create an online, global staffing database that would generate about $2.5 million in revenue.
“Our revenue model is permanent placements, temporary placements and specific project placements,” Nix said.
Over five years, Nix said, DWS would have a gross revenue model of $14.5 million.
There is work to be done, though.
In the short term, Nix said he wants to create partnerships to expand education and training to get more people trained as quickly as possible. He’s aiming to cut deals with corporations to do work for them using drones. And he wants to partner with schools in Delaware to implement a training program for high school students that would both benefit his business and teach students an emerging technology.