David Riera is Co-founder and Engineering Manager at HEMAV.
“Using our technology and knowledge, we decided to create a foundation in order to do our part, and use technology (mainly drone technology) for humanitarian purposes.”
You are one of the five aeronautical engineers who in 2012 decided to make the leap from university to the business world, creating HEMAV. What market niche did you see at the time for setting up a drone company?
At that time, our main dream was to have the opportunity to manufacture aircraft, because we realised that while studying for our degree we had learned a lot of theory, but little practice. So our initial idea, in order to come together and approach this dream, was to start by manufacturing a fixed-wing drone. This fixed-wing drone had technical characteristics and autonomy capabilities that were far superior to those that existed in the market at the time, which made us think that we could find our own niche.
However, just 3 or 4 months after starting the company, our vision took a sharp turn and we decided find our niche as an operating company and work in two areas: the audiovisual world and precision agriculture. Now, after more than 6 years, we no longer do audiovisual work, but we are one of the leading companies in the sector of agricultural remote sensing.
At that time, there was not any legislation regulating the incipient sector of unmanned aerial vehicles. How much did the lack of regulation influence your activity?
We started out 6 years ago, and at that time regulations were not clear. Those of us in the industry could carry out operations, and nobody was sure whether or not they were legal, as the regulations were not sufficiently specific or explanatory.
Right from the start, we wanted to have regulations and comply with them, because our ‘Safety First’ philosophy does not make sense without clear, appropriate and up-to-date regulations. We therefore started collaborating in working groups coordinated by the Spanish Aviation Safety and Security Agency (AESA, for its initials in Spanish) in 2013. The main objective of these groups was the creation of specific regulations for drones.
However, in April 2014 AESA issued a statement that clarified that the flight of drones in the commercial sector was completely prohibited. This was a tough time for us, as after a year and a half of work we had managed to secure our first recurring contracts, which we then had to cancel.
During those approximately three months without regulations, our path was a little complicated. However, with the appearance of the new regulation, even with its obvious limitations, we were able to find the right path to follow and overcome this difficulty.
Current legislation stipulates that civil drones must operate in areas separate from those used by conventional aviation, at least until airspace can be shared safely. Do you think that the evolution of technology and legislation should move forward in this sector in a more synchronised way?
I completely agree with what you’re saying, but I do understand that it can’t always be that way. It is well known that technological evolution is ahead of regulations, which is to be expected, as legislation tries to regulate “new situations”. A very recent example can be found in electric skateboards and scooters. Once the first accidents began to happen, their use began to be regulated. And, in a world as strict as aeronautics, it’s even more complicated.
I would like to point out that current regulations are very complete and, among other things, allow the flight of drones within CTR (Controlled Traffic Regions) and other areas that are “occupied” by commercial aviation. In that sense, I think AESA has taken the lead on a world level, because in many other countries this option is still unthinkable.
Now we need to standardise our regulations (on a European/world level) and speed up the application for permits, which currently take a long time, sometimes more than six months.
HEMAV’s drone technology is recognised worldwide, mainly for its application in precision agriculture. What is the difference between this technology and other drones on the market?
As you say, HEMAV is currently recognised in the precision agriculture sector for the application of different technologies. In addition to the use of drones, we also emphasise artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning. However, the drones that we offer at HEMAV for agriculture are mainly focused on simplicity and robustness, with a low cost compared to other similar solutions on the market.
More than 5 years experience in the sale of drones for agricultural applications has allowed us to be very familiar with the sector and its needs, so our drones and their workflow and operation are optimised by and for this application.
The current market mainly seems to consist of either very economical solutions that are usually very unreliable, or other solutions that are very expensive and that directly make the business unsustainable. Our solutions are affordable, but at the same time we prioritise their safety of use and their robustness.
Has the company set itself a short-term objective of entering other areas in the civil sector?
Currently HEMAV Technology’s main focus is in three areas, in this order of relevance: agriculture, utilities (industrial inspection) and training. After many iterations and after having worked in many other sectors, these areas have been where we have felt most comfortable and where we can bring most value to our clients. They offer us the opportunity to use drone technology as the main (but not the only) information capture tool to feed our AI and machine learning algorithms, for the precise and autonomous analysis of this information.
Our near future does not lie in expanding into more sectors on a general level, but rather in increasing the number of applications within each of the areas we work in, becoming greater leaders and specialists every day.
In the case of agriculture, the main growth we see is in the increase of processable crops. Although the same drone technology could be applicable to all crops, this is not the case for information processing and agronomic knowledge. This is currently a major focus of ours, and we are true pioneers in most of the deliverables offered to our clients.
As far as the world of utilities is concerned, it is clearly a huge sector. We are currently experts in the inspection of power lines, but we are already considering increasing our scope to other fields, such as photovoltaics and the inspection of other linear infrastructures.
Finally, in terms of training, we carry out courses focused on obtaining a drone pilot certificate, which involves both theoretical and practical training. We also offer other courses, such as a radio operator course and a course on audiovisual and television production with drones, among others.
In 2017 you created Hemav Foundation, an institution from which you apply your drone technology for more humanitarian and social purposes, in collaboration with organisations such as the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the NGO Proactiva Open Arms. What projects have you got going on right now?
The creation of the foundation was mainly to carry out various charitable projects that HEMAV as a company could not undertake. Thus, using our technology and knowledge, we decided to create a foundation in order to do our part, and use technology (mainly drone technology) for humanitarian purposes.
The foundation has three major projects supported by large organisations: Freeda, Drones Against Hunger and Kids.
Freeda is the project that we have in collaboration with Proactiva Open Arms, where the main objective is to collaborate in the search and detection of boats that are adrift. A drone system with a thermal sensor will be used for this purpose, and it will take off and land from a rescue boat. This drone will make sweeps of different areas and autonomously detect hot spots that correspond to a person or group of people, duly informing the ship’s control station.
Drones Against Hunger is a project in collaboration with the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations) that seeks to use a solution based on drones and specific sensors to control and monitor desert locust plagues.
Lastly, the final major project is Kids, which aims to promote new educational trends in STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Mathematics), incorporating drone technology as a backbone, and relating it to other technologies and key skills at different levels of the education system. This project is being carried out in collaboration with schools and public institutions, and several successful pilot tests have already been completed.