Three pivots, six years, 100 clients later, the journey has just begun believes FlytBase, the world’s pioneer in drone-automation platform
Starting off as a passion project in 2013, today, the drone automation startup, is helping enterprises, startups, governments and students leverage the power of drones for interesting use cases. For instance, in the US, the FlytBase platform has been used for automating 911 emergency responses. “A drone is automatically deployed on the receipt of a 911 emergency call. It starts to transmit live images/video from the scene of the emergency. This helps in better coordination among the emergency services and results in a more efficient response. This is an example of how this technology can be effectively used to save lives,” explains Nitin Gupta, Co-Founder, FlytBase.
Over the last few years, the FlytBase platform has been used by 100+ enterprise customers, and 5000+ developers, to automate a range of drone applications. FlytBase has worked closely with FlyPulse, a Sweden-based company to accelerate the drone application development of LifeDrone AED -- a transportation drone, equipped with an automated external defibrillator (AED) . This portable electronic device automatically diagnoses life-threatening cardiac arrhythmias and treats them through defibrillation, the application of electrical therapy. FlytBase was also instrumental in developing the world’s first application of machine learning on drone image-data for Oryx detection in the desert.
“Today, our drone-automation platform products are used by system integrators and solution providers to offer point-solutions for warehouse inventory management, emergency responses, wind-turbine inspections, delivery, railroad inspections, etc.,” says Nitin.
From an experiment to finding commercial success
Nitin Gupta, Kaushik Gala, Dhiraj Dhule, Sharvashish Das and Achal Negi, the core team, are alumni of some of the most prestigious educational institutions like IIT Bombay, IIT Kharagpur, Georgia Tech, University of Texas, KIIT, and worked at Samsung Electronics, Motorola Semiconductor and various tech startups prior to starting FlytBase. This helped develop their expertise in robotics/drones, aerospace, control systems, computer vision, and machine-learning among others. But what the team really brought to the table “was the common intent to experiment and build innovative products in robotics and automation,” says Nitin.
He adds, “We observed that while drones had the potential for a wide range of commercial applications, most drones needed a manual operator. But, we realised that this model was not scalable considering that the future would witness large scale deployment of drones.”
Deliberating on the solutions, the team saw a key market gap -- while there was good drone hardware, there wasn’t a reliable automation software that could transform the drone into a smart automated solution for a given commercial problem.”
The team started working on drone automation in 2013. However, it took the form of FlytBase in 2016. “We started with building a drone operating system. This included the onboard software layers for intelligence, cloud layers for live connectivity, fleet management, an SDK, and a simulator for testing drone applications. This OS also serves as a hardware-abstraction layer in order to make drone applications independent of the hardware.
Having invested in building this powerful platform, the team decided to explore building complete solutions for some of the verticals where they could see a large opportunity and a good fit with their core technology. The team then built solutions for warehouse inventory management, automated wind-turbine inspections and remote operation of drone-fleets for public safety, security and inspections.
Today, headquartered in the US as a drone software company with a software development center in Pune in India, the team has four key offerings - FlytOS: The operating system for commercial drones; FlytCloud: Internet-of-Drones platform; FlytWare: Fully automated warehouse inventory counting solution and FlytNow: SaaS product for live remote drone operations.
In the last few years, the FlytBase platform has been used by 100+ B2B customers, and 5000+ developers, to automate a range of drone applications. Nitin says FlytWare is one of their key products.
“We have worked closely with several warehouse operators in the US and Europe to automate drones for warehouse inventory counts.”
Explaining the relevance and popularity of FlytWare, Nitin shares, “Warehouse inventory count is currently done manually. A person with a barcode scanner reaches out to each and every box/pallet and scans it. A large warehouse could have hundreds of thousands of such pallets, and each rack could be ~40 ft tall. This makes cycle-counts not only very expensive and time-consuming, but also quite risky for the workers. Various drivers, like, one-day shipping, e-commerce, and SLAs of 3PLs are making regular cycle-counts more important than ever. With drones, the entire cycle-count operation can be completely automated, resulting in huge savings and improvement in operational efficiency. Once deployed, these automated drones can also be used for other adjacent functions, like, rack inspections, security and roof inspections inside a warehouse. This results in huge savings, and makes inventory counts more accurate and efficient.”
How getting a grip of the basics helped
Given the popularity of FlytWare, FlytBase is continuing to add more capabilities to this product to make it useful across various kinds of warehouses (rack storage, bulk storage, case reserves, retail stores), and to make it more reliable, accurate and fast. The team believes, “Today, we are able to demonstrate the value that our products are creating for our customers. But, we have had three major pivots before we arrived here.”
It is here in this journey, the startup found support from the JioGenNext accelerator. “We were fortunate to get into the programme in 2016. It was during the early days of FlytBase, and we were still trying to identify the initial product-market fit,” says Nitin. Getting into the accelerator saw the founders learning a lot of lessons from mentors who built successful businesses. “There were several learnings from the programme. One of the sessions really made us think about the various traction channels and how to identify and focus on what is working for our business. We dropped working on too many things and started to focus our limited resources on digital marketing/content, as that was working best for us. This focus has resulted in the creation of a strong inbound channel over the last 3+ years, thereby helping us maintain a good conversion ratio and a low CAC, while continuing to attract global customers for our world-class products. That apart, we also learnt about the investor mindset, when to raise capital, whom to raise it from, and how to pitch,” says Nitin.
Post graduating from the accelerator, the team went onto raise angel funding from investors in the US and India. More recently, in 2019, FlytBase raised seed funding from a US-based fund.
Gearing up for a takeoff
Operating in the commercial drone market, which is still very new, Nitin says, “It is important to quickly be able to test out ideas and identify what can create value for customers.”
That is why as the startup continues to invest heavily building its world-class products, it will work closely with customers in order to ensure that the products continue to deliver value and scale.”
Also, what gives the startup an additional competitive advantage is that they have very few competitors, even in geographies like US and Europe.
“None of our competitors have invested in building a “platform”, which makes it hard for them to be agile and to scale. As the customer’s requirements evolve and other factors, such as regulations, come into play, the power of the platform allows us quickly accommodate those market requirements and continue to offer compelling products to our customers,” says Nitin.
For FlytBase, after six years building the technology and platform ground-up, “the journey has just begun,” says Nitin.