In October we talked about one of the most recent developments in drone delivery –figuring out the last mile. Turns out a Chicago neighbor, Valqari was leading the way with their patented universal drone delivery infrastructure. That news was quite impressive including for Sean Littleton Jr.
Sean is a junior at Gwendolyn Brooks High School in Chicago. He took the RBS Drone Technologies FAA Part 107 Drone Pilots License prep course in June, and plans to take the test to get his license before the end of the year. Now 16 (the minimum age to take the test), Sean first found his love for aviation at age 12, while talking the aviation badge class in by scouts.
Sean sat down with Ryan Walsh, CEO of Valqari, to hear his story, ask how he got started and what he sees as the future for drones and drone delivery.
What Led You to Create Valqari?
Sean: Thinking about your youth, what can you say motivated you to become the man that you are today and create this engineering marvel/empire/tech company like Valqari?
Ryan Walsh: Honestly, I was kind of a bad kid. I got in a lot of trouble, and I kind of came from a pretty rough childhood with bad family dynamics and different things. And so I always read books and studied and found my own little worlds to get into. A lot of them were very science fiction-based — based on the future — and so it was always kind of something that was in me, but I had to learn pretty early on to create my own goals and my own guidance, and not necessarily rely on what other people told me.
I definitely didn’t like the path of doing what everybody else was doing and getting the same results as everybody else. And they didn’t always seem happy with those results, so I figured I was better off betting on myself. So I think my childhood was pretty much based on the principal of figuring it out for myself, not being told how to live, and finding my own guidance.
S: When were you first introduced to drones?
R: I signed up for the Army when I was 17. I tried out for Special Operations and I made it into a Ranger unit and was deployed right away. So at a very early phase in my adult life, I was engaged with drones. Being in the Rangers, we were at the cutting edge and we always had the best technology and the best assets. Oftentimes we had drone assets overhead and we had to learn their capabilities. Over the four years I was in multiple deployments, I saw the progression and I realized that these things were going to make tremendous strides. The military was always 20 years ahead of commercial technology. That laid the understanding of how drones were evolving and the future of them.
What Can a Young Person Do Today to Get Started?
At RBS, we love helping young people get their start in the aviation industry, and Sean asks an important question here. What can someone do now to qualify for a job in the drone industry in the future? Ryan has a very interesting story and illustrates how all threads of life connect to each other, and how you can use your experiences, even challenging ones, to your advantage.
S: I’m 16, and there are a lot of people like me interested in aviation and drones — especially drones. It’s the next big thing out there for sure. What can a younger person like me, who’s interested in drone tech and aviation, do to qualify for a job or opportunity at a company like Valqari and companies like it?
R: We always find that a lot of the really high-performing young kids tend to have some of the best ideas. They have a very novel perspective. You always hear about a plastic brain… you can reformulate bonds very easily the younger you are, so they learn a lot quicker. We’ve seen that a lot of our younger employees, even our fresh-out-of-high-school interns have some of the best ideas.
We’re open to considering those ideas, no matter where they come from, in the company. We have a very pro-youth mentality at Valqari. We’re always looking for kids that can add to our vision and our goals. A lot of the times, it’s just making yourself stand out, especially when you’re younger. An internship and getting in the door and those types of things are a lot easier when you don’t have a family and kids and “overhead”. It’s a good time, while you’re young, to take those risks.
And alluding to what I had to learn in my childhood. You have a tool that we never had. There were wars fought over the access to information that everybody has in their pockets right now. You can look up and learn anything. You can teach yourself any skill, college or not. You can take classes, you can learn programming, you can learn how deals are structured, you can learn finance. If you don’t understand business terms, you can take entire courses on it. You can read books.
The information is out there, it’s just that a lot of people don’t take the time to put in that foundation. The earlier you put it in, the more it builds on everything. So by the time you’re coming to us for an internship, you already know programming, you’ve studied a lot of business transactions, you’ve looked at other companies’ successes and failures in the past. It really makes you a better candidate in almost every way to put that work in early.
I always think back on my own path. I’d gotten out of the military and I went to college within three weeks. My first class Monday morning was theater, an elective I was taking to graduate. I was like, “What am I going to learn in theater?”
On the first day they were talking about Japanese theater and how the people would stand on the stage in a black suit so they couldn’t be seen by the audience. They would move the sets using the same tactics that snipers do overseas to remain hidden. That was then when it clicked: everything’s related. Even if you’re studying something or doing a hobby to learn a new skill that just makes you happy, you’ll find a way to relate it into making yourself more successful if you have the right mindset. It ended up being a very eye-opening experience. I would say expose yourself to as many skills and different assets as you can, to bring as much to the table as possible.
S: Yes! I’ve been in aviation for a couple of years now, and I haven’t really had to buy any books. I can almost teach myself all the systems on the aircraft, just on this phone in my pocket… It’s crazy.
R: You get an engineering or a programming background and you would be set because if you already have the understanding of aerodynamics and different flight procedures, that’s a very well-rounded set of skills for the drone world or any really cutting edge technology in the space.
S: For sure. And the fact that it is all free is amazing. They have websites like Codecademy, which my friends and I used to learn how to do Python and Java Script. That’s all right there.
How Do You See Technology for the Long-Term?
It’s great to think about how you can set yourself up for success in the future, and even when you are trained, it’s equally important to keep up with the way technology is evolving year after year and how to use that evolution to your advantage.
In the next part of the interview, Ryan illustrates how important it is to think about a long-term approach to your next moves and goals with the drone industry being rapidly changing and less secure than older industries.
S: You said you started in 2013. And of course, since 2013 the evolution of technology has changed a lot. Especially with drones and the commercial use of drones. How has that helped you guys?
R: It’s helped us tremendously. We were lucky enough to be on the ground floor. We got in pretty much before anybody else. At this point we have about 14 patents granted. We were the first with our technology. This goes back to my college training. It’s not just about being first to the fight but being able to maintain.
The FAA taking as long as they have to put the regulations together has really prevented anybody from going out and getting capital. You can get investors, but it’s hard to make money in drone delivery until some of these regulations open up in the coming years. So some of the early companies that really got big in 2015 and 2016 raised a ton of money, and some of them started building products for a market that was still seven, eight years away.
But they ended up failing. It’s expensive to be the first in a cutting-edge industry like aviation. You’re not dealing with computer code and getting more users. You’re dealing with things that could cause serious damage and death. That has allowed us, for those first few years, to really perfect the technology and figure out where the market was going.
A lot of those first companies were the ones that spent a lot of their money lobbying to regulations passed and educating everybody. Now, most of them are not where they should be. A couple of them have failed. Those companies kind of footed the bill for what we’re benefiting from now. We took it from a risk management and an economic point of view: how do we survive until this technology proliferates and make sure we’re primed for a mass mainstream adoption when it does? So it was a very calculated strategy that we took.
S: Chicago is the base of your company. What made you choose Chicago over other cities?
R: I was born in Chicago, raised in the suburbs. My business partner was as well. We’ve been working on this since 2013, and especially during those first four or five years, I was bootstrapping the whole thing out of my pocket. So I didn’t really have a lot of spare cash to go and pick up and move. So it just kind of evolved that way as we developed the technology.
There are also a lot of great tech schools near Chicago. In Chicago, we’re working with many of them, and we hire a lot of candidates fresh out of college or fresh out of their last internship with us, and some of them are still in college. Chicago is a great market to develop the technology and find the right talent and have access to a lot of the things we needed as a startup company.
How Will Drones Make the World a Better Place?
When you’re part of an industry that has hopeful projections but less security, a good approach is to think of the opportunities you pursue as a chance to be a well-rounded steward of the market. Focusing long-term on how to help make the world a better place, not necessarily how you can be the more innovative or most exciting company for the present moment or short-term, is beneficial.
Ryan used this approach when he thought about how he could serve the market in the later stages of adoption. In doing this, he was still taking risks, but they were risks balanced with stability that could carry his business into the future for years to come.
S: Speaking about a market that’s far away, I was thinking about how when you see the start-up of successful businesses–it’s like their market didn’t even really exist when they started. Often, businesses start with someone thinking, “You have to solve a problem,” or “You should solve a world problem.” Going back to the start of your company, would you in a way, say that you kind of helped create this market?
R: Yes, I absolutely would. There are a lot of different things that go into this technology, and by no means are we trying to solve all of them, but it’s like anything else. There’s an ecosystem, and we wanted to be good stewards and solve our part as best we could. We weren’t trying to solve every piece of it, we just wanted to solve that end and send point infrastructure.
There were a lot of companies going after drones and a lot of companies going after software. And it probably seemed easier in the time, but now when you have thousands of competitors, it ends up being a much more painful route. So the easiest route isn’t always the best one. Rarely is it the best one.
We went after late-stage adoption stuff, infrastructure. The first phase is drone, second phase is software and different ecosystem pieces and the third phase infrastructure. While it was going to be harder to get an adoption, it gave us more time to perfect our technology, sense where the market was, and really understand the different components that we’re going to go into being successful. So it ended up working out to our benefit doing it that way.
S: In the past couple of years, we see a growing presence of clean energy and transportation, like Tesla’s electric cars, electric planes, and they’re even trying to make electric helicopters and motorcycles now. How do you see that impacting Valqari and how would your company aid the cargo industry in the future?
R: We see ourselves as much more than just logistics, and our future is really built on being good stewards and not only a smart logistics and supply chain, but a smart city. One of the markets we’re looking at is mailboxes. Other ones are urban infrastructure and related pieces. When you have these entire neighborhoods and cities that have these external IoT (Internet of Things) applications, how do you leverage that convergent technology?
In the ’80s and the ’90s, you were in telecom or you were in logistics, but now, in this Fourth Industrial Revolution, they’re all converging. You can’t be in engineering and not understand telephony or IoT or cellular connectivity or coding. Everything that the world’s been working on in parallel is coming together.
If you have all these connected devices and you put sensors in them, now we can map meteorological and weather patterns to a degree that’s never been thought possible before. Now we can put seismic sensors like the ones in California and have much more pinpointed accuracy on detecting epicenters for earthquakes. We’re in the beginning stages of incorporating solar into some of our next generation products. And if we have enough of these generating ambient power, we can power the streetlights and some of the signs and other things in the neighborhood.
It’s about leveraging how we become staple pieces of a future smart city. You look at how connected internet connectivity or cellular connectivity is, and almost everything we do now. I think it’s going to be very much like that in the future. Not just with drones, but autonomy in general.
S: Talking about the future of your Valqari, how do you plan on expanding the access of it more and more?
R: It’s going to be a broad strategy. Our patents cover about 40-45% of the world’s population, most of the major developed countries. It’s going to be different from area to area, customer to customer, segment to segment.
We’re looking at technology with drones and autonomous logistics and everything else that really anybody can benefit from. Our biggest problem now, and I’m sure it will be for the next 10-15 years, is going to be being able to just keep up with the growth. We have more customer demand and we’re going to be able to handle it for quite some time.
And it’s a good problem to have, but it’s going to be, to your point, a question of how to expand into each of those areas. I wish I had an easy one-size-fits-all answer for you, but the truth is it’s just an extremely complicated thing that’s going to require market by market assessments and analysis.
How Can Valqari and Your Technology Help the World?
While the drone industry is going through some exciting changes, drone companies and pilots are still at the mercy of the new regulations and laws being developed. This is why it continues to be important to make career and business decisions based around what will put you in the best position for long-term success, and remember the importance of what we’re doing in the drone industry — that we’re part of an industry that has the potential to completely change how society does work and personal activities.
S: What is your package delivery rate?
R: That kind of goes back to the FAA and their timeline. We’re in the process of launching, and it’s difficult to do a lot of the real deliveries unless you have the money like an Amazon or UPS to really sustain those types of operations. We’ve ended up partnering with 15 different drone providers and flight operators, and we’re actually in the process of sending out our landing stations to them to incorporate into their different pilots and tests, essentially turning their delivery networks and pilots into fully autonomous point to point deliveries, just by adding us in.
S: As technology evolves, the regulations are going to become more restrictive. How do you and your team hope to change aviation or the cargo industry as a whole?
R: It’s not so much how do we hope to change aviation. Aviation, like anything else, is going to evolve. And this technology is a big piece of it. What we’re really hoping to change is people’s lives using the technology. We’re looking at all kinds of different ways we can better our communities. For example generating power that we can give back to the community and stop relying on unclean energy or putting these in specific locations where natural disasters occur and using them as emergency resupply in the event of natural disasters. We also see putting our patented mailboxes in rural villages in Asia and Africa where the infrastructure is extremely difficult and medical supplies are very costly to get in.
Now we can get these in very cheaply and very quickly, and really give anybody access to what they need. It’s not just about the convenience of being able to say, “Hey, I want to order this,” and getting a cheeseburger delivered in 15 minutes. That’s just kind of a perk.
It’s “I might have COVID. I can do a telehealth appointment.” So I go to a telehealth appointment. Doctor says I have the symptoms, and they can send a test out. If I take it and put it back in the mailbox, a drone picks it up. If it tests positive after they take it to the lab, you schedule in the delivery of medicines, meals, and all that stuff.
How we can make this accessible to as many people as possible so we can positively impact their lives? It’s all those basic errands people spend entire weekends and evenings on, picking up this and that, and it’s sometimes cost-prohibitive for families to order all that in. If we can bring the cost down to the point where you can spend time with your family and you don’t have to have errands take up your time, it’s going to lead to more productivity, happier people, and safer—especially when going to the store can be risky in the event of pandemics and such.
We see this being a big catalyst for how we want the future to be for everybody.
S: I’m very excited to see what could happen in the future. A company like this can really shape society. And I really hope that this is a huge success.
And Now, Ryan Asks Sean Questions
As Sean was winding up the interview, he asked Ryan “Is there anything else you’d like to say?” Turns out Ryan did, and he flipped the interview over to Sean.
Ryan: I’d like to hear a little bit more about your background. Tell me a little bit more about what you do.
I was at a Boy Scout aviation merit badge class and was very interested. I was like “Wow you really can fly!” That’s one thing I like, speed and sound. I love cars. I love technology too. I’m a computer guy. I build computers. I like drones. So aviation was interesting to me. I basically got a bunch of books, watched a bunch of YouTube videos all day and learned everything I could about the aviation. And the only thing that really held me back was my age, because at 12 or 13, you can’t do too much at that time but learn and wait for opportunities to open up.
So fast-forward about two years or so, at the end of eighth grade, I joined the program at my school called Bessie Coleman Aviation All Stars. Bessie Coleman was the first black woman to get her pilot’s license. She got an international pilot’s license in France and brought it back to America with the intention of opening flight schools for minorities, because we couldn’t really get flight training here at the time. The leader of my program is Gigi Coleman, Bessie Coleman’s great-niece. She helped me become more exposed to aviation, especially the jobs and the future career opportunities.
I got to go to a couple of programs. And that’s how I met Ken Rapier who connected me to Mr. Thompson who are both part of RBS Drone Technologies. I’m on track to get my Part 107 license soon, before the end of the year.
My ultimate career goal would be to be an airline pilot for Southwest. That’s my favorite airline. I went to a program with them last October at their HQ in Dallas, and flew one of their full-motion simulators, which is really cool. It was crazy how real it feels. Now, I understand why if you can fly the simulator, you can fly the plane. They can simulate acceleration and climbing and stuff in an enclosed box on some hydraulics. It’s crazy. I also did a couple of flight programs, just trying to get myself out there and make the connections and build the time for these future opportunities.
Ryan went on to tell Sean he’d be a great candidate for an internship at Valqari, and we can’t wait to see what comes of that!
Is there a young person like Sean in your life who has a lot of potential and an interest in technology? If so, check out our Sponsor-A-Student program and support the next generation of drone pilots and industry changers!