In a relatively young industry still finding its feet, a Raglan-based drone manufacturer is already flying high worldwide. Exporter Today traces the remarkable progress of Linda Bulk and Rob Brouwer’s Aeronavics.
A native of the Netherlands, Linda Bulk’s goal on leaving school was to study creative-expression psychology. Unfortunately she missed passing her final school exam by two points, so couldn’t enter the course.
Linda didn't think she was cut out for the corporate world, but a two-week trial at a large telecom company resulted in a ten year stay, working in a variety of roles. She discovered she had an affinity with the corporate world and the ‘game’ of business.
As an account manager for large corporates, Linda had to understand operations at all levels, and advise on suitable products, which essentially involved translating requirements into a technical solution. This experience, she believes, proved invaluable for building her current business, Aeronavics.
Linda’s professional career also involved change management and she became fascinated by people’s responses to change, which generally involved stress.
She decided to focus more on the human aspect of business and to launch her own business, focusing on change management, personal and team development.
But restless times were just around the corner.
Linda first took a year to travel the world, starting with Australia. The goal was to discover her own ability to adapt to ‘circumstance’ on a moment to moment basis.
Back in Holland, as well as run her business, she planned to write a book about her experiences. However an invitation took her back ‘Downunder’ in March 2007, where she managed a retreat centre for eight weeks and met Rob Brouwer.
The following year Linda and Rob started experimenting with drones, and in 2010 Droidworx (now Aeronavics) was launched. At the time “multi-rotor” technology had just emerged; explored by a small group of enthusiasts scattered around the world and connected through forums. Rob and Linda could see the many advantages over single-rotor helicopters. Running a photography business at the time, they imagined a camera mounted underneath the drone to obtain aerial views.
Initial attempts creating airframe structures and trying different motors and propeller combinations soon evolved into multi-rotor airframes made from aluminium and carbon-fibre and free from vibration – to capture professional, clean images.
The final version worked really well and was noticed by people within the multi-rotor community, who suddenly wanted to buy them.
The decision was made to create a production model. As their airframes had previously been a handmade labour of love, Linda and Rob now had to create engineering drawings and assemblies, and source parts from manufacturers.
Within a week of the website going live, a French forum member requested a distributorship.
Amazingly, through organic growth, it took just three months for the budding company to amass 60 distributors worldwide.
A string of circumstances led to Linda and Rob relocating across the Tasman in 2011.
They wanted a base that had both natural beauty and plenty of room to fly. Raglan is just 30 minutes from Hamilton and two hours from Auckland Airport, and the Aeronavics base has since grown to include office space, R&D workshop and production line.
Milestones have been reached quickly. Aeronavics produced the first drone capable of carrying a Hollywood-grade camera (red epic), which resulted in gaining FAA certification for use in professional filmmaking. Aeronavics products are chosen by some of the world’s biggest companies, such as NASA, Disney and Dreamworks.
Locally, winning the Innovation Award at the 2013 Fieldays was a significant milestone, as was a successful Snowball Effect crowdfunding exercise in February 2015. Aeronavics ended up acquiring its maximum target of $1.5 million.
The crowdfunding campaign was a fantastic boost for the business, says Linda. “We have a product roadmap defined for the next three to five years to ensure we keep at the frontline of innovation, with concrete plans for further integrated intelligence and embedded systems. To implement this and further scale our business we’ve just launched our round B capital raise for wholesale investors.”
She says there’s no lack of demand, and no shortage of people wanting to work in the industry. “Consequently the biggest challenge is raising enough capital to pay people and get more people on board to scale the business to meet demand and further grow sales and support channels.”
Initial naivety meant there were no contracts to stop distributors copying Aeronavics products. The most obvious one was a US distributor’s craft that, as Linda puts it, “was clearly inspired by our work”.
A little upset by this, Linda and Rob used the experience to fast forward product development.
“There’s nothing wrong with competition,” says Linda. “However, we’ve learnt that fair play doesn’t always come naturally. It sometimes needs to be ‘claimed’ by putting the right contracts in place.”
Fortunately today most drone manufacturers focus on the consumer market. Aeronavics has a clear advantage in the industrial/commercial space due to the long-standing respect and success of its brand.
The main export challenge for Aeronavics has been sourcing overseas partners. At first Linda and Rob said ‘yes’ to anyone who asked. It was such a fledgling market that they considered anyone capable of progressing it a welcome asset.
More recently, they’ve become more selective to ensure their brand’s represented according to their high standards and the same level of support.
With worldwide regulations coming to bear on the drone market, exporting challenges will increase, they believe. To combat changes it’s imperative that permits/licenses are in place, and partners chosen carefully.
“Ensure that you’re all on the same page and be clear about your expectations,” advises Linda. “This includes everything from the representation of the brand and sales targets through to working together for product development. Once these expectations are clarified, ensure all contracts and agreements are formalised. Once up and going, treat [distributors] as part of your sales team and nurture the relationship.”
Going forward, the goal for Aeronavics is to be an international drone icon; “to be clearly recognised as a global leader”.
Linda and Rob’s mission is to change the way the world works through sustainable intelligent aerial robotics solutions – increasing efficiency, lowering cost and increasing safety in the industrial and professional markets.
“We want to continue to be known as bringing cutting edge, innovative, quality products to the market that solve real world problems,” says Linda. “We’re already known for our product quality and level of support. We also want our craft to be an object of beauty. Whilst our primary focus is offering functionality, we combine this with engineering mastery and beauty.”