Susan Talbot of Skytango has been along for the ride in the evolving UAS industry

Background:

Tell us about yourself and your background.
I started in television back in 1993 when I was working as a P.A. for a television production company here in Ireland.  Once I finished my contract I was off doing one course after another in various production roles and sound recording until I eventually had a large enough portfolio to apply for a place in the National Film School where I majored in Post Production (Editing). I worked as a freelance editor for several years before moving to Minneapolis to work for a post-production company there. I got the chance to work on some great projects from PBS to Discovery Channel and even Paisley Park – getting to visit the studios, although only ever getting to talk to Prince on the phone! It was working in Minneapolis that I won an Emmy Award for documentary work, and I met my husband and business partner, Steve Flynn – who actually did get to work with Prince 🙂

How did you get started in the drone industry?  
Steve and I returned from the US in 2012 to live in Ireland. Having been in Film & Television production in some form or another for the last 35 years and with 9 Emmys between us, we thought it would be easy enough to get production work. But Ireland was in the middle of a recession. Most of the country was emigrating and finding work didn’t prove as easy as we thought. Plus, it’s a close-knit community. So we needed a differentiator and drones were just breaking onto the scene in production. We took a leap of faith and ploughed everything we had into a Freefly Octocopter and a Movi M10 with a Canon 5D.

With my background as a Producer/Editor and Steve’s as a director of photography and a remote control and aviation enthusiast, it was a natural leap to put the camera in the air and go knock on doors. We founded Aerial Filming Ireland and were one of the first commercially licensed drone companies here.  As recently as five years ago the gear wasn’t nearly as advanced as it is now and you had to be licensed to operate commercially and insurance rates were high. The drone we started out with is now hanging in our office on display as a reminder of how hard those early days were.

We slowly moved out of aerial filming (although we occasionally fly commercially for R&D on sets like Vikings, filming here in Co. Wicklow) and we moved into software development and utilized our domain expertise on all sides of the marketplace to build Skytango. Ireland is a few years ahead of the US when it comes to drone regulation and integration, so being located here has been a great test bed for our software and we have found the Irish Aviation Authority very accommodating toward anything that promotes safety and compliance where drones are concerned.

Tell us about Skytango and your role there.
The idea for Skytango really began 16 years ago when Steve and I were sitting around a table with some developers talking about building an asset-tracking platform for the television industry. Holding a PDA in our hand (remember those) we thought…if only this was connected to the internet, had a touch screen and could take photographs. Well, Steve Jobs would soon have that all covered but it was outside of our expertise at the time and obviously not related to drones! But technology caught up with us eventually.

Skytango is another iteration of that original idea. It is a marketplace and software as a service that connects drone flyers with the people who hire them and it incentivizes compliance. I am the co founder and COO, which is a natural fit for me as a producer.  

Industry Experience:

What do you like most about being in the UAV industry?
I like that it’s an emerging industry. That opens the door to endless opportunities and we are slowly moving beyond the negative connotations of drones solely as military vehicles.  Recently Skytango did an interview with Raffaello D’Andrea of Verity Studios in Zurich, about the use of drones in the Cirque Du Soleil production Paramour, where eight autonomous lampshades (drones of course) dance in the air to support the romantic moment when two characters declare their feelings for each other. In such a short space of time we have shifted our thoughts from bombs to Broadway.

What’s your favorite type of project and why?
I’m a filmmaker at heart, so I love to see well-executed, well-composed aerials that move a narrative forward and with the right music…it can be very emotive. BBC’s Planet Earth II documentary is a prime example.  I was scrolling through film festival entries recently and those that managed this, really stood out from the crowd. I also love getting my teeth into our own content marketing projects. It really allows our team to get creative, get out of the office and have a few laughs and to experience drones in action and understand how important safety and compliance are.

Do you have a success story you would like to share?
I actually left this question until the end because my default is to get bogged down in my failures and they can overshadow everything else. So I stopped to smell the roses.  I thought about all that has happened over the last few years that has gotten me to Skytango – from Emmy Awards to drone crashes, from movie releases to software development – and I realize that the idea behind Skytango is directly informed by those experiences, so in essence, even the failures have been a success!

What excites you most about the potential for women in the industry?
This industry is so new that it’s kind of a level playing field where gender equity is concerned. There is no glass ceiling to break through. It’s early enough to set the culture and help shape the rules. More and more women are immersing themselves in this new technology – all aspects of it, from manufacturing & design, to flying and everything in between and are proving formidable in their chosen roles. Only last weekend we were at the Drone and Tech Expo here in Dublin and several female pilots approached us compared to none last year.

What You’ve Learned:

What has been your most significant “lightbulb” moment since you entered the industry?
Back in 2012, Steve and I poured everything into our Heavylift and ancillary gear. You couldn’t fly commercially in Ireland without an Aerial Works Permission (AWP), but we ran up against many instances of unlicensed operators working for less money, which we couldn’t do because our overheads were higher and content buyers really weren’t aware of the risks they were taking hiring an unlicensed, uninsured operator in that environment. In Dec 2015 regulation in Ireland changed, and unlicensed operators were allowed to work commercially depending on their location. Overnight the problem became less about whether a pilot was licensed or unlicensed and more about legal/illegal operations – Was the pilot flying within their limits? Over a crowd? Did they have landowner permissions to launch and land from a given location? Were they insured?  

Skytango was our ‘lightbulb’ moment. In this small market it was hard to make a living operating a drone company full time, but we had spent four years running headlong into the problems of the black and white of aviation meeting the grey of TV production, the run n’ gun of getting the ‘money shot’ while nobody is looking.  That doesn’t work successfully when you have a regulatory body breathing down your neck – because if something goes wrong you can be sure your client will say that it was your responsibility to say no! We are building Skytango so that other pilots and content buyers have a reference point of what can and can’t be done. It makes it easier to say no to a client who wants you to exceed your limits – you get to say ‘that will cost more ‘ or ‘you have to hire the pilot down the road with the right gear and the right permits’. Skytango is about valuing the industry.

What have you learned you wish you had known when you got started?
I wish someone had said to me: Happy Marriage, Happy kids, Clean House, Choose two! I know that’s a bit tongue-in-cheek and not drone related, but we, as in women, really put ourselves under a lot of pressure when it comes to what we can achieve in a day and what really matters. I used to try and do it all, but over time the stress cracks started to appear. Now it’s a constant scramble for clean underwear in my house – but we laugh a lot.  🙂    

Is there a tip you learned you would like to share with other women in the industry?
This biggest support network you have is other women! We are lucky in Ireland that there is so much support for female entrepreneurs and I have leaned on that support network quite a lot over the last 2 years especially, organisations like Women & Drones, SheFlies , Amelia Dronehart and key players like Lisa Ellman of the Commercial Drone Alliance and Sally French,The Drone Girl are great role models for women in this tech space.  I have a particular soft spot for SheFlies. As the mom of a 13 yr old girl I am a keen advocate of STEM for girls and STEM programmes, because you can just see their confidence diminish around this age. My co-founder, Steve Flynn worked on a terrific show for PBS called SciGirls. I remember somebody asking me why the show wasn’t called SciKids, surely that would be more inclusive. The whole idea of the series is to address gender inequity in the sciences – girl focused, boy friendly.  So drones are the ideal introduction to science, tech & fun!

Connection:

What’s the best way for W&D readers to connect with you? 
Susan Talbot
Follow us on Twitter @skytangoteam
or Join Skytango www.skytango.com

The Final Word:

Is there anything else you would like to share with the Women and Drones Community?
Don’t be afraid of technology – that’s the message you’re sending to young girls. You won’t see the benefits now, but 10 or 20 years from now you will be heralded as trailblazers.  Remember that!

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