From training the WA Police Force in the drone technology which helped locate Cleo Smith, to working with the New South Wales Fire and Rescue Service, Ross Anderson (39), founder and managing director of AviAssist, is one of the leading experts on remote technology in Australia.
After turning his back on a career as a commercial pilot, Anderson pivoted to the drone world and founded AviAssist in 2013 to provide specialised training to Australian businesses, government agencies and individuals.
The 2021 National Young Entrepreneur finalist speaks to Business News Australia about his business, his role in disaster relief recovery and details how he stays across the latest technology in an industry that is constantly evolving.
Anderson is speaking to Business News Australia from Coffs Harbour, NSW, where he has been forced to jump “back on the tools” after some of his staff were forced into isolation due to COVID.
It’s a role Anderson is very comfortable with and still finds enjoyable - he has just finished working with members of the New South Wales Fire Rescue Service for the day.
Reflecting on his previous experience climbing the corporate ladder as a commercial pilot, Anderson says he appreciates the beauty of working within the remote pilot space; he obtains far more personal satisfaction from teaching and enabling other organisations.
“When I was working in aeromedical, flying aeroplanes, you might get a call at four o’clock in the afternoon, and you might not come back for four days, you just never knew,” Anderson says.
“You might have heard of the term ‘the golden handcuffs’? The money is good, but the lifestyle can be quite tricky.
“Chronic long-haul pilots might be away from home for six months of the year, on the other side of the planet… some like it, some don’t.”
Anderson reached directly into the pool of pilots from the second category, many of whom he had known since university, when initially onboarding staff for his business. The former pilots remained passionate about aviation, but no longer appreciated the lifestyle.
The idea for the business came to Anderson, who holds a Bachelor of Science (aviation), in 2011 when early adopters of drone technology, mainly surveyor organisations, sought out his advice.
At the time he was the owner of an earlier iteration of his business which was predominantly involved in contracting out experienced flight crew for short-term flights.
Quickly discerning that remotely piloted aviation could vastly improve safety and efficiency across multiple industry sectors, Anderson then researched whether there was any training available for people who needed to operate the drone technology.
Identifying a gap in the market, Anderson concluded that there was no pathway available to benchmark individuals against a standard of competence or the ability to obtain a drone operating license. As such, he approached the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) with a proposal.
Buoyed by a sense of opportunity and excited by the educational aspects of the challenge, Anderson developed one of the first commercial drone training courses to be recognised by CASA.
Today, individuals must obtain a remote operating pilot licence to operate drones commercially in Australia.
A standard AviAssist training package takes five days to complete. If the individual undergoing the training attains the required standard, AviAssist will recommend CASA to issue a remote operating pilot license.
It is not just the training aspect that AviAssist covers; it is also an opportunity to work with companies to help facilitate a better understanding of the technology.
“The exciting bit is having the ability to get across a diverse range of industries and actually improve businesses - improving other people's businesses to adopt aviation to part of what they do,” Anderson explains.
“There’s an opportunity to use technology to improve the vast majority, rather than a few.”
Mining and surveying industries were early adopters of the technology and the training - providing an immediate customer base for the new venture. It wasn’t long before drones were helping to alleviate the need for people to walk on stockpiles of coal and iron ore.
Anderson and a small team are based out of an office in Mayfield East, Newcastle, NSW. However, due to the growing reliance on drone technology in the mining industry, AviAssist’s larger office is based in Perth, WA.
AviAssist is one of the leading training specialists in the industry. As one of the mature leaders it has benefited from working with its customer base over several years, remaining as the training provider for these businesses as they progressed into more complex operations.
In contrast, many newer training providers deliver relatively basic training to companies in the security sector or companies who want to deploy drones for warehouse inspections.
“When you mention remote technology or drones, most people think of a little quadcopter operating by remote control, nice and local,” Anderson says.
“Whereas, what we're trying to say is; what do you actually want to achieve? Let's go and focus on that.
“Whether that's sitting in an office in Perth, flying something in the Pilbara, if that's the end goal, then we'll just go step by step, crawl-walk-run mentality to get you there, and that’s the objective.”
Government agencies are considered the key growth market for the business, and Anderson has first-hand experience appreciating the significant importance of drone technology in making a substantial impact on these services.
Members of aviation units within Fire and Rescue NWS and Fire Rescue Victoria have recently undertaken drone training through AviAssist so they can better monitor large and complex fires from the air.
Anderson and his team have also worked with Surf Life Saving in South Australia and Victoria, training lifesavers to look out for sharks.
The business has also enabled other types of disaster relief training, such as cooperating with a veteran organisation that chases tsunamis and undertakes associated humanitarian community causes.
Anderson finds working on these projects really touching and none more so than when he learnt about drone technology being used to find clues for the missing Cleo Smith last year.
When he is not forced to jump back on the tools, Anderson can typically be found in the office working with organisations to enhance capabilities and help them to get the best use out of the technology.
“It's nice to be in front of the people that you're helping, it’s that personal interaction that I really enjoy, and I still enjoy teaching,” Anderson says.
“And likewise, even if I'm in the office and on the phone with the clients trying to enable them, I still find it really rewarding seeing someone get to the goal that they want to achieve.”
First Job: I worked in a video store at a VideoEzy. I would’ve loved to own a video store back then… but pretty glad I didn’t.
Last holiday: South West Rocks Caravan Park with the kids.
Best advice: If you’ve got something to share, you should share it. Your wins deserve to be acknowledged.
How do you relax: Normally with the family, take the four-wheel-drive out from time to time, and fishing.
Favourite Podcast: The Mentor by Mark Bouris
Favourite City: Perth
Entrepreneur from birth
As far back as he can remember, Anderson has been fascinated with running his own race, so he is thrilled to now own a business.
However, if he could give one piece of advice to his younger self, it would be to back himself more during the early days of the business. As the company experienced growth of 56 per cent per year, Anderson remained hesitant to meet the demand.
Although AviAssist remains one of the leading training organisations in the country, Anderson was initially reluctant to trust his intuition and invest heavily in expanding the business in case organisations didn’t take up remote technologies.
This ability to critique his past decisions while looking at ways to improve has led Anderson to consider applying for an MBA to better educate himself in the world of finance.
Before potentially embarking on a study program, Anderson has two priorities that he hopes to tackle within the industry: amending the necessity for drone trainers to have previously trained as a pilot. Anderson hopes to work with CASA to create a training course for instructors who don’t have a pilot background.
The second is to advance the standard visual line of sight (aircraft within eye range) course the business has been producing since 2013 to beyond the line of sight (aircraft out of eye range).
“Our next goal, a big hurdle in the industry, which is inhibiting beyond the line-of-sight operations, is there’s currently a pilot exam that you must pass to be able to do it,” Anderson says.
“And that's slowing everybody down, so we're putting forward a proposal to create a new course for the online site operations.
“Once that becomes widespread, that'll give the industry another injection to move to the next level.”
COVID has heavily impacted the growth of the business, but Anderson thinks it will recover quickly once things return to normal. Currently, it is seeing a steady trajectory of roughly 15 per cent growth.
As for judging what success looks like for the business, Anderson is clear about the benchmark.
“We essentially judge our success by the success of our clients, so by them being successful means we're successful, and we find that the profit just follows,” Anderson says.
“But also maintaining that culture within the organisation, and that's obviously the tricky part when we've got offices around the country, and COVID comes in and blocks borders down - so that's been a challenge.”
The future of drone technology
A government survey published by Deloitte in 2020 estimated the economic impact of drones contributed $5.5 billion to the Australian economy, and is expected to rise to up to $14.5 million by 2024. One of the key findings suggests drones support 5,500 full-time employees per annum.
According to Anderson, maintaining close relationships with clients and having an intimate relationship with the regulator is the best way to keep abreast of the evolving technology. However, he is wary of some of the claims, which enter “snake oil” territory, mainly emanating from the media.
Amongst its 20 staff, AviAssist retains a research and development arm of the business to ensure the company keeps a strategic focus on the future, seeking out upcoming hurdles inhibiting industry growth, and are prepared with training once clients catch up.
When it comes to the medium-term technology enhancements within the industry, Anderson is cognizant that the government is currently making more grants available to improve regional supply chains.
He foresees that the sizeable, more traditional-type aircraft will start to become remotely piloted, especially as fuel sources for aeroplanes are advanced.
“Things we're seeing on a small scale now, I believe, we'll just get on a larger scale going forward,” Anderson says.
“We are seeing electric aircraft, of passenger size, come about around the world, and that's probably not something that I ever would have envisaged five years ago.
“The delivery drones that we know of today, delivering doughnuts and coffees from shopping centres, I think will turn into large scale freight aircraft flying up to regions that haven't really had access to that readily in the past.”
Anderson foresees another exciting development: the government’s direct involvement in pushing the industry forward. Where 18 months ago, CASA would be solely involved, the Department of Infrastructure is now dictating strategy from a government level to enable quicker advancement.
New regulations within the industry are slated for November 2022, and AviAssist is involved in the technical working groups providing input and guidance.
Anderson believes these government-led, rather than regulator-led, regulations will likely focus on short and medium-term priorities, including flying taxis and regional supply chain development.
“For line-of-sight, the regulations first came out in 2002, and Australia was leading the world in terms of regulations to enable things to occur,” Anderson says.
“The US is now ahead of us, but we’ll be a very close follower to them, but I don’t think Australia has the manpower, resources or budget to be a leader.
“We certainly are still leading the market in some respects, like our training has been very positive to the state, but things like aircraft certification is a pretty expensive model to try and design, so I think Australia will sit in a close follower position.”
Although the Australian remote operating pilot license is remarkably well regarded worldwide, the actual licensing doesn’t carry any reciprocity equivalence in any other jurisdiction.
Therefore, Anderson and his team can train people in Australia, with students receiving an Australian remote operating pilot license, but the training won’t be recognised overseas from a licensing perspective.
For AviAssist to establish the same service in another jurisdiction, he would likely need to set up a subsidiary company to integrate fully with the local government body and accompanying legislation, potentially incurring prohibitively high initial set-up costs.
This hasn’t prevented nationals from other countries, like Fiji and Brunei, from travelling to Australia to complete AviAssist training and obtain an Australian remote operating pilot license.
Anderson recently trained the drone operators of the New Year’s Intel Drone Light Show in Sydney – a show consisting of 500 network-linked drones to run a series of displays.
Some of the crew, which have also worked on shows like the Tokyo Olympics opening ceremony, were from the US and admitted that the Australian accreditation was one of the more challenging they had undergone.
Anderson remains very happy enabling day-by-day improvements and making positive changes to business practices, especially with some of the humanitarian activities he is involved with. It certainly doesn’t appear he will let the standards of his business slip anytime soon.
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