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Alumni, Drones, and Multi-Copters Fuel a New Industry
Alumni, Drones, and Multi-Copters Fuel a New Industry
  • 150th Alumni Stories
  • 150th Anniversary
The answer is found in the fast-moving technology itself and the industry springing up around it. Unmanned aerial systems (UAS), commonly known as drones, uses an alphabet soup of acronyms to describe the varied and exciting potential for expanded use of the technology in domestic airspace. Nathan Hall-Snyder '08 Rowland Hall class of 2008 grads, Tyson Call and Tristan Buhler launched their full-service video production company Full Collective Media

How did three Rowland Hall alumni end up working with the same revolutionary technology in such different ways?

The answer is found in the fast-moving technology itself and the industry springing up around it. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) or non-military unmanned aerial systems (UAS) may seem like an alphabet soup of acronyms to describe what we commonly call drones. The wide-open potential for its expanded commercial use in domestic airspace generates the excitement surrounding the technology.

"It doesn't happen often," Nathan Hall-Snyder '08 said, "but there are a lot of people who believe this is the start of a revolutionary new industry." Nathan should know; he lives and works in Silicon Valley. Much of the drone or UAV technology is being developed near Stanford University where, after graduating as Rowland Hall's 2008 valedictorian, Nathan began studying mechanical engineering. He switched majors and completed his degree in computer systems, also known as robotics, in 2013. Nathan devoted most of his junior year to serving as president of Stanford Solar Car Project, a demanding and respected position at the university. All of this was a natural extension of his now legendary, out-of-school endeavor while at Rowland Hall to build a car from scratch with his brother Michael.

In the summer of 2012, Nathan began an internship at Google X on such high-profile projects as Google Glass (aka Google glasses) while working part-time on a master's degree in electrical engineering at Stanford. However, before he could finish, an even more intriguing offer interrupted his studies. "One of my professors from Stanford approached me about launching a UAV company," Nathan said. "I knew it would be interesting to be in on the beginning of something so big."

Soon afterward, Professor Jay Borenstein invited a small group of engineers to meet at a nearby Starbucks to discuss goals. Nathan said the company had only two rules: 1. have fun and 2. no military usage or things that would hurt anyone. They named the company Kespry.

Borenstein helped find funding and a warehouse for the work in Menlo Park. That's where the now 16-month-old Kespry began researching the commercial and industrial problems that Nathan and his co-workers believed "fully autonomous systems with a high dependency on manual operators" could solve.

The small team at Kespry researched commercial uses ranging from helping firefighters to monitoring grapes in the miles and miles of unoccupied vineyards in northern California. "That led to investigating uses in the construction industry," Nathan explained. "There are, as you can imagine, quite a few big and costly construction projects consistently going on in Silicon Valley, and the industry needs to keep an eye on them." For example, a construction company needs to know if concrete is curing at the correct rate or if trucks that shouldn't be there are on the property. Drones can check and report back any time of day. Nathan said he wanted to give credit to the Rowland Hall teacher who encouraged him academically and personally. "Peter Hayes gave us his classroom to use after school to do robotics, making it a great, safe place to indulge in what, at the time, was considered nerdy."

Two more Rowland Hall class of '08 grads, Tyson Call and Tristan Buhler, discovered and are exploring an entirely different application for drone technology. In 2013, they launched Full Collective Media, a full-service video production company based in Salt Lake City. The company specializes in aerial and handheld stabilized cameras with yet another term for the technology—multi-copters.

Nathan, Tristan, and Tyson have communicated with each other and their companies about plans for producing a prototype for film industry use. However, the UAS industry is so new that daily changes and interpretations of federal rules and regulations temporarily put their plans on pause. South America and Europe have established definitive regulations for this rapidly developing industry, while North America and, particularly, the United States have lagged behind, causing frustration and financial setbacks.

Still, Full Collective Media makes good use of Tristan's business management degree from Western Washington University and his helicopter flight school license from Glacier Aviation. Combined with Tyson's background in film and degree in TV and Broadcast Journalism from Chapman University, the company offers a broad spectrum of services and capabilities.

"We were discussing the demand for specialty camera scenes in different productions Tyson had worked on," Tristan said, "and decided we should enter this specific market, a market that is changing at an extremely fast pace." Tyson's post-college job at Fischer Productions, a company that specializes in reality shows for the Discovery Channel, led to Full Collective Media's hire there for specialty camera work. Their knowledge and licensing to use multi-copters came in particularly handy for shows like Velocity's Bitchin' Rides.

"A multi-copter isn't fully autonomous (as opposed to a drone)—although it does have a fail-safe system. If I lose track of it, it will come back and land itself," Tristan explained, "but other than that, we are operating it, and it does not go out of our sightline." He says his helicopter training is a natural extension of the years he and Tyson spent building and flying remote control helicopters on the Rowland Hall Middle School soccer field.

"They used to say, 'It's just boys playing with toys,' and it still is, but now it's a job, and the toys costs thousands of dollars," Tristan joked. (Last spring, Rowland Hall's marketing department invited Tristan and Tyson to come back to school to get stills and video images of the McCarthey Campus and the Steiner fields in process. The kids loved seeing the quad copter launched from their school parking lot!) As with so many young, hard-working people, their desire to start a company was based in the immediacy of change and a desire to engage in what's new. "I really like working for a small company because I like to see the change my decisions make and that they happen quickly," Tristan said.

Whether in California or Utah, change and personal growth fuel the desire for innovation. Nathan said his leadership position as president of the Stanford Solar Car Project was "one of the most formative experiences that I have ever had because I was in charge of 20 people, 20 college students, getting them to work thousands of hours for free and getting them to travel across the Australian outback. That was a true life challenge."

Since the mid-20th century, descriptive labels have been applied to our youth: baby boomers, twenty-somethings, Gen Xers, and Millennials. Maybe the second decade of the 21st century deserves a title of its own—the Innovation Generation.