Until recently the business of filming aerial shots was both expensive and resource-heavy. In order to capture a sweeping aerial shot of the white cliffs of Dover or the sprawling metropolis of London, you’d need a helicopter or light aircraft and, consequently, a big screen budget.
In recent years, the mass availability of UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles), or drones as they’re more commonly known, has changed all that. UAV technology has become affordable to media production companies and hobbyists alike, spawning a fledgeling industry that has potential far beyond film and tv.
Fleye, the brainchild of Will Glover, is one of the early companies to become involved in this fast-growing offshoot of the aviation industry. Started in 2013, Fleye provides specialist filming services, both on the ground, and in the air using state of the art drone systems and high-tech cameras. We caught up with Will to find out how Fleye became an industry trailblazer and where he sees drone technology heading.
How would you sum up Fleye in a sentence?
Fleye is a creative, forward-thinking, specialist camera solutions provider for the media and survey and inspection industries.
A major part of what Fleye do is aerial filming using drones. What led you to get involved in drone technology?
As a young kid, I played around with remote controlled cars. I’d really enjoy driving them fast and fixing them up.
Later on, I used to be in the British Sailing Team. We made small edits with GoPros for our sponsors which I really enjoyed. Through this, I developed a super keen interest in photography and the way creative content was made – but my personal experience was limited.
I did nothing about my ideas for a few years until someone told me about drones.
So, how did the idea for Fleye come about? Was there a lightbulb moment when it came to you?
There was a lightbulb moment. It was the moment my parent’s dog walker said to me “my friend is looking at starting a drone company and taking pilots on and training them, do you want me to pass on your details?” I said no and started looking into starting my own company the next day.
We were one of the first companies in the UK to gain permission from the CAA (Civil Aviation Authority). Because of this, and because the industry is so new, we are now one of the most established companies in the market.
Good to be at the forefront but I suppose that also presents its challenges?
There were many challenges starting up. Luckily I had money to invest so that wasn’t the issue. The issue was where to spend it. As you can imagine, spending a lot of money on new technology – of which I knew very little about – was nerve racking.
The first few months were spent doing a lot of desk research. In the UK to operate a drone, you have to have a permission from the CAA. To get that you have to pass a test and write an operations manual.
This involved a lot of time and paperwork. However, this is all paperwork we still use today so it was absolutely worth it.
It sounds like that took up a large chunk of your time and energy during the initial launch period?
With any new business, it’s the legwork behind the brand that takes a lot of getting going. It took me a very long time to write all of the content for the website and set up social media channels. However, by far the biggest amount of time was setting up our CRM system.
I was very clear from the outset that the way to get customers was to phone as many people as I could find that might be interested in our offering. I built up a database of more than 1,200 possible customers straight from the word go. I spent months working my way through contacting all of them, putting them into the CRM system and following up on any possible lead no matter how big or small. It took months and months but without a doubt was the best thing I could have done at the time.
To this day, that work provides a backbone of clients for the business to operate from.
How has the business evolved since your launch? Have there been any particular milestones?
We’ve had a few breakthrough moments as a business. Probably the first was being the first company in the UK to have permissions to operate out in Italy.
This was a big deal for us and opened the door to a lot of work not only in Italy but also abroad in general. It meant that we weren’t scared to go and seek permissions in other countries. This has really set us apart from a lot of our competition. We now do about 40% of our work abroad with one of our biggest clients last year being TUI, the world’s largest travel company.
Logistically, it sounds like you need to quite a few people to operate the business. Have you had to grow your team?
Taking on full-time staff is a big deal for a small business, but we managed to do that at the end of 2016. It was a bold jump forward but is definitely paying off and profits and productivity have increased as a result. We now have a number of full-time staff working in different areas of the business. This is especially important as we’ve recently launched a large telecoms inspection side to the business.
Can you tell us more about the telecoms inspection services you offer?
Being established in the industry of ‘drones’ we were approached by a major UK telecoms service provider working on behalf of Vodafone, EE and O2 to grow their networks. We devised a custom solution for them to tackle huge volumes of sites, not only with drones but with mast vans and also rooftop mast systems. This means a survey of virtually any mast in any location is possible.
This service launched at the beginning of 2017. In March alone we surveyed nearly 90 telecoms sites around the country. We’re looking to gain further contracts in this industry now we have a robust, tried and tested system.
Clearly, it’s an industry with lots of opportunities. How do you see your business and the industry evolving in the future?
It’s a super exciting industry to be in and it’s still at such an early stages in its development.
Currently, the majority of our work is creative. In my opinion, the real market moving forward will not be in the creative industries. It will be in intelligent drones carrying out survey and inspection work worldwide, with small teams of people managing these autonomous vehicles.
We’re currently working with leading professors to develop the technology of autonomous drones for survey and inspection work. This for a very specific set of applications. If we can crack the code and make this possible – it could be a huge door open for us so it’s very exciting.
With regards to the creative market, this is still an interesting sector. Of the aerial filming companies in the UK, we’re really at the forefront, offering heavy lift solutions to lift incredibly large film cameras. We’ve also developed our own solutions for lifting very specialist still photography cameras with our drones. This too has opened a lot of doors.
We’re certainly not the kind of company that buys a drone off the shelf and tries to get work. We’re pushing the boundaries with everything and get clients because of it. It’s a really great market for us.