High flyer

In May 2015 Pavankumar Chirmade (MEng’15) received an intriguing email from Eddie Habib, who was inviting Dalhousie’s entire graduating Master’s of Engineering class to apply to a new firm specializing in drone repairs. The new business would be run, for now, from Habib’s basement.

Chirmade, who specialized in robotics and control systems during his degree, knew he had the technical skills. And drones are about as cutting edge a technology as there is, with tremendous growth potential. Goldman Sachs forecasts a $100 billion market potential for drones between now and 2020, up from less than a billion dollars a few years ago.

The only question was how Chirmade wanted to use his talents. He was excited by the idea of working for a start-up company in an emerging industry, but at a large firm like IBM he would be focused only on assigned tasks. “The difference being,” he says, “at a startup I get to learn and handle tasks that sometimes are not in my job profile, yet are very interesting. In the end, I sent my resume, got interviewed twice and Eddie hired me.” He hasn’t regretted the decision and loves that he is part of a five-person team running Dr. Drone, “the first drone retail, repair and customization centre” in Canada.

Habib’s story was simple. He bought a drone, flew it, crashed it and couldn’t find anywhere that could fix it. His entrepreneurial senses tingled and he sought the best engineering mind he could find. That turned out to be Chirmade.

Habib’s nose for opportunity proved correct. Demand for repairs grew rapidly. Within a year the company was looking for retail space and DJI, the Chinese civilian-drone manufacturer and worldwide industry leader, took interest. They wanted a store in Canada and suggested that their recognized brand name would improve Dr. Drone’s reach.

The store, located in Dartmouth, now thrives under the DJI banner, and Chirmade supervises a small team of technicians using DJI components to make custom-built drones for a fascinating array of clients in the public and private sectors.

Pavankumar Chirmade (MEng’15) says he enjoys the rapid pace of development and change in the drone industry (Danny Abriel Photo)

“A lot of our government clients use them for inspections of rooftops, power lines or wind turbines,” Chirmade says. “Surveying and search and rescue are big. Kennebecasis Regional Police Force uses one equipped with a thermal camera for night vision, for search and rescue.”

Film companies have also benefitted from drones. Rather than rent a chopper for $10,000 a day, companies like Dartmouth’s Skyline Studios—which recently shot the television adaptation of Stephen King’s The Mist—can permanently own an easy-to-operate drone for around $15,000 and get dazzling overhead footage of crowds, creatures or creepy vistas.

The drone’s ability to go where humans can’t has been used by conservationists for monitoring wildlife and lands as well as the poachers who try to profit from their destruction. For Chirmade, these diverse applications have removed any chance of boredom from his life. And the uses change as rapidly as the tech itself. “Cutting edge technology today is outdated next year,” he says.

That means this engineer has to stay on top of market trends—the relaunch of the previously recalled GoPro Karma into the drone market is one potential game changer—as well as customer interests and changing regulations. But Chirmade’s favourite part of working at a start-up is watching it move slowly toward that maturity. “We started in a basement office and I’ve seen it grow into a storefront and the industry is still growing fast. It feels great.”