Drone expert David Barton is collecting data at a big clip, but with his voracious appetite for information, it’s never enough.

By Richard Massey

Gadgets, gizmos, and technology are in David Barton’s blood. Growing up in southeastern Virginia, there was plenty of neat stuff around the house to spark his imagination. His father, Ray, worked as an electrical engineer at the GE television production facility in Hampton Roads, and he brought some of his work home with him. As a result, Barton learned to tinker at an early age.

“It was a unique experience that I grew up with, but it was normal for me,” he said.

But the GE plant closed down, so Barton’s dad went into government contracting. Barton’s older brother, Jason, did the same thing. So, when Barton graduated from high school, he knew a lot about technology, and had the background to easily gain security clearance. Instead of going to college, Barton went to work. As a defense contractor, he was either around, introduced to, developing, or chasing down the best technology of the day, and even founded, built and sold a multi-million dollar company – video sharing startup EchoStorm Inc. – in the process. At some point he came across drones, and while he didn’t fall in love at first sight, they ultimately cast their spell on him. An acknowledged expert in the field of unmanned systems, he is one of only a handful of people who can operate a drone inside the 14-mile Washington, D.C. Security Flight Restricted Zone.

In 2017, he was hired by engineering firm Draper Aden Associates where he is the Director of Aerial Services. A proud tech nerd who jokingly says he works 22 hours a day, Barton is determined to stay out in front of whatever’s coming next.

“My brain is always thinking about this stuff,” he said. “It’s addicting – you’re doing something that’s never been done before.”      

A Conversation with David Barton

Civil +Structural Engineer: Part of your experience includes co-founding a company, growing the business, and then selling it to a Fortune 100 company. This is classic entrepreneurship. In a nutshell, tell me about the process from conception to sale.

David Barton is about to launch a drone for one of his many specialties, landfill mapping. Photo: Draper Aden Associates

David Barton: My brother and I had an idea and put it on a whiteboard in my condo back in 2001. The idea was lofty and novel. It took a lot of determination, commitment and even more hours to grow it into a company with revenue and a meaningful purpose. The eventuality of the company was clear, our unique product and services would become a commodity for the larger defense contractors. The larger firms were purchasing smaller firms with the goal of making our unique capabilities a value add versus a unique product or service. We ultimately explored the merger and acquisition process so that our idea could live on as part of another company’s existing product. The experience from start to finish pushed me and forced me to learn in ways I never imagined. It gave me a passion for entrepreneurship.

C+S: How does having the heart of an entrepreneur affect your current role with Draper Aden Associates?

DB: It’s been invaluable. I manage our Aerial Services at DAA like I’m building a start-up with a great angel investor. For me, the entrepreneurial spirit equals a round-the-clock drive and commitment to achieving our goals. Our leadership embraced my vision and strategy which translates into the resources (personnel and financial) to execute and deliver. Together we have had great success. I also leveraged software development and management concepts from Agile methodologies I’ve used in prior work into how I run our team so that it has a start-up mentality of lean and agile.   

C+S: In regard to your standing as a UAS expert, where do you see yourself in 10 years?

DB: I love technology and solving hard problems. I will follow interesting or emerging technology wherever it leads me. If you told me 10 years ago I would be working in the civil engineering community I would not have been able to envision how my career path could lead there, yet it did. I’ve never known or aspired to be anything in particular when I grow up. I still don’t and I love that my future can be anything.

C+S: You have done plenty of work mapping landfills. What is the key issue with those types of facilities, and what problem does the UAS mapping of them solve?

DB: Landfills can be very dangerous environments with heavy equipment moving around or even landfill gasses from decomposition. Landfills have a number of use cases for drone mapping, the easiest is the topographic mapping which is used for volumetric calculations and regulatory compliance. By utilizing a drone we can reduce the time needed to collect the data and reduce the time spent in potentially hazardous sites. Drones do not eliminate the need for a survey crew, but we can reduce and sometimes eliminate their time in the most hazardous environments which reduces risk to our personnel. With sound survey and drone methodologies, we are able to collect the necessary data while minimizing risk.

C+S: Looking at your CV, it appears that UAS technology has various applications – environmental, security, construction, marketing, and charity, among others. Do you approach the different applications with a different mindset, or do you undertake all projects in the same way?

DB: Yes, we approach each project based on the specific application and product needed.  One of the first things I talk about when giving a presentation on UAS is the right tool for the job.   Knowing the purpose and product for a project should define the tools and methods used to achieve the desired results. Knowing the kind of data you need also defines the “how,” i.e., a multispectral, thermal and mapping payload/camera can define the drone used, what altitude flown and speed for a given flight. We have drones that excel at mapping, but would not be the best choice for beauty photography or videography. Likewise, with regard to the methods used to fly or collect the data. We analyze each project’s needs before going to the field.    

C+S: Has the UAS industry matured, or is there still room for growth, both in the technology itself and in market share?

DB: The industry is one of the fastest growing and evolving I have had the privilege to witness.  The innovation of the small Unmanned Aircraft cameras and software is fueled by Silicon Valley startups and venture capitalist wanting to capitalize on a relatively new market. The competitive landscape has seen many companies rise and fall with China based DJI taking the majority of the drone hobby and commercial market share. There is a lot of maturing ahead for the industry.   Hobby and Commercial technological improvements are coming. Rules and regulations have evolved and will continue to evolve as well.

C+S: You are one of the very few people that the government has allowed to conduct drone operations inside the 14-mile Washington DC Security Flight Restricted Zone. What a big responsibility. What goes through your mind while operating in such a sensitive area?

DB: Yes, it is a big responsibility and one of the more stressful things I have done. The first time was a test of my nerves, but we had everything planned, including a Crew Resource Management plan of who was doing what and when before, during, and after the operation.  We did our pre-flight briefing as usual and executed the mission exactly as we planned. We were very aware that we were operating in very sensitive airspace, but we focused on the job at hand.   

C+S: You currently serve as the Chair of the Unmanned Systems Association of Virginia. What are a few of the key issues this organization is addressing? What’s the focus of the advocacy?

DB: USAV is focused on keeping Virginia legislatively friendly for the Unmanned Systems industry. This is more than drones. We have ground robots as well as above and below water systems. We want to be the voice for the unmanned systems industry in Virginia and to work with our legislators on ensuring Virginia is a place that supports innovation, collaboration, and growth in the unmanned systems industry. In recent years various bills have been introduced that could have impacted unmanned systems, USAV worked to ensure the industry was not negatively impacted by overly broad language.  We also worked to get a prohibition on localities and political subdivisions regulating unmanned systems.   Many localities outside of Virginia have enacted laws regarding the operation of drones and that is something we really did not want to happen in Virginia.  A patchwork of rules and regulations would hinder the unmanned system industry and economy.

C+S: Where is the center of the UAS industry in the United States, in terms of UAS production, development of technology, policy, etc.? If not in one place, are there scattered hotspots?

DB: I am biased; however, I would say Virginia is the center. Being so close to Washington, D.C. helps with participation in federal policy process and Virginia has a large industry of government and military UAS firms as well as a significant amount of small UAS industry. There are multiple hotspots around the country doing some really great things in the small UAS industry. For example, the FAA awarded ten UAS Integration Pilot Programs (IPP) to test and validate advanced operations for drones in partnership with state and local governments in select jurisdictions. One of the winners is Virginia’s Center for Innovative Technology which is partnered with the Virginia Tech UAS Test Site. Significant progress with Beyond Visual Line of Site and UAS operation over non-involved people has come as a result of the VA IPP.   

Production of small UAS is largely not in the United States. A few domestic companies are designing and producing drones, but the vast majority of the market share is with DJI and Parrot/senseFly, which are based in China and Switzerland, respectively.

C+S: From a legislative/policy standpoint, what is the biggest problem the UAS industry must overcome? 

DB: I see two key legislative and policy issues that are equally important that the industry needs to overcome:

– Patchwork legislation by localities. Some Counties and Cities across the United States have enacted laws/legislation that restricts hobby or commercial UAS flights. I believe federal preemption at some point will be tested and the outcome, good or bad, will make a very large impact on the industry. A positive result will help the industry grow and a negative one could be disastrous for the UAS industry.

– The speed of innovation and federal regulations are not in sync. Technological innovation and capabilities often outpace legislation. The FAA was mandated to integrate UAS into the National Airspace System, but I would not say the mandate came with adequate funding. Before the automated Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability (LAANC) was put in place we were seeing requests for restricted airspace authorizations take six months or more. Things are better now, but the challenge is real.

C+S: What will drone technology ultimately replace?

DB: I do not see a drone replacing anything. Sometimes it’s the best option and sometimes it’s not. In the civil engineering community you still need the knowledge and experience to make decisions on the data the drone collects. There is potential for cost savings, efficiency and safety gains with a drone, but we still need all the tools available and the domain specific knowledge to do the job right.

C+S: If you were talking to a group of aspiring engineers, what would you tell them about the opportunities available within the UAS industry?

DB: The most important message I want to convey to aspiring engineers is that the drone is not the job. Your engineering specialty is your career. Drones are very exciting and have the potential to become a critical tool for the engineering community. The unmanned system is a tool in the toolbox which sometimes is the best tool for the job. Sometimes it’s not. Domain expertise is needed to make sense of the data the drone collects. The knowledge and experience the engineer possesses is what makes the drone most useful. It also does not replace ground truth. Oftentimes you will need to validate or verify what you have observed with the drone.   

Richard Massey is managing editor of Zweig Group publications. He can be reached at rmassey@zweiggroup.com.