No matter what your business is, the drones flying in Afghanistan and in other U.S. military operations potentially have something to do with your commercial business. Like robots, they’re part of the world of unmanned systems that organizations are starting to use to perform jobs that are too dangerous for people or when they need a more cost-effective way to increase productivity. “Companies need to look at the realm of the possible, especially since their competitors certainly will be using unmanned systems for innovation in their business,” states Nelson Paez, CEO of Santa Monica-based software developer DreamHammer.
The commercial applications in the multibillion-dollar global unmanned systems industry range widely, from monitoring the radiation levels from a nuclear disaster to dropping medical supplies and food after a natural disaster to using facial recognition software to help locate missing people to agricultural uses and even on blue-collar jobs where workers often suffer injuries. And less than a year ago, Foxconn bought a million robots to make Apple products in China.
The key to the future of unmanned systems, says Paez, is getting them to work together. And in May 2013, DreamHammer beta launched the key — Ballista®, a unified system that allows government or commercial customers to link together machines from numerous developers.
Until last month, it was too costly and difficult for commercial businesses to leverage unmanned systems because a company would have to develop a proprietary control system for its drones or robots. And some unmanned systems require as many as 200 people to manage just one drone. Using Ballista, one person can now use a computer, tablet or smartphone to manage multiple drones or robots simultaneously, whether they’re in space, air, sea or on land.
Paez has had a front seat in learning what users of unmanned systems need. He first worked with the U.S. Department of Defense Logistics Agency but eventually moved away from the slow-acquisition government environment to the commercial world where it’s easier for businesses to buy technology they want when they want it. He launched DreamHammer in 2000 and worked with Fortune 100 clients, developing very high-end technologies for them. But the dot-com burst soon eroded that business and his company turned back to the government again as a contractor. The global economic crisis in 2008 with ongoing government budget cuts and the difficulty for small contractors to gain a toehold recently caused another pivot back to the commercial arena.
The circuitous journey between the government and commercial worlds exposed DreamHammer to the knowledge of how to innovate to create more value and solve problems with unmanned systems.
“We knew we needed to be able to solve the efficiencies problems for the commercial world as well as the government. But we needed funding beyond the government and beyond investing our previous profits, and that required demonstrating value to shareholders,” says Paez. He adds that taking a commercial software approach allowed them to own the intellectual property and build the Ballista platform on DreamHammer’s timetable rather than a slower government timetable. It’s designed to military standards but works with any unmanned system.
How Ballista enables commercial businesses to innovate
The value DreamHammer created in its software platform is the ability to tie together unrelated unmanned systems from different manufacturers and control them to work ubiquitously together. For example, as long as Vendor A and Vendor B (which are not related to each other) are both integrated to the Ballista system, a government or commercial customer can buy products/solutions from both vendors for different purposes and use the same control system to manage all the unmanned vehicles the customer purchases from the vendors.
It’s the Holy Grail for unmanned systems because it normalizes and equalizes, and that allows interoperability — which is necessary for innovation, Paez says. Once an organization integrates into the platform, the process is very similar to developing an app for mobile operating systems. Companies that build to the Ballista platform just need to write on top of the platform to innovate products for their own drone or robot. The system also connects to legacy systems so governments and enterprises can be fiscally responsible and leverage their existing technology investments.
Explaining the company’s end goal, Paez says: “Apple had 775,000 apps in its App Store as of January 2013. Why? Because they have a platform that’s available and people innovate on it, and they have a commercial market available. The developers build the innovative applications, not Apple. At DreamHammer, we don’t want to come up with all of the ways and means in which drones and robots can be used. We want to provide the enabling platform that is mission critical and flight-safety critical for everybody to build apps for unmanned systems, not just the four or five companies that do it today.”
All the technology capabilities are in place in the beta platform, and it’s now just a matter of commercializing it. Prior to the beta launch, DreamHammer licensed its software to defense, intelligence and U.S. Homeland Security customers as well as some manufacturers and integrators. Since Ballista’s beta launch last month, Paez says the goal is to sell the system to very large markets and thereby start to bring down the prices of unmanned systems.
“Currently the U.S. military is the largest buyer of unmanned systems in terms of dollars, but I think that will change very quickly when the FAA unveils its new law for allowing unmanned vehicles in national air space by 2015. That will open up a very large market for commercial drones,” says Paez.
Three must-haves for enabling disruptive innovation
Meanwhile, Ballista is a disruptive force already. “What makes Ballista so disruptive is that it provides incredible capability, previously unavailable and unaffordable to everyone but the top few multibillion-dollar dronemakers on the planet. With Ballista, that capability is now available to everyone at a price they can afford. We have commercialized this technology and support it with a business model where everyone wins,” says Paez.
Was disruption part of Paez’s vision for DreamHammer? He says if you want to have a great company you have to have a great vision. He cites Apple, Disney and Google as examples of companies that acted on their great visions to solve very difficult problems, and they became definite disrupters.
Obviously it takes more than a vision to succeed. Paez believes there are three requirements for creating and sustaining an environment for innovation.
1. Find the best of the best
Paez believes the CEO must dedicate his/her life to work really hard on succeeding with the vision. An important part of that effort is to attract and hire the best of the best. That’s a big challenge, he warns. “And if you don’t have something that is worthwhile for them to work on and solve, you won’t get the best of the best. As Steve Jobs said, ‘You have to have great people in order to do great things.’”
He went around the world and explained his vision to the best engineers. As a result, DreamHammer has “insanely phenomenal people who are very passionate about what they’re doing.” It has a snowball effect, as people want to join a winning team that’s innovating.
Some entrepreneurs jump out and shoot from the hip, says Paez. Sometimes they get lucky, but it doesn’t happen that way for most. “To really succeed, you need to be patient and take the time to understand what you’re getting into,” he warns entrepreneurs. He says he took a long time to ensure that what DreamHammer was building not only was exactly what the government and commercial markets wanted but also would have a business model that enabled it to succeed.
A lot of entrepreneurs think they will miss an opportunity if they take more time, he explains. But the reality is there aren’t many opportunities to fail. He spent the past four years “evangelizing” the vision and talking with all the major systems integrators, all the major dronemakers, commercial customers and government customers across many different services (such as Homeland Security, Intelligence, Congress) before deciding how to build the product and get funding to do it. “Reputation is everything,” Paez says. “I didn’t want to take investors’ money and not succeed with this. So we took the time to do it right.”
3. Skin in the game
Every new venture is a risk. So entrepreneurs must be very confident about what they are doing. Paez says it’s critical to demonstrate that confidence by investing one’s own money, as well as time, in the company. “You need to put the most skin in the game; otherwise, no one will be willing to follow you.”
There are exceptions, such as Instagram and Facebook, startups that required very little money from founders to launch but had an incredible upside. But those exceptions are “literally one in a million,” Paez says. “Not the kind of odds I like to bet on.” He adds that there is very little risk or cost for starting a business that is basically a Web page, as opposed to building a command-and-control software system for mission-critical flights where lives are at stake.
Ballista’s potential impact on outsourcing
“Some people believe that drones and robots will put people out of work,” says Paez. “But history has shown that major technology shifts of the past will make it less dangerous for people to do work while significantly increasing their output.” An amateur historian, he explains that the Ballista was an ancient siege weapon that became a game-changer because it allowed armies to reach enemy combatants despite distance and fortification without putting themselves in harm’s way.
He adds, “In the early 20th century and prior, components that make up the cost of human capital were ignored (such as healthcare, training and cost of living). At first employers didn’t recognize this; but when the true cost of human capital was realized they started outsourcing work to other countries to exploit their cheaper labor forces.”
He suggests that using unmanned systems the way Ballista enables them to will help the United States stop giving away jobs overseas. “This technology was built here in America, and we should absolutely use it to protect the U.S. workforce and give it a competitive advantage by significantly increasing its economic output — by as much as 30 percent in some cases.”
Ballista’s impact on Big Data
Unmanned systems have sensors that gather a lot of data and thus will add to the Big Data challenges that companies already face. But that’s a good thing in Paez’s view. He compares the situation to yesteryear when the Internet started opening up for the commercial world. It caused new business challenges because of hackers and cybersecurity issues. But businesses didn’t disconnect from the Internet due to the problems because they recognized the value of connecting to customers via the Internet. Instead, new businesses arose and created ways of dealing with cybersecurity. And Google came along and brought some order out of the chaos of searching for information on the Internet.
“For every measure there is a countermeasure,” Paez states. “Every time we have a leap forward, it creates a lot of problems. But it also creates new opportunities for innovative companies like VMware, Symantec and Google to figure out ways to solve the problems. New companies will start up that know how to deal with the data that will amass in the world of drones and robots, and they’ll make a lot of money from their innovations.”
Nelson Paez is DreamHammer’s founder and CEO, providing the company’s visionary, strategic and tactical leadership. His career began at Defense Logistics Agency, where he architected global IT and security systems. An entrepreneur by nature, he left the government to bootstrap DreamHammer and provide global identity management systems and IT security consulting to Fortune 500 companies. DreamHammer’s Ballista is the world’s most advanced unmanned systems software and is currently used by the U.S. Government and key dronemakers.