Secrets of an emerging-markets pro

Melanie Harris

Up&Up: Melanie Harris


Chief Engagement Officer, AeroVista Innovations

As someone at the forefront of streaming video and desktop video editing, Melanie is no stranger to the high-wire world of emerging technology. Today, she’s putting that experience to work at AeroVista Innovations, a Chicago-based company that provides training, consulting, and flight services to commercial and public safety UAS clients. Melanie will have a full schedule at ASCEND: She’ll lead a discussion about how to build and scale a drone company or division, and she’ll help deliver a special pre-conference training session. Here, she talks about seizing opportunities, networking, and challenges to tackle in the drone marketplace.


Q: You’ve worked in many innovative fields during your career. What have you learned that applies to your work in the drone industry?

A: I have worked with innovative technology firms in emerging markets throughout my career. We built the first audio and video capture card that enabled a user to import, edit, and produce video content on a Mac. Prior to this technology, video production was done in studios with expensive equipment that was not accessible to the average person. After that, I worked for the first streaming media company that enabled a user to livestream audio and video on their computer. This technology brought media to the desktop and changed how we consume media.

In an emerging market, there is no proof of concept until you build it. I loved that I had to convince people that there was a better way to do things than the way they were doing it at the time. The drone market provides the same opportunities, challenges, and solutions.

One of the challenges of working in an emerging market is there is no business plan, use case, or secret recipe that we can all follow. We need to research the market, find a viable service or offering, test it and if effective, scale it. If not effective, we need to pivot quickly. Time is of the essence. Once we have found a viable service or solution, we need to market it, establish our expertise and hopefully be first or early to market. I believe that this mindset, combined with creating scalable processes, is the secret to not only surviving but thriving in an emerging market.


Q: What challenge or problem facing the drone industry is your company working to solve right now?

A: The biggest challenge AeroVista Drone Academy – our training division -- faces today is overcoming the misperception that drone automation is replacing the need for proficient drone pilots. The perception is that once you study for and pass the remote pilot knowledge test and get some stick time in a heavily automated mode (Like P-GPS on the DJI equipment) you’re ready to fly in any situation. In reality, these autopilot systems sometimes fail and pilots need the requisite training to safely recover.

The first stage people find themselves in when learning any skill is unconscious incompetence. They don’t know how much they don’t know. Automation can be very helpful to experienced pilots, but it has the nasty habit of masking a new pilot’s lack of skill and endowing a false sense of competence until those systems become unavailable to them. Just because an aircraft can fly itself most of the time doesn’t eliminate the role of a highly trained pilot who’s ready to step in at a moment’s notice.


Q: If you could wave a magic wand, what would you change about the industry right now?

A: At Drone Academy, we have a strong culture of safety and embrace training, practice, and proficiency. We need the drone manufacturers to adapt this culture and position their technology as an augment to, but not a replacement for, a trained pilot. We want the industry to promote safety and pilot proficiency just as they promote flight duration and sensor resolution, so this emerging market can continue to grow in a safe and sustainable manner.


Q: What’s your best networking tip for people trying to establish themselves in this business?

A: Network with everyone you meet. Reach out to those who you admire and believe are doing it right. Who knows? You may be partners sometime in the future! They may be a competitor down the road, but in the interim as we begin to build this emerging market, we need to work together and leverage each other’s knowledge and strengths. You cannot tackle this alone. Network with everyone, but be discriminating about your strategic partners. Make sure you share basic values and views of the industry and that they provide value to your brand.


Q: Tell us about your proudest moment as a professional in the drone industry.

A: My first job and one of my proudest moments with AeroVista Innovations was working with the 2015 Illinois Special Olympics Summer Games. I had just started, and I was the digital photographer shooting ground photos of the event while my partners were capturing aerial and ground video. I had one of the most memorable weekends of my life watching these children tackle challenges. Watching this from behind the camera and capturing the joy, the struggle, the love, and the support was so rewarding.

As part of the same event, we also captured aerial video of the Torch Run, which was my first experience working with law enforcement. (Today, AeroVista’s greatest success is the training and program development we have launched for the Public Safety sector.) Additionally, we produced a Special Olympics promo piece with an original sound track created by one of my partners and it made it on the Grammy nomination list (the long list).


Click here to learn about a special training opportunity Melanie and the AeroVista team are offering at ASCEND


Click here to learn about Melanie’s ASCEND presentation.



On the UP&UP with ASCEND is a series of interviews with the industry leaders you’ll meet at ASCEND Conference & Expo. Interviews are conducted by Drone360 magazine.



Featured image: Melanie Harris

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