First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Rolf W. Schlub: Everyone is keeping safe and doing well.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded TerraCam.
Rolf W. Schlub: I studied a BSc (Aeronautical) Engineering at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, and graduated in 2005. My first job was at Denel-Saab Aerostructures in Johannesburg, working on the design and development of the Airbus A400M Wing-to-Fuselage Fairing.
In 2007, I moved to Switzerland, where I worked as a design engineer for RUAG Aerostructures on the Airbus A350XWB winglets.
There I met the eventual founders of senseFly, which ultimately brought the most successful commercial survey and mapping drones onto the market, the Swinglet and eBee. I was the designer of those drones and, in 2011, moved back to South Africa to start TerraCam, a drone services business.
TerraCam, founded in 2012, is one of the first operators of commercial drones in Africa. We shaped the initial awareness of drones’ advantages in various industries through countless demos, conferences, and seminars, including mining, agriculture & construction. We pioneered the industry for others to follow.
We initially had loads of work until, in 2015, the South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA) decided to implement illogical, stringent, and totally overcomplicated regulations that were analog to those of manned aircraft. The application process proved to be lengthy, cumbersome, and expensive. It is similar to applying for a license to run an airline.
We decided to pivot our business strategy and focus on other African countries outside South Africa, where drone rules had not been promogulated as yet, and the technologies’ true capabilities could be achieved. Today, we specialize in the integration of professional drone solutions for clients wanting to establish their own in-house drone capabilities. After the integration, clients can independently conduct on-demand aerial surveys, aerial photography, blast filming, mine maps, and much more…
How does TerraCam innovate?
Rolf W. Schlub: We develop drone solutions to any problem, be it surveying, mapping, surveillance, inspections, geology, drill and blast, agriculture, etc.
We partner with reputable and reliable drone OEM’s with proper sensor technology and then integrate these into the clients’ framework.
Our turn-key drone solutions embody everything needed for an effective operation, including hardware, software, training, and support.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Rolf W. Schlub: Mines held back all their budgets during the pandemic, and times were tough with virtually no income.
Also, we undertake on-site training, so with the borders being closed, we could not travel to client sites.
We did compile many proposals that have now started to materialize, and things are picking up again.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Rolf W. Schlub: Just before the lockdown we sold a very expensive surveillance drone to a mining client in Ghana that was manufactured by a drone company in Knysna, South Africa. Upon arrival at the mine, we never managed to get the drone to fly once. We spent 2-months troubleshooting the problem with remote support from the OEM. We desperately requested on-site support from then but this was rejected by the owner of the company.
Eventually, it had to be recalled to the OEM in Knysna under an RMA and we had to burden the return airfreight costs of a 300kg consignment.
They assessed the damages to the aircraft (shipping damages due to poor handling were regrettably also encountered) and the repair Quote was so expensive that I needed to intervene to attempt to reduce these, especially on the composite parts. Afterall, TerraCam needed to burden the total repair costs to ensure that the client would get their solution back to site.
Subsequently, the company owner severed all support to us, instructed his entire staff to sever all further communications with us and gave us 20-days to collect the unrepaired drone in spare parts packed in boxes without an instruction manual to allow us to reassemble it properly. Consider building a Lego set without an instruction manual.
Luckily, we have expert technicians that could reassemble the drone through experience and intuition and we are now testing it intensively before selling it as a working aircraft.
In the interim, we had to self-fund an equivalent solution from another drone OEM to the client that nearly bankrupted our business but would at least ensure our reputation was maintained and the client would be happy. And it’s a better solution as well this time with OEM on-site support
The lesson learnt here is don’t sign terms and conditions without legal counsel as this particular drone manufacturer stated in their T&C’s that they don’t guarantee error free behavior of their hardware and considers every drone experimental.
How do you deal with stress and anxiety?
Rolf W. Schlub: Prescription Medication, healthy eating, and recreational activities.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Rolf W. Schlub: Our business offering is a niche with no competitors doing what we do.
Your final thoughts?
Rolf W. Schlub: The drone business has limitless potential for many sectors.
Regrettably, it is being handicapped by unreasonable regulations written by regulators with no operational drone experience and hinder the industry’s growth.
Also, the drone business’s allure and its massive potential have attracted huge amounts of unprofessional operators that dilute the market and tarnish the technology’s image.