82: Build A Custom Operating System with Pramod Raheja

Pramod Raheja is the CEO and co-founder of Airgility, a leading designer and manufacturer of autonomous, unmanned aerial systems (UAS). He is also a pilot with 25 years of experience captaining passenger flights with United Airlines. We talk about the unmanned aerial systems industry, the benefits of having a daily/weekly huddle, and the effectiveness of work management systems. 

Listen to the podcast here

Build A Custom Operating System with Pramod Raheja

Our guest is Pramod Raheja, CEO and co-founder of Airgility, a leading designer and manufacturer of autonomous unmanned aerial systems or UASs. Their flagship product, the Minotaur, is capable of precision hover and high-speed forward flight and can fly anywhere, including dirty and dangerous environments. Pramod has been captaining passenger flights with United Airlines for 25 years while building and exiting multiple businesses. Pramod, welcome to the show.

Thank you, Steve. Great to be here. Appreciate it.

Well, it’s very intriguing to have an airline pilot who is also a serial entrepreneur. I never knew such a thing existed. How did you get here?

I don’t think that’s a thing necessarily. I think it’s a bit of an anomaly. There’s plenty of airline pilots that have some side gigs or hustles or real estate, but I don’t know. Only but a very few that I can count on my hand, maybe one or two others that sort of treat the entrepreneur, their entrepreneur side as their primary side and not the other way around. So absolutely, it’s an anomaly.

So how does that even work? I mean, an entrepreneur often has to struggle with the urgent matters and burn the midnight oil. And how can you then hop on a plane and fly across the world? It’s difficult for me to imagine how.

Yeah, absolutely. I would say that it really boils down to how you lead and manage. So all those things that you described still happen and they have to be managed. And certainly there’s a lot of juggling involved for sure. I’ve been doing it for a long time. So I’ve been able to figure out how to juggle it really well. But I think it also boils down to how you, you know, how you manage things in your company and how you delegate. And I think we’re gonna get into that a little bit today. So I’ll save that part of it.

Okay, so tell me a little bit about, but first of all, how did you get here to run this company, Agility and to build it? What is your story? And then we can get into more of the how of things.

Sure. So, you know, I would say that, you know, this, the way that we started this company was very much the best analogy I could give you is an arranged marriage. So, we spun our company, our initial intellectual property out of the University of Maryland. And the way that that happened is my co-founder and partner was developing technology and some IP, nothing that had been commercialized, but he had aspirations to commercialize. And so I was introduced through the Entrepreneur in Residence at the University of Maryland at that time, Glenn Hellman, who introduced me to Evandro.

And we got to know each other and after a few months decided to start a company together. And even at that time, you know, it was still in the very early days of unmanned systems, which was four and a half years ago. And we really didn’t know exactly what the landscape looked like and what the business model should be, nor did we have any working technology, but we had a lot of faith in each other and that we knew that we were going to make something of it. And here we are four and a half years later with some very cutting edge technology that is really at the forefront of what’s possible.

So definitely I have some questions about that, but you also had another business, according to LinkedIn beforehand, which was more of a franchise. You were a franchisee or some kind of office services, and you successfully developed multiple locations. So how did that come about?

So that was a company that is called Intelligent Office, and it is a franchise based in Boulder, Colorado. And many, many years ago, this is probably now, we’re going back, dating myself back to 2003 timeframe. And I have always, even though I wanted to be a pilot right out of, you know, right from a young age, I also was very, very interested in businesses and starting businesses. And even though that’s not what I studied in school, I studied engineering in school, I just had this sort of knack and desire to want to sell things and make things.

And so going back, back in those days, we used to read the physical newspaper. Many of our listeners may not look at physical newspapers as much anymore. And every single week, there was a section on franchising in the Wall Street Journal and the USA Today. And I used to look at these businesses kind of with curiosity, and I used to say to myself, wow, I would never do that, or that looks interesting, or God, I don’t wanna do food or retail, that just seems too, margins seems too low and et cetera.

And then I saw an ad for this company called Intelligent Office and I was really intrigued by it, showed it to my wife. Uh, she thought it was kind of interesting. She was very interested in checking it out. And so we, we went to something called a Discovery Day in, in, in, uh, 2003. And in early 2004, uh, we signed a franchise agreement and started the first location in Reston, Virginia. And it was, I thought that at the time it was, you know, a great business from a lifestyle perspective for being an airline pilot. And, you know, I think that proved to be true. Yet, like you said, there’s lots of blood, sweat and tears. So none of that, of course, all of that happened.

But we did launch four successful locations in the DMV, in the DC, Maryland, Virginia area. And, you know, really enjoyed that. That I think gave me a lot of legs and a lot of learning and a lot of know how and a network that got built out of that to be able to do other things as well, because all those things are required ingredients if you’re going to be successful in business, and I think that gave me a really good basis.

Awesome. Okay. So you have at least a couple of businesses and I know you had other things, but the two substantive businesses, one is a fast growth kind of startup type, and then you had this franchise. It’s really interesting mix of experience. So as you grew alongside these businesses, did you pick up some kind of framework or management blueprint that helped you build vulnerable businesses?

Absolutely. And over the years, I would call myself kind of a learning junkie. I love marketing, sales, all that. I love, I kind of become a geek. And one of the places where I’ve become a geek is management frameworks, which is, you know, how do you actually, you know, do something efficiently, successfully, effectively. And then when you get to a point of being able to scale, then how do you do that as well without the wheels coming off the bus or the train? And so, I’ll speak to the current company of Airgility. We looked at a number of things.

We looked at EOS and we looked at scaling up and really we felt like we couldn’t go wrong with any of those, but I was more familiar with the scaling up sort of methodology and I definitely had some reservations around scaling up because whenever I would sort of study it or read the book, I felt like it was designed for a larger business and being sort of an early stage startup with a small team, I wasn’t so sure that it would be a good fit.

However, as we got into it and we started engaging consultants and coaches, you know, they, they were willing to modify it and they said, Hey, look, this is, you know, here’s some other examples of other startup companies that have modified it to make it effective for them. And so that’s what we’ve done in Air Agility. We’ve, we’ve embraced the scaling up method and it’s, it’s, it’s working, you know, as we grow, we’ll start to adopt and implement more of the methodology into the company as well.

So, can you give me an example or two about how you modified scaling up to, and what didn’t work and how you modified it to make it work?

So I mean, I’d say the modifications are more elimination of things, right? You see like a long list of laundry items that you could be doing, and really just taking the most important things and focusing on those and also just reducing that list. I think when I first went through one of the playbooks, there was like 25 items or something that seemed really onerous. And the answer was, hey, you don’t need to do all that right now. We need to do certain things now.

Modifications are more elimination of things and really just taking the most important things and focusing on those and also just reducing that list. Click To Tweet

And so it was really just a strategic implementation was what it was of what made sense for our company. So what is your favorite tool in scaling up that you have used with success? Yeah, I think, you know, so, I mean, there’s two that are probably, you know, across different types of system, whether it’s EOS or whether it’s scaling up, but in the scaling up system, they call it the daily huddle, which is really your leadership team. It could be the whole company as well, but we’re a small team, so it’s sort of one of the same for the most part. But a daily huddle that really gets everybody on the same page.

We know what each other is doing and can share information that all of us need to know or some of us need to know. And then probably, I said there was two, my favorite is really the weekly huddle because that’s where we actually sit down and we actually get a little personal too. And we’ve incorporated into that a book club as well. So we have a book that we read and we don’t really have a timetable on it because of being a small, fast, very fast growing and things are moving at light speed at the size of our company that sometimes we, you know, we have to like forgo a book club, we try our best not to. And so we, once a quarter or so, we’re picking a new book basically. So far, historically, that’s been sort of the timeline.

That’s pretty good. So scaling up, you’ve been following scaling up and you do the daily huddle the week is it huddle or weekly technical meeting.

So again this is where we did a modification. It is a weekly huddle, but we do include into the into the agenda, also a technical meeting, and we just recently as our company has started to, you know, break out into more of a product company, early early early days were very R&D focused and so now that we’re finally getting to what we know we would consider the Holy Grail of selling product, we’ve separated out a product meeting, so we have a separate product meeting every week, and that’s necessary just because there’s so many moving parts there and so many things going on, but the weekly huddle still tends to be where we do have some, you know, we will we engineering discussion and we use, we use various software to help us really organize and keep all that, keep everything aligned.

Okay, so can you mention the software? Is it like a proprietary one or is it something that is off the shelf?

I can share what that is. Yeah, we use something called monday.com and it’s a collaboration tool. We use it across all areas of the company from HR to sales to engineering and to product. We’ve primarily, again, being an early stage company, we’re really using it mostly for engineering. And now it’s, you know, the product roadmap and all those things are also being stored, housed, developed, iterated on as well in there. And all same for sales. And then for my partner and I, we have a private dashboard for us to keep each other accountable and keeping track of what we’re working on. Again, so that we’re in the know.

It’s very easy to start going in your own direction and then the other person or people don’t know exactly what you’re doing and can lead to confusion and to misunderstanding. And so I think tools like this, especially in the world we live in right now, which is for us, very hybrid. It’s a combination of being in the office and out of the office. And as we know from the past few years, the out of the office has increased quite a bit. And so having some of these tools, while you can’t entirely depend on them, you still need to get on the phone, you need to get on Zoom, and you need to talk to each other. They really help with just getting on the same page. So when you do get on the phone or Zoom, you’re already knowledgeable and can actually be more productive.

Okay, that’s great, so you do the daily huddle, the weekly huddle, you do have a score, a dashboard, you call it? Correct. Is this a weekly dashboard? Are you looking at weekly metrics for months?

We actually have several dashboards. We have, like many companies, we have a software stack that, you know, back in the old days, you had everything in the office, right? Now you have everything kind of in the cloud. So we have a stack, and one of them we use is Align, which is, I think it’s Align.com. We use that more from the leadership slash goals, quarterly and annual goals perspective.

And then as you get more tactical and granular, that’s when we go to Monday, you know, and that’s where we have, you know, okay, this is what’s happening on the engineering side, on the software side, on the hardware side, and supply chain, you know, et cetera, that, you know, like I said, there’s a lot of moving parts. So you have all these different things that are there and you can connect those things together as needed. So there’s a few different dashboards. So when we do a weekly huddle, for example, there are typically, you know, two to three dashboards at every meeting that are being shared throughout that meeting. One from, we start with the high level and then we kind of go down from there.

That’s interesting, so you use align.com which also I think, a scaling up related product…

Yeah exactly.

Which is business related as well?

That’s correct.

And then Monday.com is more about the product development information that you have. Is it about engineering and manufacturing?

It’s more about all the different pillars in your company. So HR, interview process, storing resume candidates, whatever you want it to be. It’s a very easy tool. It is quite broad, so it can get cumbersome. So we just try to keep it as simple as possible and integrates with just about any kind of software you can think of. In some cases, very good. In some cases, not so good. So we try to keep it as simple as possible and really stay focused on what’s important, you know, and for us, what’s important really is execution.

And so really that’s what it’s there for. It’s a tactical execution tool for the most part, where a line is more the broader strokes of, okay, this quarter we were going to do these things. And did we, you know, are we on track? What, you know, where are we with these things as the quarter goes on?

Yeah, priorities, rocks, and goals, and stuff like that.


Okay, very interesting. So switching gears, talking about your company Airgility and the unmanned aerial systems market. So tell me a little bit about this market. What are the segments in this market? What types of players are there? What does it look like?

So the unmanned aerial systems market is still a very burgeoning and early stage market. We’re still very much in the early innings. Although most of our audience listening today has probably heard or seen drones at some point or see them at the store, most of what you’ve seen are on the consumer side. So on the industrial and government side, there is just millions of use cases. Um, and you know, and I obviously say that, you know, metaphorically, but there’s just so many, so many use cases and, and still growing and still, and still things still being figured out.

So as far as segments go, yeah. I mean, you’ve got everything from, you know, your consumer delivery that you probably, you know, that makes the news, you know, that a package is delivered to medical supplies in remote areas of the world, which is, is just phenomenal to be able to deliver blood or medical supplies, things like that. And then there’s also the critical infrastructure side. That’s where we tend to play in that world, as well as public safety. So if I start with public safety, for example, we’re talking about search and rescue and active shooter and surveillance and things like that, that you can use unmanned systems for and are being used for that.

On the critical infrastructure and the enterprise world, there’s a lot of infrastructure throughout the world from bridges to cell towers to power lines that have to be consistently monitored and inspected and evaluated for damage or in many different forms, whether it’s rust as an example or wires that have come off the line and need to be repaired, things like that. These need to be inspected and it’s quite dangerous for people to get up on these big ladders and things like that that are required today.

So one of two things happens, either they don’t inspect as often as they should, or it takes a very long time with current methods. So in both cases, you’re talking about safety and time, which both have a lot of ROI associated with them. And so that’s the world we’re playing in. But the unmanned aerial systems are being used throughout the world and are starting, and again, as I mentioned, early innings. There’s still a long ways to go as to how they’re going to be used, where they’re going to be used, and even the technology is evolving very fast as well.

So, what I’m hearing is that there is the consumer delivery, so essentially delivering stuff, and then you have observing infrastructure, making sure everything is controlled. And then you have the safety, which is, you said search and rescue and surveillance. Are these the three major areas or there’s something else?

You know, I would say that it’s almost too broad to define exact areas. But if we were to try to keep it as simple as possible for today’s conversation, yeah, I would say delivery and logistics would be, you know, one category. Another category would be preventive and, you know, preventative which is now you’re getting into the inspections and things like that. And, and even just not that long ago in the summer was that building collapse in Florida. Right. And so, utilizing this type of tech unmanned systems to be able to go in and assess damage.

And when you’re assessing damage you’re assessing it from several different angles you’re assessing it from an insurance angle you’re assessing it from a safety Maybe there’s still people that are that are alive and could be rescued, you know, so there’s a there’s a number of angles as you come in with these technologies right out in the aftermath of that you can do it faster than if you have people on the ground, walking through all this trouble which again, may or may not be able to do so if you’ve got a bird’s eye view above it all, you have a higher likelihood of getting insights and more positive outcomes that you’re looking for.

That’s fascinating. So what are the trends? Where is this technology growing? What are some of the new things that you observe happening as it evolves?

I think the most, the most, the most interesting and where we are actually our focus and our where we are leading the way in many ways is on the artificial intelligence and autonomy piece of it. So what do I mean by that. And so I’ll start with autonomy, autonomy means I am, you know my system can do things and it can make some decisions when it needs to make decisions. If it gets to a fork in the road is, you know, as an as an analogy, which is different from automation automation is a task that just is repetitive and it’s kind of being done automatically system which now says okay I’m flying through a door, and I need to go left or right, and I’m going to, I’m going to use some sort of decision making process to decide which way I’m going to go.

Maybe I’m using a sensor that tells me that if it’s in a search and rescue situation that somebody is alive to my left I’m going to go there first, and, and then, and then even having the ability to say okay, I’m running low on power, I the drone running low on power I need to do something about that maybe I need to land maybe I need to go back to base. Maybe I was commanded to just continue the mission and just land, once I’m, you know, once I’ve gotten to that point. So, you know, again, there’s some just, there’s a decision tree that’s happening there on the artificial intelligence comes in, into play. And going back to that same example I think there’s a human or some human, maybe I’ve sent something over there, using artificial intelligence. So that’s one direction.

Autonomy in our systems means decision-making in the face of uncertainty, unlike repetitive automation. Click To Tweet

You also mentioned that your new product is very accurate hovering and can fast forward speed. So what’s happening on the physical attributes of these drones? How are they becoming better? What does it mean, accurate hovering?

That’s a great question. So there’s a lot that goes into that actually. And that is how our platforms are different and how we differentiate. We have full patents on our platforms and we have full patents because they are quite different. So everything we do is what we call vertical takeoff and landing and hybrid. So VTOL hybrid for short. And that means exactly what you just described. It has the ability to hover and do things in place.

And then it also has the ability to go somewhere from point A to point B relatively fast using the characteristics of like say a fixed wing aircraft that we’re all used to and accustomed to flying on long distances, and we do that by articulating our thrust gives the ability to now fly, you know, faster and forward flight, the body itself is designed as a lifting body, meaning that it has some very meaningful aerodynamic characteristics that allow it to be very efficient. And so hence, also, we can fly faster and further, given those characteristics.

And so that combination of hovering and then when you asked about the hovering now the hovering has to do a lot more with the sensors and the algorithms on board to say okay stay in place. And so you have sensors on board we use a combination of lasers and optics, in general, to give us our positioning our speed our velocity so we don’t depend. And this is now an important point, we don’t depend on GPS.

To do that we have everything we need on board the aircraft, do we use GPS can we use GPS, yes, should, should we use GPS and in certain situations, absolutely, but it’s not required, and that’s important because GPS is not a perfect system you have to have line of sight to for satellites and if you go under a building or in under a bridge or an inside a building you just, you will have none of that. And so you still need to be able to fly, so most drones today have a single point of failure so we have redundancy built into it.

So, what I’m imagining is you’ve got this drone and you send it to a mission to do something and maybe it’s inside the building there’s no GPS. So, you basically you program, the whole trip in the drone, and then they make autonomous decisions, depending on some variables or what does it look like?

A little bit of all that so you can you can you can say I want you to go from point A to point B to point C and you can literally draw that out on our tablet. However, this is where now the artificial intelligence also comes into play or as some people would call it a neural network. As you put that drone in that environment, you could say I just want you to go over there and I don’t know how you’re gonna get there, just figure it out. And the drone can figure it out. It can figure out openings and doors and say, okay, I need to go through here. And it’ll keep trying to do that unless there’s some other logic that’s been built into it.

Like keep trying until you hit 50% of battery life or 55% and then return home. And then we’ll kind of take a look and reassess as an example, which is no different than a human if you sent a human in to say go go figure out where to go, and they tried and tried and at some point, they ran out of, you know, provisions. They said okay I’m going to come back and try again. It’s not any different than, than, than doing it that way but you’re doing it now in a way that if you’re going to an environment that is the unknown you can send in a machine versus the man. And in some cases that that becomes important, as you can imagine.

So how are we as citizens protected from all of that stuff? So, I mean, should I be concerned about, you know, government, maybe it’s the US government, maybe another government tried to misuse that, are there protections that defend us? My wife is concerned all the time that someone is looking through the window and I told her, listen, if there’s a drone coming, they’re going to see everything. So how do we not have to worry about this kind of stuff?

So, I won’t speak for other governments, but the US government has some very strict rules and privacy rules. And so this is an ongoing debate, the question you’re asking. I’m certainly not an expert, but I will tell you that there are very specific rules in place that disallow law enforcement or otherwise to utilize drones for that sort of surveillance that you’re describing. Typically, if they’re using a drone in a surveillance situation it’s a situation that they’ve already, you know, pass those guidelines and be able to use the unmanned system, aerial system in that environment, but you’re, you’re not going to see drones just flying around over your neighborhood just to at least not in the US for in the foreseeable future, just to be able to keep an eye on you like Big Brother. You know, not necessarily the daily, the daily rule.

Okay, so, so agility is really I mean you said it was a manufacturing company and you are developing these drones. What are the growth drivers for a firm manufacturing these zones? What are you looking at?

So that’s a great question. In our case, it’s a couple, which I’ll go into, and it’s also evolving as well, because the market is still relatively early, and business models haven’t quite been completely vetted out yet. Business models are still evolving. That is a changing target. But for right now, the metrics for us, as we get into selling this product, and which we have started to this quarter, are really around number of units sold, and very simple metric. But aside from that, we’re developing software that is hardware agnostic, meaning that we can put that software, that AI or that autonomous system software, into any drone. So that will become a metric as well.

You know, how do we implement that? What does that look like? You know, there certainly will be a hardware cost to that. There will also be probably some professional services associated with that because of the implementation involved. So I would say that these growth drivers are evolving and changing. At the moment, though, it’s about the units sold, but it’s also government contracts. So one of the things I may have mentioned earlier in the podcast was that early on we were doing a lot of R&D type of work in the first few years.

But most of this work was done off of paid revenue contracts. So we continue to evolve, and one of our metrics this year is to get into a phase two or phase three program with the government, which now really gets into a much further phase. And so several different metrics that we’re targeting for the, you know, as we get into 2022, and, you know, units sold being one of them, a big one.

And the main markets for you is the government? It is both.

So we’re a dual use company. So we sell both to the commercial sector and the government sector. I remember many years ago, that was not the norm. Most of the time you were either a government contractor or you sold a commercial. It’s actually, the landscape has changed quite a bit. Typically, if you’re selling it to the commercial enterprise, the government likes that and they see much more promise. The risk is kind of reduced for them.

And likewise, if you’re selling in the commercial sector and you say, hey, I am selling into the government like the Air Force or whoever, that gives you a lot of validation to say, okay, if they trust you, maybe I can too. So we are dual use, we have our prongs in both places. I would say right now as we approach the end of 2021, we’re very focused on enterprise. We’re very close to landing some of our very early stage big customers. And so there’s a lot of effort going into that as we round out this year.

So how do you sustain keeping your job as an airline pilot on the side of your enterprise? Is there going to be a tipping point where you would say, OK, I’m going to just focus on one thing because I cannot spread myself anymore?

Right, so I think I’ll start with been able to and I figured out how to manage the two. That does come at the expense of other things, right? I really don’t do things like mow my lawn or, you know, even around the house, my wife fixes everything. So I’d say that there’s definitely sacrifices that come with that. I also will fly on weekends versus weekdays. So for the foreseeable future, I don’t see that tipping point. I have that’s a great question because it’s a thought that has entered my mind many times over the years.

And every time it’s kind of entertained, I’ve sort of said to myself, I really like having this diversity in my life and I enjoy doing both. And even I’ve been flying for altogether 34 years, I still enjoy it very immensely, but I also enjoy the entrepreneurial side of things that are really a roller coaster at many times and day to day can be up and down. But the other side of it is I work pretty much all the time. So no matter where I am, and that’s the beauty of I think being in 2021, we can work from anywhere, so the answer is no, I haven’t seen that tipping point yet, but it certainly could be there and we’ll have to address it at that time.

Okay, well I wish you success with that. Obviously it’s been working and it’s nice to have a stable paycheck when you’re an entrepreneur. A lot of us would like to have that on the side, so if someone would like to learn more about your company, agility and the products, your drones that you are developing or would like to personally contact you, where can they go?

Absolutely. They can find me on LinkedIn, Twitter. My handle is the same. My first dot last name, Pramod Raheja. My email is pramod@airagility.co, not com, but co. And I’m fairly easy to find online.

Okay, well, Pramod Raheja, thanks for coming on the show and sharing your story and your tours and some intricacies of the drone business. And to those of us who’ve been listening, if you enjoy it, please don’t forget to rate and review us, subscribe on YouTube, and stay tuned because next week we’ll have another exciting entrepreneur coming on the show. Thank you.

Thank you Steve.


Important Links:

This entry was posted in . Bookmark the permalink.