With the advent of technology and the importance of better understanding changes in our environment, the use of sophisticated drones and highly skilled operators has taken a leading role in enabling high quality data collection and analysis for land management across multiple industry sectors such as agriculture, disaster management, and infrastructure.
Skyscape(Former company name: DroNext) and Brain Pool Tech are partners who specialize in surveying landscapes and monitoring changes in the landscape through the use of highly equipped drones. Their combined data and software allow for the ability to not only forcast environmental changes but assist in day to day and season to season impacts on a variety of stakeholders including farming, environmental and land management organizations.
The following interview is with Dr. Cullen Owens from Brain Pool Tech and Asa Quesenberry from Skyscape.
Writer: Yoshiko Butler
Asa Quesenberry started working within the UAV (drone) industry as a drone operator in the early 2010's. He has lived and worked in Japan since 2018 and founded Skyscape, inc in Osaka in 2019.
Dr. Cullen Owens
Dr. Cullen Owens founded Brain Pool Tech Pte. Ltd. with his Co-founder, Dr. Kai Voges, in Singapore in 2019. He attended Erasmus University, Rotterdam and has a PhD in neuroscience. Brain Pool Tech was launched with a mission to provide high level insights integrating drone, IoT, and AI technologies toward sustainable and resilient societies.
Collaboration in Japan and Singapore
ーーPlease tell us a bit about yourself and your company.
I am the founder and president at Skyscape, a company focused on bringing real value to communities, businesses and individuals from the growing Advanced Air Mobility (AAM) Industry.
We have three divisions in our company. The first is the operator teams, where we supply both aviation and underwater drone pilots and operators to work with clients all over the country to help capture data through the usage of drone technology.
Secondly, is the consulting team where we work with both domestic and international groups to assist at the entry level within the Japanese market by teaching and providing information and resources around the Japanese Air Mobility sector, and vice versa, helping Japanese domestic groups enter the global markets.
Thirdly, which is more of our long term main focus and what we actively fundraise, is the development of Air Mobility infrastructure facilities, typically called vertiports (*vertical airports). These are the buildings and infrastructure that are necessary to support longer term services, such as air taxi development including autonomous drone deliveries and integrated drone solutions for communities.
I am the Co-founder and Chief Business Officer at Brain Pool Tech which was founded in 2019. Our goal is to provide insights from georeferenced data for different industries. We make maps of large environments (landscape) and then track and analyse the development of the land. Brain Pool Tech integrates technologies to provide valuable “real life” data insights on the land. For example, if we’re looking at agriculture, we will map a large crop using a multispectral sensor to better understand the vegetation health.
We provide software as a service that integrates a range of options, it could be soil sensors, or any kind of data from a weather station to help you monitor your land. Eventually, we will look to have some predictive capabilities. Agriculture is one of the primary industries that now address since climate change is affecting that industry all around the world in a big way.
With Skyscape, we have been looking at some of the major problems Japan faces, such as land that consistently floods during the rainy season or steep areas near beach roads that might be at risk for landslides. Skyscape collects the data and Brain Pool Tech provides insights from that data. As we gain new clients we expect to launch our software as a service – which has all of these insights embedded in an easy to use tool.
ーーPlease tell us about the background of this collaboration.
I was lucky enough to get introduced to the Brain Pool Tech team quite early, after we founded Skyscape. We had a similar network of connections, and Brain Pool Tech was looking to do projects here in Japan, but due to the pandemic, travel was extremely restricted at that time. So, they needed a local partner that could help them move forward with some of their plans and deliver some things they wanted to do here in Japan. So, we were happy to facilitate and help out. It allowed us to really start making some connections outside of Japan, and really helped us get going with some early projects.
It feels like it was really born out of necessity, because originally, our plan was to not only build software, but also provide drone service. We had been doing that for less than a year in Singapore. But because of COVID, we really couldn’t go anywhere to collect the data ourselves. And data was really important for Brain Pool Tech. So, when we were introduced to Skyscape, everything just took off. Asa had all the necessary equipment, understood our aims, and had tons of experience and all the licenses, so it just worked out nicely.
ーーHow do you two work together?
（Provided by Skyscape）
Our collaboration is primarily for data collection in Japan and potentially other places. Because of the pandemic, we focused our resources towards the development of the software and less towards purchasing new equipment and doing data collection.
Here is an example. In Kobe City, we were looking at landslide risk for a project that they’re considering building glamping sites. Asa went out there with his equipment and mapped the area and created a nice, highly accurate topographic map of the area. Then we did the analysis to look at where there could be potential regions of interest for a landslide by calculating the slope and correlating it with vegetation health. We provided that to them for their own use. So that’s typically how it would go.
In the past we sought out clients who would be subscribing to our software in Japan. Since Skyscape often finds clients where our software can be useful, and Brain Pool Tech often finds clients where data collection is necessary, we could potentially partner in other countries.
Basically, Skyscape is the data collector and Brain Pool Tech is the data processor. A lot of companies say that they want to have an internal drone team. But what people find in the long run is the necessity of maintenance, training, insurance and upkeep. When you start buying hardware and introducing new technology, it means you are getting into a constant cycle of upgrading and purchasing the newest thing which eventually becomes a huge financial burden for companies. So they find it’s much easier to work with a company like us who solely does that after all.
Our strength is accuracy and speed, and therefore cost. A traditional survey takes about three weeks for the size of land that we are typically hired for. We can do it in one or two days with a drone and provide many more data points to the client. The algorithms we built that are embedded in the software makes the analysis really easy to use. If there are flood risk areas, the idea is that Asa’s team can go and collect and upload the data to the software. The client can know that these are certain areas that they should be careful about when they’re planning development or during construction.
The data that we process at Brain Pool Tech is fairly complicated. One of the things that we always get from people is, “I bought a drone and want to shoot some videos. Can you analyze it for us?” It’s just really not like that without a professional technical person. It’s not something you can just pick up and spend a few hours reading the manual and collect the data. You need to know what you’re doing. It’s a process and a challenge. So that’s why we trust Asa and Skyscape to provide these data for us.
ーーWhy do you think it is important to focus on the Japan market?
Right now, we focus on two geographies, Japan and Australia. We focus on Japan because of the imminent effects of climate change. Japan is making great efforts to become resilient toward climate change. Since we focus on risk management and risk assessment of natural disasters before an event, Japan is an ideal place for that.
Unfortunately, the Ring of Fire has the potential for every kind of natural disaster. Our focus has been largely landslides and flooding and we have carried out both proof of concepts and paid projects for these risks.
We were also looking into agriculture in Australia. We’re starting to talk to some partners in Australia about the problems with bushfires and other possible natural disasters. Hopefully, these two things will come together for us soon.
My reason for this is super simple. I live here so I wanted to contribute to where I belong.
Originally, when we found Skyscape, there was no intention of specifically targeting the Japanese market. It more so came from my own personal desire to want to be based here in Japan. Skyscape was the type of life I want, and I felt as though I could make a larger impact by doing this business here. My original idea was to find a way that I can make an impact and be able to contribute while I’m here.
And then just by coincidence, a lot of the Air Mobility stuff really started to take off in Japan at that same time. So, after all, Japan was a good fit.
Expected changes in Air Mobility industry in Japan
ーー It seems like not many people in Japan are familiar with the Air Mobility market just yet.
（Provided by Skyscape）
That’s right. But we got really lucky with that too. When we were founding the company, people told me starting a business in Osaka was a mistake. But I just couldn’t get behind the idea that you have to be in Tokyo to be successful.
The metropolitan area in the Kansai region has about 22 million people with a GDP bigger than Switzerland. There are definitely opportunities here just as much as Tokyo I believe.
And then, the Japanese government announced probably about a year later that Osaka would become the focus of all the country’s Air Mobility projects and investment because of the EXPO 2025 Osaka Kansai. The Japanese government has publicly stated that they plan to debut commercial air taxis at the EXPO for the first time in the country. Because of this EXPO, we’re able to position ourselves in the right place at the right time. In my opinion, this EXPO will function more as a way to educate the general public. As you said, most people don’t know about the advancement of Air Mobility.
That is when you see the market here gets busy. That’s kind of the point that we think the technology, the regulation, and the infrastructure will all kind of reach where we can actually see real growth of the industry in the day to day.
ーーHow was your experience of working with the public sector in Japan??
The situation where we were able to work with the Japanese municipality at such early stages in our startup was such an uncommon situation. So we get this question a lot about our company, Skyscape, and that was needed because in Japan it is all about proven track record, your portfolio, and showing that you can be trusted. So those projects were some of the original portfolio, building pieces of our business.
I would say, invest in your network, being connected or involved with people, the right type of people can really help you get involved in some projects. I just think sometimes you get a little bit lucky. And we were just lucky enough that the needs of the city and a goal they were looking at were something that Brain Pool Tech’s software could directly be applied to. And then just lucky in the sense that we were able to make the connections to make it happen, really. It helped us start building that trust. It also gave us insight into the different environments and the different approaches that are necessary for work in Japan. Working with a small private company, working with a larger private company, working with a municipality, each one of those projects will have a very different approach that you need to take.
For Japanese municipalities, of course safety is the most important aspect. So there was much that went into making sure the project would be safe. Finally we got the approval to actually go through with the POC. It was a very good situation. Lots of learning and a great way to get started with the Brain Pool Tech team.
The government sector is definitely something that we would target in the future. But because we’re working on a kind of risk assessment, there’s a lot of details that go into that idea.
There are a lot of different parties, and the government sector is really interested in emergency response more than risk assessment at the moment. Whereas the industries in different areas, such as construction, energy, and agriculture – they’re all interested in how these disasters affect their businesses as well. So they want to have that risk assessment ahead of time. And they usually can pay for it. As we gain traction, we’ll move back towards trying to get into the public sector.
You want to get paid, of course, but the focus isn’t getting paid. The focus is, especially here in Japan, getting a foot in the door to show that you can work with companies, demonstrating that you can be trusted to get a task or project done.
So while the pay was not really existent, (or very small), it was, the benefits and the value that came from just being on that project that far outweighed any actual pay we could have made during that time.
Each project was a stepping stone to the next one. At the project in Kobe, we just use a regular RGB camera, and also the same in Ikoma. But then for Atami, Asa went out there and collected LIDAR data, as well as multispectral data. So we’re analyzing new data types and coming up with new insights from that third project. And I think we even put out a little video about what we’re doing there on our social media. So these all are building up and now we have lots of traction in these areas.
ーーWere there any difficulties you confronted during this partnership / collaboration? If there was, how did you overcome it?
There was a learning curve. For example, there’s a certain technique to match the quality of the data they can process. It is a higher quality and that’s what separates their business from some other ones as well. So I needed to make sure that our teams are collecting the data right, making sure that we know their exact process. As we worked together, the territory of needing to do things in a particular way became clearer, too. and I was making sure that we can replicate that time and time again.
Trying to get involved in business in Japan without actually being there has definitely been a challenge. Skyscape has helped us in so many ways to gain opportunities. Trying to get clients into that subscription space has not been easy but Skyscape has reached out to clients for us in the past. We often need someone to collect data for us, and Skyscape often needs someone to analyse data for them, so it’s mutually beneficial. So, we’re working to overcome these challenges together and offer a complete package.
ーーDo you have any advice for startups?
I would just say patience is really probably the most important aspect. Patience and flexibility. Just knowing that a lot of the startups’ strengths are typically corporate partners’ weaknesses, such as speed, flexibility, and innovative approach. Huge rigid companies struggle with these. And then a lot of the startups’ challenge is financing, manpower, and deep experience. Corporate partners make up for that. So, as long as groups have patience, and understand what the challenges and the weaknesses are for the other side of the picture, it makes a much smoother process for everyone involved.
From a startup standpoint, I would say partnerships are hugely important. So, make sure you have a network wherever you are. With the large corporations, I would say don’t assume that the corporations actually know what they need for a solution. I think it’s one thing that we took a long time to learn, which is to show them one or two different kinds of solutions that you might have and why it will help them, rather than showing concepts. Because a lot of the time, big corporations are really just listening and trying to understand what someone’s doing, but they don’t necessarily have a solution in mind. So I think that’s some advice I would give. We’ve run into that several times where, what maybe could have been four or five months of discussion could have been like, a few weeks.
ーーLastly, please tell us about your future plans in terms of this partnership as well as your business development.
We have projects where we’re really starting to focus on agriculture and how natural disasters affect agriculture. But we also have projects in Japan through Plug and Play that we’re looking at. So, we aim to grow with Skyscape, not just in Japan, but potentially other countries as well. So that means, if we have a drone service provider in Australia that needs some upskilling, I think that’s something that I would love for Skyscape to help us with.
For us the focus is going to be recruiting and hiring. We will be growing a team, building out, and just continuing to refine and instill those processes that are commonplace in larger corporations that allow businesses to work a little bit smoother. Some of the corporate partners that we were able to connect with during the Plug and Play program get started on POCs and projects we’d like to work together on.