Sky is the limit in drone opportunities

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When Travis Snyder left Scott High School in 2007, he was “done” with public school. So it’s a little ironic that the 29-year-old tech “genius” (as his boss refers to him) spends his workdays in a classroom at the former Bonham Elementary School.

Snyder designs, analyzes, builds and customizes some of the world’s most cutting-edge, sophisticated small Unmanned Aerial Systems (sUASs), better known as drones. He works for a Charleston-based firm called Metatron Unmanned Solutions. Metatron occupies most of the former grade school near Sissonville, now called Bonham Business Plaza.

State-of-the-art systems

Despite the snazzy name, the building still looks like a grade school, and the room in which Snyder creates his magic might be any makerspace in a typical high-tech vocational center. It’s anything but typical. In this former classroom, Snyder is developing a state-of-the-art system the company hopes to market for around $30,000.

The system will allow businesses and public entities to customize their payload (up to 25 pounds) and operate with encrypted data that is impervious to sabotage or data thievery.

“It uses a technology called photogrammetry that essentially stitches together photographic imagery,” he explained. It can be use for applications as varied as accident reconstruction and volumetrics.

‘All they showed me were walls’

Back in high school, Snyder never imagined his dream job even existed.

“I was bored,” he said. “I needed to be shown doors, but all they showed me were walls.”

He muddled through the academic curriculum, eschewing vocational school for various reasons.

“I probably should have been in vo-tech,” he said, “but back, then there was a stigma attached to the kids who attended the technical school. I remember them saying they only took those classes because they got to be on a bus for an hour a day.”

Looking back, he realizes that’s exactly where he should have been.

Snyder tinkered with amplifier systems. Got into hockey. After high school he deferred college, instead pinging from job to job, excelling in anything related to computers, electronics, mechanics and telecommunication. His talents were quickly recognized by a drone company, GeoRhea. Those contacts led him to the right place at the right time.

Cousins with a vision

But first, some background: In 2009 two cousins — Charleston businessmen Bill Ellis and John Skaff — saw the potential for the commercial development of drones. They set up shop in a building on MacCorkle Avenue until 2015, when they realized small unmanned aerial vehicles (sUAVs) could revolutionize cell tower inspections. All they needed was a tech nerd.

Along came Snyder.

“I joined the firm in 2016,” he said. “I loved it right off the bat. Here was a job where I could grow and explore without limits.”

He loves the challenge of solving knotty problems.

“Once, I was asked to develop a drone that could carry out a burner inspection using night vision, record the data onboard, and fit in the palm of your hand,” he said. “I did it, with the help of drone racing technology.”

Another time, he fastened a Garmin onto a GoPro with Velcro to create a device that could detect a methane leak on a bridge.

With Snyder on board, the cousins were off to the races.

They also hired 37-year UPS operations veteran Rod Shuck, originally from Sissonville, as chief operating officer and moved to a more remote location at the former Bonham Elementary.

“That gave us more space to fly and test drones,” Shuck explained.

Last year, they changed their named from Global Professional Drone Service to Metatron Unmanned Solutions.

“It had a better ring,” Shuck said.

Unimagined growth

It turned out Ellis and Skaff were right about cellphone towers. The company developed a drone that could inspect a cell tower at any location in any weather in about 40 minutes. Traditional inspections typically took two days. It could store and analyze the data, giving the cell companies a database of previous inspections to compare for damage or deterioration.

In no time, Metatron grew from a couple of customers to over 35. With Snyder’s genius and Shuck’s drive, the company has adapted drone capabilities to do a wealth of tasks.

They can accurately analyze the size of a coal pile to determine severance taxes. They can reconstruct an accident scene. They can inspect a gas pipeline for vegetation encroachment, as well as leaks, in a fraction of the time it takes humans to walk the line and cheaper than piloted aircraft can fly over it.

The company has worked on a film for a German filmmaker. They’ve inspected flame stacks without having to cut off the flame. They have developed a network of over 800 private drone pilots around the country with whom they contract for various jobs in 20 states.

Uniquely positioned

Snyder believes West Virginia is uniquely positioned to be a leader in sUAVs in the coming years. “For one thing, we have lots of remote spaces, like former strip mines, where drones can be tested and developed. That’s one reason why we moved out of town.”

The relative scarcity of airports in the state is another plus.

“Drones cannot operate within five miles of airports,” he said.

He sees the drone industry continuing to grow exponentially.

“In 10 years, we will see drones using more and more AI [artificial intelligence] to assist in things like collision avoidance for driverless cars, forest fire detection and searches for lost people,” he said.

He even foresees drones that can wirelessly power themselves from power lines.

At one time, Travis Snyder was only shown doors. Now the largely self-educated drone genius sees nothing but wide open spaces.

Article courtesy of West Virginia Gazette. Read the article here

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