Name: Daniel Ellis
School - Undergrad: Aerospace Engineering, University of Michigan (2010)
School - Masters: Aerospace Engineering, University of Michigan (2013)
Job Title: Chief Executive Officer
Industry: Unmanned Aerial Vehicles
I recently spoke with Danny Ellis, CEO of SkySpecs, a Michigan-based company specializing in Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). Danny is an aerospace engineering graduate of the University of Michigan, and I was interested to find out more about how his education prepared him for entrepreneurship.
When did the idea to start a company start to take shape?
The idea was developed over time. The concept started as a Senior Design project, but it was quickly realized that advanced robotics would require funding beyond the allotted budget. The idea was not abandoned, however, and the pursuit for industry sponsors began. Based on the strong backing from sponsors, Danny founded the Michigan Autonomous Aerial Vehicles (MAAV) team in 2009 and raised over $200,000 over three years to pursue quadrotor UAVs. The team did extremely well in competitions based on the technology (shown to the right). With the confidence gained by the strong interest and success in these competitions, the prize money was invested into starting a business and SkySpecs joined the University of Michigan small business incubator in March of 2012.
What were the first steps in the design process? Where are you now?
Danny explained that the design constantly evolved. It started with some bad ideas. The ability to make mistakes and multiple design changes was largely due to the freedom given by the University to try new approaches. There is no one way to make it work, and it doesn’t have to be absolutely perfect. It is not like a textbook problem where there is a single solution. Other engineers may have a different approach, but the end result is to create a product that meets the need of the customer. The part of the design being refined now is the user interface. Having a great product that no one understands is self-defeating. Making the technology work for the user is just as important as the technology itself.
When were you introduced to computer-aided design and how did that influence your project development? What made you choose CATIA?
Danny started using CAD software in high school. He showed such proficiency that his teacher introduced him to a more advanced software package: CATIA. There was no formal class on this software at U of M when Danny arrived. The software is a standard in aerospace engineering, so he pushed for it. He used his experience with CATIA as the subject matter expert on the MAAV team, and this allowed a real-world chance to use his education in unscripted ways. The all-inclusiveness of the software is what really impressed him, and it is the reason SkySpecs uses it now (see the rendering one the left). The powerful modeling and machining simulation make it a one-stop shop. Not having to transfer data between various programs means there is no loss of information.
What would you the role of education was versus experience such as internships? How important is hands-on application to developing skills?
Education builds a foundation for the other activities, but hands-on learning is, “the most important thing by far.” Internships Danny completed at Parker Aerospace were valuable to seeing the industrial side of the discipline, but the freedom and opportunity offered in the MAAV student team were essential to developing professionally. The student team provides cross-disciplinary interaction, leadership experience, and team-building skills. Led by Danny, the team of more than forty students has competed in a variety of competitions. The experience in these competitions was highly valuable as well, and the team has been quite successful, placing 1st internationally in 2012. Overall, it was the individual responsibility in these experiences that most enabled professional growth.
What would you say to aspiring engineers or entrepreneurs?
As Danny can testify, it takes long hours and hard work. Difficult classes can be overwhelming, but when you get to apply it to real projects, like in the MAAV team, it begins to click. Don’t be afraid to fail. The UAV design process went through many iterations, and there is more than one solution to a problem. Seeing the theory played out in a tangible product (see prototype on right) is rewarding and reinforces how it’s relevant.
Anything else you would like people to know about your business or your experience?
SkySpecs is made up of colleagues that have been developing the technology beside Danny for the past few years. He’ll be the first to tell you, “The team is more important than anything.” When you have highly motivated, skilled individuals working towards the same goal, it allows you to achieve almost anything. The work should be fun too. If you’re not having fun doing it, you need to rethink your strategy.
For more about the technology and its applications in structural inspection, click here.
More about the MAAV Team can be found by clicking on the image below.
Images courtesy of SkySpecs, LLC and Michigan Autonomous Aerial Vehicles