Lessons from Pinball

When I was 17, my dad gave me a 1932 pinball machine. For the longest time, I didn’t know anything about its background, but recently, I became curious and began to research. What I discovered fascinated me. I was surprised to discover how closely my pinball machine’s history relates to the work that I do to help companies that are trying to leverage drones as a competitive advantage.

I’m completely serious. Bear with me for a minute.

In January 1931, two people simultaneously and independently built the first coin-operated pinball machines, one in Ohio and one in Illinois. By the end of 1932, there were more than 150 pinball manufacturers in the U.S. In less than two years, the pinball machine market exploded.  

But, by the end of 1934, only 14 pinball manufacturers remained, some of which we still play in arcades today (Bally and Gottlieb).

While there are countless examples of classic innovation bell curves (think personal computers), pinball history really hits home because, you know, everyone loves pinball.

Mine, a Cadet from Bingo Novelty Manufacturing Co., is a nickel-operated, purely mechanical machine with no flippers. What? How can you have pinball without flippers?! But the first pinball machines didn’t have them, or much of anything for that matter. Flippers were a future innovation, a competitive advantage that was adopted by each of the 14 surviving pinball companies.

Bingo Novelty Manufacturing Co. was not among them.

How companies can use drones as a competitive advantage

The history of pinball manufacturing provides some important lessons for today’s businesses and corporations that are looking to adopt drones as a competitive advantage.

Back in December, Alex Tepper, Managing Director of GE Ventures, spoke at DJI Airworks about GE’s push to use drone technology to empower the industrial inspection ecosystem and provide greater value to their customers. GE is a massive corporation with 333,000 employees and an annual revenue of  ~ $140 billion, so it makes sense that they would see automation as a competitive advantage.

Day to day, I talk to a lot of companies that are looking to drones to provide a competitive advantage. This is a mistake. Drones in and of themselves won’t differentiate a company from its competitors.

It’s what the drones do that counts: data, enhanced worker safety, money saved or earned.

To return to the pinball example: Early on, pinball machines were such a novel source of cheap entertainment that they were widely manufactured and adopted at soda fountains and drugstores all over the country. But novelty doesn’t last. After a few years, people only cared about the pinball machines that could actually do something—and those were the machines that had flippers.

Here in the U.S., drones are no longer novel, so the companies that use them have to focus on the “flippers.” This means being creative and constantly looking for new ways to use drones to optimize processes and create new products that customers will pay money for.

From my conversations with operations directors at major corporations, I’ve learned what highly valuable drone operations have in common. If your company has already launched drone operations, or is going to, make sure you do the following things to maximize your competitive advantage.

1. Lay a strong foundation for your corporate drone operations

If you don’t have a system in place from the outset, you’ll quickly find that you’re wasting your time—and your company’s investment. What do I mean by a strong foundation?

  1. A way to standardize your operations across every team and ensure that legal, safe, and efficient processes are being followed
  2. A way to manage your pilots, both internal and contract
  3. A way to manage your equipment, especially if you have operations in more than one location
  4. A way to plan and log operations—this is a biggy for regulatory and corporate compliance

Spoiler: This is our specialty at Skyward. To learn more about this, I highly recommend downloading our free ebook on launching commercial drone operations.

2. Understand what the market needs

Even though drones are no longer new, and highly sophisticated use cases have been adopted, it’s amazing how many people still think of drones in terms of high-res videography. Something tells me that this isn’t what Alex Tepper at GE Ventures had in mind when he talked about automating industrial inspections.

So understand what your customers or colleagues need. What’s their ultimate goal? To make money, save money, or both? To optimize an outdated process? To access entirely new data streams? To create valuable new products that customers will be happy to pay for?

The answers to these questions will inform the entirety of your drone operation—the aircraft and sensors you purchase, the data processing software you adopt, and the pilots and data specialists you hire or contract with. A company specializing in telecommunications inspections will have very different technology than a company that specializes in aerial surveying and mapping.

3. Hire experts or create them

You will be judged by the results you produce. If you work at a large corporation, you’ll have numerous use cases for drones. For some companies it will be worth investing heavily in training from the ground up. But don’t make the mistake of hiring generic drone pilots for your highly specific use cases. Same goes for data analysts. It’s always a good idea to hire seasoned professionals who have experience doing similar work.

4. Innovate

My favorite thing about drones? Most of the use cases haven’t even been thought of yet. As you launch and run a safe, efficient, effective drone operation, think about your future research and development. How can you leverage drones and aerial data for entire new purposes? Something your competitors haven’t even thought of—this is the ultimate competitive advantage.