The sky's the limit

Houston drone company has big business on the horizon

Dyan Gibbens translated her Air Force experience with unmanned missiles into a drone services company. Courtesy of Alice

Dyan Gibbens found her dream career. She studied engineering, learned to fly at the United States Air Force Academy, went into pilot training, and served as engineering acquisitions officer managing stealth nuclear cruise missiles. She even went on to supported Air Force One and Global Hawk UAS engineering and logistics. She dedicated five years to active service before transitioning to the reserves.

"When I went to transition, I learned I was permanently disqualified from ever serving again," Gibbens said. "It was devastating to me, because all I've ever wanted to do was serve."

She went into a doctorate program — she already had her MBA — and was close to finishing up when her drone startup took flight. Trumbull Unmanned provides drone services to the energy sector for various purposes. With her experience as a pilot and managing unmanned missiles, she knew the demand for drones was only growing — and, being from Texas, she knew what industry to focus on.

"I wanted to start a company that uses unmanned systems or drones to improve safety and improve the environment and support energy,"

InnovationMap: What exactly does Trumbull Unmanned do?

Dyan Gibbens: We fly drones in challenging and austere environments to collect and analyze data for the energy sector. We fly across upstream, midstream, and downstream either on or off shore. We focus on three areas: digital transformation, inspection and operations, and technology development and integration.

The types data we collect and analyze could be LiDAR — light detection and ranging — to multispectral — to see the help of different properties — to visible — to perform tech-enabled inspections. We've recently hired inspectors in house as well. On LiDAR, we just hired a subject matter expert.

IM: So, the company is growing. What else is new for Trumbull?

DG: We just signed a few five-year agreements with supermajors. We're excited about that and the new hires. We're starting to do more on communications and situational awareness. We're doing more in energy and now in the government.

IM: What were some early challenges you faced?

DG: We are 100 percent organically funded — from our savings and from client contracts. Our first client was ExxonMobil. Our second client was Chevron. We had to prove ourselves over and over. We had to work hard to earn and then maintain that business. For us, it was also adjusting to a fluctuation in cash flow. It was going from a steady job to betting on yourself, and we didn't know anyone in Houston.

IM: What's the state of drone technology in the field?

DG: We've continued to see a hybrid approach toward services. Meaning, there's an in-house component and outsourced component. On the outsourced component, we intend to provide that for our clients. On the in-house component, while we don't train the masses, we do train our clients on request. We've promoted that model from the beginning. We think it makes sense that they are trained to do something simple, like take a picture, but for some of the more difficult projects, they outsource to us.

We're going to continue to see increased autonomy. There are really some amazing things already in autonomy, but there's still a lot of challenges flying in dense environments such as refineries and plants.

IM: How is Houston's startup scenes for veterans? What resources are out there?

DG: The way I see it is veterans have made a commitment to serve us, so we should make a commitment to serve them. That's my philosophy. Large companies have different programs, which is great, and there are entities such as Combined Arms, which has full services for transitioning veterans where you can go in and one-stop shop to get support from everything like getting connected to the VA to help working through PTSD to getting help transitioning to business. There are also really good Service Academy networks. More and more opportunities exist to step up to serve veterans.

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Portions of this interview have been edited.

Houston-based Tracts, which makes it easier for mineral buyers and E&P companies to find leads in the industry, is geared for major growth. Courtesy of Tracts

A Houston company has flipped the script on lead generation for mineral buying in the oil and gas industry. Tracts.co has developed a way to get its clients in front of mineral sellers they otherwise wouldn't know to approach.

"Right now, mineral buyers have one major bottleneck — it's consistent across companies except those using Tracts — and it's lead generation," says Ashley Gilmore, CEO and co-founder of the company.

Traditionally, mineral buyers or E&P companies would have to go through public records to source leads. But Tracts' customers have access to the company's title management platform, which uses a patented computation engine and an interpretation library. The process reduces the cost and time spent generating leads, as well as the risk associated with mineral ownership and exploration and production companies and mineral buyers, Gilmore says.

The company has been around since 2014, and began hitting its stride last year after beta testing and working out the structure of the technology. Now, the more customers Tracts has, the more data the system has, which translates to a more valuable platform.

"For some of our clients, Tracts is now existential for their business," Gilmore says. "In other words, they wouldn't be able to operate on their current business model without Tracts."

It's not only customer growth the company has seen. Tracts launched a land solutions group called TLS — Tracts Land Solutions — in the beginning of the year. That group is growing by a dollar amount of 30 percent month over month since January. Tracts also opened a Dallas office, which focused on this land solutions team, to keep up with clients.

"There were two people in Dallas working from home in January," Gilmore says. "Last month, we moved into a 12-person office, and now we've already outgrown it."

Tracts has a 16-person office it'll be moving into, and Gilmore says he expects to double that in the next month or so. Tract's Houston headquarters is around 10 people, and the company has its development team in Seattle. The technology, Gilmore adds, is able to be used throughout the country since it's cloud based.

All this growth is translating into some interesting developments for Tracts, but Gilmore isn't ready yet to announce anything.

"I think our clients are going to be very happy within the next three to six months," Gilmore says.

Tracts allows its clients to skip a few steps in the mineral buying process. Courtesy of Tracts