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.

Three young professionals took the stage to discuss the future tech of offshore operations in oil and gas. Courtesy photos

The oil and gas industry has a reputation for being a slow adapter when it comes to technology advances, but that's changing — as is the workforce. In the next few years, half of the United States workforce will be millennials, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

A panel at the 2019 Offshore Technology Conference discussed the future of oil and gas technology — and the young professionals who are taking over the industry.

"It is just exhausting to be continuously interrupted in meetings — day in and day out — for your full career. What makes it worse, is no one seems to notice but you, unless you're lucky and have another woman in the year." 

— Allison Lami Sawyer, partner at the League of Worthwhile Ventures, when asked about being a young, female leader in industry. She adds that what's even worse is when you internalize it yourself and stop noticing.

“There’s a whole population of frustrated visionaries in oil and gas who are really excited to work with new tech.”

— Sawyer says the challenge is less getting a foot in the door at large companies and more going from pilot to mid- to widespread use.

“Oil and gas is essentially banking. Did you know you’re all bankers?”

— There's more labor to it, Sawyer says, but the C-suite at oil and gas companies are approaching it like banking. And in banking, there's a lot of AI-based fintech that goes into that decision making process and that might, down the road, come to oil and gas when the data is there.

“It’s happening. New technologies are being added, but it’s about finding the right value proposition for the company. That needs to resonate.”

— Sidd Gupta, founder and CEO of Nesh, says, adding that maybe it's not happening at as fast a rate as people wished.

“There’s been an increased demand for people internally who can take 3D models and put them into an AR environment. … Maybe four years ago, I would never have said that oil and gas companies would have internal AR/VR experts.”

— Lori-Lee Emshey, co-founder of Future Sight AR, on the rising need for professionals with augmented and virtual reality skills.

“Anything that can positively impact safety has been a big winner — especially on the contractor side.”

— Emshey, when asked about what sort of technology is attractive to big oil and gas companies.