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Watts Innovations Drones: Small start-up company produces UAVs for film, other industries

By DRONELIFE Feature Editor Jim Magill

Today, the company’s products, which are designed and assembled in the U.S.A. — are used in a number of applications from film and television production, to LiDAR-based surveys and asset inspections for the oil and gas and electric utility industries.

Watts, who has a long background in designing and building unmanned aircraft, from radio-controlled helicopters to drones, said that at its heart, Watts Innovations is a technology company that manufactures UAVs that are designed and built to meet customer demand.

“We’re a culture of engineering first and building the products that we know our customers need,” he said in an interview. “We have a very tight feedback loop between ourselves — the manufacturers — and the customers.”

Like himself, many members of Watts’ team have come from a background in which they were heavily involved in building and flying unmanned aircraft. “We understand how things operate in weather and wind and certain conditions,” he said.

This engineering mindset allows the team at the small start-up company to adapt its products very quickly to fit its customers’ changing needs. “We’ve got a gut feeling for building a product, just because we’ve lived it and breathed it for many years,” Watts said.

Early days

When it was founded in Winter Garden, Florida in 2016 as a design services company, Watts Innovations helped its customers bring their product ideas to reality, designing and prototyping everything from small drones to measuring cups, children’s toys and golf tees. Meanwhile, the company’s namesake and owner, Bobby Watts, was working on film sets as chief pilot with his friend and colleague Jordy Klein of XCam Aerials.

Klein came from a distinguished background in filmmaking technology. His father, Jordan Klein Sr. was director of underwater engineering and cameraman for the James Bond movie Thunderball, for which he was co-winner of an Academy Award for design and construction of underwater props, set and special effects.

The younger Klein asked Watts to custom build an unmanned aerial platform sturdy enough to carry the heavy cameras used in filmmaking. “So, I made a drone for him. He used that drone for a whole year on his shoots,” Watts recalled. “Then another friend said, ‘I need a drone as well. Would you sell me one?’ So, I made another one in a spare bedroom and sold it to him.’

Having sold two iterations of the unmanned aerial platform, dubbed the MFD 5000 Heavy Lift Drone, Watts decided to begin producing the product on a regular basis for the film industry and other industrial customers.

In 2019 Watts moved with his company from Florida to Maryland, where he is originally from. In 2020, Watts Innovations unveiled its flagship product, the PRISM drone, a versatile heavy-duty unmanned vehicle, which can be adapted for multiple applications.

The company is currently preparing to launch its Prism Sky, a heavy-duty drone, which at 55 pounds can be flown under the FAA’s Part 107 regulations.

“Fast-forward to today where we have almost 15 employees now and are trying to hire more. We’re working on some of the bigger commercial accounts in the country for everything from LiDAR inspections to drone delivery, which is super exciting,” he said.

Built in the USA

With manufacturing facilities near Baltimore, Watts Innovations proudly maintains that all its products are designed and assembled in the U.S., a distinction that many of its customers deem as important in the current security-conscious environment, Watts said.

“A lot of our customers need them to be [National Defense Authorization Act]-compliant, with no critical components — anything that can broadcast a signal — made in China,” he said.

“We’re doing a considerable amount of manufacturing in the U.S., which is really great,” he said. “For example, all of our circuit boards and wire harnesses are done in the U.S.” He said in the future, the company plans to increase its capability to source U.S.-made components and to manufacture even more of its component parts in-house.

“I would love to begin to have more vertical integration on the manufacturing side.”

Another reason to retain all product design in-house is that it gives the company more control over the kind of component parts that can be used to produce its drones. This has become an increasingly important issue with the increasing incidence of supply chain disruptions seen over the past year, Watts said.

“If there’s a part that’s particularly hard to get, we can swap that out. If we didn’t do our designing in- house, we wouldn’t have those flexibilities,” he said. “If you control the design, you at least have a fighting chance to control your destiny.”

In recent months, Watts Innovations has seen shortages not only of computer chips, which has become a global problem, but also less high-tech components such as antennas and connectors. For example, the drone manufacturing company was ordering a particular connector from a supplier, when it encountered a shortage.

“One day there were 1,000 in stock and the next day there were zero in stock. Then we had to find alternative sources,” Watts said.

Wide range of applications

With its origins based on providing drones for the entertainment industry, Watts Innovations’ customers include many companies that provide UAS services to the film and broadcast industry, including Beverly Hills Aerials and XCam Aerials. But because its drones are adaptable for a wide range of applications, the company’s customers base has expanded to include large utility companies such as Verizon and Florida Power and Light as well as companies that provide drone services to utilities, such as SkySkopes.

The company also supplies delivery drones to DroneUp, which has entered into a partnership with Wal-Mart to provide drone delivery services at multiple sites.

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