Matt Pickett reminisced over his early mornings fly fishing with his son in British Columbia’s pristine wilderness. It is his peaceful escape from the stresses and distractions of daily life. “It took some convincing, but I finally got him to put down his phone and come outdoors. Once he’s out here, he remembers how much he likes it,” Matt said about his son.
Matt is a big believer in the power of time spent in nature. He believes it can ground and center people in a way that technology can’t. What technology can do, however, is help protect it. That’s why he opted to sidestep retirement for a second career as an entrepreneur, or as some might say, a dronepreneur.
In 2016, he and his partner, Brian Taggart, founded Oceans Unmanned (OU), a nonprofit that harnesses the power of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), commonly known as drones, to protect ocean and coastal marine environments. You could say environmental protection is a Pickett family tradition. He, his dad and his brother enjoyed long careers with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and his youngest brother is in the US Coast Guard.
After twenty years flying manned aircraft for a variety of environmental research projects Matt admitted, “I was skeptical of drones at first.” He went on to explain that he wasn’t convinced of their potential until he learned more about the rapid rate at which UAV technology was advancing. “Sophisticated drones can access places that manned aircraft just can’t. Plus, you can launch them from anywhere, which greatly reduces the cost of research expeditions.”
He knew that the low cost that comes with rapidly developing technology combined with the need for access to hard to reach places would put UAVs at the forefront of environmental protection. Which is why, when he entered the space, he was surprised to find that there were practically no organizations at the intersection of conservation and drone technology. Being early adopters, he and his team are trailblazing the industry by creating standards and launching programs for budding organizations to build upon.
“We’re a different kind of Startup. We’re constantly putting ourselves out of business.” Matt said that the way it works is, an organization will reach out and ask if OU can help them with a problem. OU creates a solution, teaches the organization how to do it in-house, assists them as they become self-sufficient, and move on to the next project. “We’re building a toolbox for the next generation of conservationists and dronepreuners so they don’t have to start from scratch, like we did.”
Their initiatives include freeFLY, which aims to save the lives of whales entangled in fishing gear and ECO-Drone, an educational outreach program that teaches UAV operators how to minimize drone disturbance to wildlife species and habitats.
OU doesn’t limit themselves to marine research. They’re currently partnering with Oregon State University in their nested murrelets conservation effort in Oregon’s old growth forest. The trees can grow up to 250 feet tall, which is a much more appealing height for a drone to climb than a man.
Though OU has had a relatively smooth launch and growth phase there will almost certainly be obstacles down the road. “I think the evolution of UAV technology could easily outpace regulations and societal approval, which could be a huge problem down the line.” Matt hopes the next generation of researchers, including his daughter, who studies ocean and mechanical engineering at MIT, will be prepared to face these, and other challenges.
“My hope is that, by creating these ground breaking tools, she and other young scientists will be equipped to solve some of our planet’s biggest environmental challenges.” It’s a lot to put on the next generation’s shoulders but maybe, if there’s still a wilderness for them to escape to and decompress in, they’ll be able to handle it. Matt said that nature deficit disorder is on the rise. Fortunately, ecologically friendly drone use and environmental conservation programs are, too.