Interview: Thomas Finsterbusch

Credit: Cape Productions
Credit: Cape Productions

Thomas Finsterbusch wants to provide customers with all of the benefits of drones minus the hassle of actually flying them. Finsterbusch is the Chief Technology Officer and Co-Founder of Cape Productions, Inc., which provides action sports with drone video filming and editing services. After raising over $10 million in venture capital funding, Cape began offering its drone video service to skiers and snowboarders at five North American ski resorts last winter. Now it plans to expand to other sports and begin offering capabilities such as live streaming. Last month, at F8 developer’s conference, Cape demonstrated its ability to stream aerial video from a drone on Facebook Live. Before co-founding Cape, Finsterbusch studied machine learning at the University of Texas at Austin and worked as a software engineer at Google X.

In the evolution of the consumer drone industry, drone services represents an increasingly important sector that is likely to grow in the future. We spoke with Finsterbusch about what he sought to achieve with Cape and about the future of the drone industry.

Interview by Dan Gettinger

Center for the Study of the Drone Could you tell me a little bit more about Cape Productions?

CTO Thomas Finsterbusch

Thomas Finsterbusch Let me give you my quick overview of what we are. Basically there are two types of drone companies, right? There are those that build drones and sell them as consumer hardware devices—DJI, 3DR, Lily, Hexoplus, Airdog, and so on. We’re not doing that. We’re the second type of drone company, which basically operates drones as a service. So, entirely hands off. We own the fleet of drones, we operate them, we make sure they fly safely, we make sure we operate legally with FAA approval. Just like Google X Project Wing is working on drones as a service for delivery or Amazon is working on drones for delivery, we’re doing drones as a service: to deliver aerial video for people. We’re operating the fleet of drones and, yes, our first application is skiing and snowboarding. Particularly when people do interesting things outdoors, we do everything for them, including flying the drones, capturing the video, editing it, uploading it, and publishing it for them so they don’t have to do any work.

Drone It seems like the company is really oriented towards ease of access, in terms of this technology.

Finsterbusch Exactly. We believe drone technology is amazing, but it’s very complicated, and it can get dangerous very fast. The core company hypothesis is that the way to bring drone technology to the masses is through service, so people don’t have to touch drones, they don’t have to deal with any of the battery, hardware, or even any of the data, any of the footage, or any of the video. We do everything for them. That’s the core company hypothesis. Obviously, a lot of people buy their own drones, and that’s great, so we do think there’s a place for, you know, these two types of companies, consumer hardware and drones as a service.

Drone Could you run me through mechanics of how one of these services works—how many people are involved and what types of operations are required?

Finsterbusch As a customer you can either go to the mountain and wherever we’re operating, you can find us and sign up on the spot, or you can also make a reservation ahead of time on the website. You enter all your data, we’ll make you sign a waiver, charge a credit card, and then we take it from there. You go skiing or snowboarding, do two or three runs with a drone. We take all of that raw video, we upload it to the cloud, we do all of the editing, put music to it, take effects and make it look amazing. We publish that video, send you a link saying that the video is done, and you can also download the raw video and access all the files. That’s basically the perspective from the user.

From an internal perspective, what’s going on is, we’re operating the fleet of drones, we have our 333 approval from the FAA—we actually have multiple and one of them is unique to us—that allows us to do exactly what we want to do. We’re actually, as far as I know, the only company in the U.S. that is allowed to fly closer than 500 feet from members of the public who have been briefed and consent to this operation, our customers. There are two other types of 333 certification, the aerial data collection and the movie studio, and none of those allow you to do what we do, so we have our own unique 333 exemption. We carry insurance and we comply with the ski resort. They have a lot of things that they need to have properly taken care of. That’s kind of where everything is happening behind the scenes so that our customers don’t have to worry about any of that. (Is the drone safe? Are they capturing beautiful, cinematic angles? Is everything from legal compliance taken care of?) We do all of that.

Drone How did the company come about and what was going on then that made you think this was a good idea?

Finsterbusch My personal background is in software engineering and computer science. I started a PhD program in machine learning, data mining personalization and that kind of stuff at UT Austin. I dropped out after three years with my master’s and very quickly realized I was not on the critical path for what I really want to do. I joined Google a bit after and was at Google for two and a half years. The last year I was at Google, I was working at the Google X Research and Prototyping Lab, and that’s where I fell in love with this combination of hardware and software. That’s also where I met one of my two co-founders and we worked really well together and basically decided to jump into this.

For me, technology is really most magical when it disappears, when it recedes into the background, and it just happens—it does all the work for you. I bought my first drone six years ago, played around with it, and was so excited; I showed it off to my dad, my little brother. After three minutes, the batteries were empty, and I had crashed it against a tree in my backyard a couple times. It was really disappointing. On the one side, there’s this amazing excitement around drones, and then there’s a reality of how much work they actually are. The impetus behind this company was, “Hey, can we deliver all the amazingness of drones without any of the work for the end user? What if we do all the work?” That’s really how it came about.

For me, technology is really most magical when it disappears, when it recedes into the background, and it just happens—it does all the work for you.

Drone There are a lot of companies with exemptions that, based on our research, offer aerial photo and video services. Could talk about how you see Cape as different from the other companies that are offering these aerial photo and video services?

Finsterbusch One thing you can do is you buy a DJI Phantom and fly it around at a wedding and it’s a one-off kind of operation. That’s one model, kind of the local mom-and-pop. For us, we’re really looking to scale this. What if we’re talking about tens of thousands of videos every single day being captured, solely autonomously from a drone, automatically uploaded to the cloud, automatically edited and published completely hands-off?

Right now there are humans in the loop; the FAA requires us to have a licensed pilot on site, an official observer, and so we need to have humans in the loop. But hopefully—and this is what Amazon and Google are pushing for—you need to get beyond visual line of site, you need to get beyond human pilots in the loop. When that happens, we’re really interested in doing that at scale, completely hands-off. The end version of this is that when something interesting is happening outdoors, you can summon a drone over from your mobile device or your computer, the drone lifts over, does the task, whether capturing aerial video or something else, lifts back, does the uploading, does the editing, and minutes later, you’re presented with the final product. That’s really what we’re working towards: how to do this at scale, extremely fast and extremely affordable.

Credit: Cape Productions
Credit: Cape Productions

Drone What is your relationship with Facebook and what does it mean for your company?

Finsterbusch We’re one of their Live API launch partners. Facebook opened up a live API that allows people to stream video from wherever onto their platform and it shows up as a live video on someone’s feed or someone’s Facebook page. You could always upload a video, but this is live. They approached us four weeks ago, and said, “We will unveil this, it’s still confidential but we’re looking for awesome launch partners and awesome ways to show off this new capability for the Facebook platform.” We’ve started working with them and basically did an integration where we can live stream directly from the drone to Facebook’s platform and we pulled that off in a matter of three weeks. We showed it off ten minutes before the keynote conference started where Mark Zuckerberg went on stage. We were flying two of our drones around Fort Mason, the venue where the conference was held, and we were livestreaming to a big screen inside the venue for ten minutes after Mark Zuckerberg went on stage. It was a really cool way to show off the capabilities of drones and livestreaming. Instead of capturing all of the video and then editing it after the fact, doing this live really adds a new and interesting capability.

Drone Does this fit into your business plan in terms of offering your customers the chance to live stream their ski or snowboard runs on their Facebook?

Finsterbusch This is where it gets interesting, right? The short answer is yes. We could just offer it as a new capability. That would be another way to differentiate between just buying a Phantom and flying around and doing this at scale. A customer could come up and they could still get the normal edited video after the fact, but why not live stream the video directly to their friends, right? It would be an amazing experience if, as you’re going down the ski run and you show up at the lodge to eat lunch, people already commenting on what you just did on Facebook. I think that’s pretty exciting. Then people get this sort of instantaneous gratification, but it’s the raw video, it’s unedited, and it’s cool, in the moment. I think that the raw footage is great for instantaneous gratification, but for re-watch, memory value, the edited video has more power.

It would be an amazing experience if, as you’re going down the ski run and you show up at the lodge to eat lunch, people already commenting on what you just did on Facebook.

Drone Do you have plans to expand into other sports?

Finsterbusch There are two answers to this. One is that there are some obvious ways that we’re expanding to other action sports such as mountain biking, surfing, rock-climbing. Those are obvious other verticals where we could deploy. We’ve also gotten inbound interest from stadiums and live concert venues. Our specialty is doing this safely at scale with actual people around and not just remotely. That was kind of interesting; like, what if you do live events, concerts, stadiums, games, and so on? We’re starting to look at amusement parks, people capturing memories there. That’s some of the obvious stuff, but in the meantime we’re working on our second generation products. I can’t share a lot right now since we’re still in our private output mode developing this. This gets me extremely excited because it has some of the elements that we’ve already previewed around live streaming but it’ll take it to the next level. The core thesis is the same here: give people all the awesomeness of drones, all the capabilities, and all the technology, without them having to do any of the work. It will be along the same lines, but it’ll be very different from what we have right now. So all these expansions into other verticals and also the V2 product we’re working on right now.

Drone What has been your experience so far in terms of working within the 333 process and what have you heard from other companies that are working within this industry?

Finsterbusch It’s really interesting. I think there are a number of companies that don’t want to engage the FAA, they just do their own thing, stay under the radar. We do the opposite, we engaged them right away and started building this relationship and it’s been great working with them. Obviously we understand that they have to work within their constraints, and their overall priority is safety. It’s the same for us; I think we’re all aligned. The worst thing that could happen to the drone industry is that there’s a horrible accident, someone gets injured, or killed. That would be terrible for everyone, so we’re fully aligned with the FAA on that. We have been working with them very, very closely from day one and we’ve been happy. As of two weeks ago, we got permission from the Forest Service to operate our drones there on a continual basis. That was the reason we could fly at Mammoth, because it was on National Forest Service land, and we also got approval from Winter Park. Things are moving, and I think everything is headed in the right direction. For us, it’s really important to have a good relationship. We’re in it for the long-term; we don’t just want to fly under the radar and screw things up. Obviously, there are additional capabilities that we would love to have and things we would love to do, and they’ll come, but we’ll just have to work on it.

Drone What types of drones do you use?

Finsterbusch Because the entire drone ecosystem is moving so fast, every year we do an audit of what platforms are out there and see which ones fit our needs the best. When we started we were on 3D Robotics and the Pixhawk which is all open source and we could modify it completely for what we need to do. For the past season, even coming to an end now, we switched over to DJI’s platform. Right now, our fleet consists of mostly Inspires. We looked at a lot of different companies; we looked at Aerialtronics and Aztec and all these players. What we liked about the DJI inspire is that it’s a very nice, closed hardware system, but open enough from the STK API perspective that we can write our own software that does everything we need it to do to fly safely. With our drones, we map out the ski resort ahead of time—we know where the trees are, we know where the chairlifts are— and we put these drones on fixed flight paths and they never deviate from those, no matter what the pilot does. The pilots cannot crash the drone, they cannot put people into jeopardy. We need a platform that’s open enough from the software perspective that we can write all of our safety guarantees in there and the DJI Inspire does that. Now that the DJI has opened up by controller, you can program against that; that’s exactly what we needed, and that’s why we switched over.

For updates, news, and commentary, follow us on Twitter.

[includeme file=”tools/sympa/drones_sub.php”]