Meet a Dronepreneur – 5 Questions for Matt Pickett of Oceans Unmanned

After piloting manned aircraft for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) for most of his career, Matt Pickett of Oceans Unmanned gained a new passion for operating UAS upon retirement. Using unmanned systems to protect our oceans inspires him, Matt says, and gives him hope that future generations can solve our planet’s environmental challenges with help from technology. Waypoint caught up with him to learn more.

1. Hi, Matt. Why don’t you start by telling us a little about your journey into the world of drones. When, how and why did you first start thinking about and then using this technology?

I worked for twenty years as a manned aircraft pilot for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), flying a wide variety of environmental missions—from LiDAR mapping missions to polar bear surveys in the Arctic.

After I retired, based on my experience with aviation and scientific fieldwork, NOAA contracted my company, Oceans Unmanned, to investigate whether it was feasible to use UAS to meet NOAA’s airborne data collection requirements. We originally had two AeroVironment PUMA platforms, which showed us the potential for UAS-based environmental research and monitoring, and then the commercial off-the-shelf market exploded with very capable, easy-to-use, inexpensive systems. These really changed the landscape.

Through our non-profit we assist researchers… to successfully stand up their own in-house UAS programs

The expanding interest from NOAA, and a variety of research institutions and resource protection agencies led us to create Oceans Unmanned, Inc., a 501(C)(3) non-profit organisation, that enables the use of unmanned technologies and promotes their safe and environmentally-conscious operation to protect the ocean and coastal marine environment.

Through our non-profit we help researchers around the country choose the right drone platforms and payloads, then develop the procedures and protocols they need to successfully stand up their own in-house UAS programs.

A screenshot of the team’s 3D model of the Sacramento River, collected with the organisation’s eBee Plus and senseFly S.O.D.A. RGB camera.

2. Could you share with us one of your favourite, or most challenging, drone projects? Where and what was it? What made it stand out? What did you learn?

Earlier this year we flew a biological monitoring project with our eBees in coordination with the US Navy, US Geological Survey (USGS), and US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). We used the eBee for coastal habitat mapping and biological surveys of both elephant seals and sea otters, using its RGB camera, thermoMAP payload and NIR camera.

The eBee is not just a mapping tool, it is also becoming a powerful biological monitoring platform

What was really interesting about the project was the “expedition” feel of it, and all the logistics and planning required to pull it off.  We were working on a Navy-owned island off the coast of California, which was completely undeveloped except for the Navy’s facilities there—so it was like stepping back in time to an earlier version of California; completely wild and rugged. The daily commuter plane was small and weight-limited, so we had to ship our eBees and associated gear ahead of time on a C130 cargo plane. The eBees performed flawlessly and we were able to easily image both the elephant seals and sea otter with the thermoMAP.  For us, the eBee is not just a mapping tool, it is also becoming a powerful biological monitoring platform.

A drone-derived RGB orthomosaic of shipwrecks in North Point / Alpena, Michigan.

3. What impact would you say drone technology has had on your working life?

This technology has sparked in me a whole new level of passion for the environmental work we’ve done for the past thirty years, inside and outside of NOAA. I look forward to work every day, finding new platforms and payloads and applications of drone technology.

The combination of unmanned systems and ocean protection not only inspires me, but a whole new generation of “tech-savvy” kids who can direct their engineering and computer skills to solving the real-world challenges facing our oceans

The combination of unmanned systems and ocean protection not only inspires me but a whole new generation of “tech-savvy” kids who can direct their engineering and computer skills to solving the real-world challenges facing our oceans. My daughter, Madison, is a sophomore at MIT, studying ocean and mechanical engineering, and I love that she and her generation will have these fantastic new tools to solve some of our planet’s biggest environmental challenges.

Jason Woolard of NOAA launches the eBee Plus, which Oceans Unmanned added to their fleet in order to take advantage of the Plus’ longer flight time.

4. What kind of role do you see drone technology playing in the future for companies such as Ocean Unmanned? Can you imagine what your working life might look like several years down the line?

I think one of the challenges will be ensuring that the technology and its adoption doesn’t outpace the regulations or society’s acceptance.

As drones become more common and ubiquitous, the challenges of safely and respectfully integrating them into daily life will only increase. To address this issue, albeit, on a very small scale, Oceans Unmanned created ECO-Drone, an education and outreach program whose aim is to encourage the environmentally-conscious operation of drones, in order to minimise the potential disturbance to wildlife.

Scientists and resource managers are becoming increasingly concerned about the ability of drones to reach previously inaccessible habitats and disturb resources. Acute or chronic disturbance of wildlife can significantly impact animal health and wellbeing by disrupting migratory patterns, breeding, feeding, and sheltering. We believe that an early, targeted campaign can address the majority of users who want to be environmentally aware.

One of ECO-Drone’s goals is to educate operators by developing recommended UAS best practices, as we learn more about the impacts that drones can have on different species and habitats. For now, the single easiest action for operators to take is to know and understand the airspace and surrounding environment, and fly at the highest altitude the mission parameters and regulations allow. The eBee is remarkably quiet and we have noted no wildlife disturbances in our operations.

Matt Pickett and Brian Taggart of Oceans Unmanned prepare their eBee RTK for a flight on the Sacramento River.

5. Lastly, if you could give three tips to a budding dronepreneur of the future, what would they be?

  1. Find your passion—videography, mapping, environmental monitoring, whatever it may be.
  2. Figure out how unmanned technology can enhance that space.
  3. And create your niche!

Oceans Unmanned, Inc.


Industries served: Ocean and Coastal Marine environmental research agencies and institutions
Drones: senseFly eBee RTK, senseFly eBee Plus, entire DJI family, microdrones md4-1000, AeroVironment Puma
Software: DroneDeploy, AirMap, Pix4D, eMotion3, QT Modeler
Avg. flights per month: 5-10
Total flight hours: 500 hrs
Dream robot: “I can’t wait for a fully autonomous RV – sleep while road tripping…”
Website: www.oceansunmanned.org