Aerial Productions, Austin's all-deaf drone company, takes flight

The company hopes to provide employment opportunities to the deaf and hard-of-hearing community.

Posted April 6th, 2016

Story highlights
  • Aerial Productions has about 11 employees, all of whom are deaf.
  • The company is hoping to give opportunities to a community with a high unemployment rate.
  • The company earned a 333 exemption from the FAA, allowing it to do commercial drone work.

In December, Aerial Productions, a small Austin drone company, traveled to Los Angeles to compete in a Pitchfest competition as part of the International Drone Expo.

The presentation by one of many Austin startups getting into the business of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (better known as "drones"), was not without problems. The company's co-founder Anthony Mowl describes in a LinkedIn blog post the challenges he faced in delivering a seven-minute presentation when he showed up.

"The pitch competition was offering $150,000 worth of prizes and entry into a business accelerator program, and the two interpreters there for me that day were going to hurt my chances of winning. Both interpreters were good people, and likely graduates of an interpreter training program. Their behavior showed knowledge of the field, but their sign production and receptive abilities was average-to-poor. My coworkers and I had to slow down when signing to them, and even so their choice of words in interpreting English did not reflect what we meant in ASL (American Sign Language). With just 7 precious minutes to give my pitch, every second and every word would count," he wrote in January.

"I had to make a decision just hours before the competition: Should I deliver my presentation in ASL, which also serves as a visual demonstration for the judges the linguistic minority that is my community? Or should I choose to speak for myself, using a voice that sends the message that in order for a deaf person to succeed in this world, they would not be able to do so in their native language?"

Mowl, CEO Hector Brual and the company's entire staff of 11 are deaf, which it turns out is well-suited in some ways to the work they're doing in aerial photography, drone education and repair. The company went through the long process of receiving a 333 exemption from the Federal Aviation Administration, giving Aerial Productions permission to engage in commercial drone activity.

But in the moment, at the December pitch competition, Mowl was a nervous entrepreneur on a stage who had to make a huge decision. He wrote: "I chose to speak for myself, and we actually ended up winning first place." But that wasn't the end of the story. While a video exists of the winning pitch, Mowl asked that it not be posted online. 

He felt ashamed, he said, for speaking in a language that is not accessible to all in the deaf community and for the work of the presentation's translator, which he said failed to convey about 50 percent of his message. 

"The video sends a message that says for a deaf person to succeed in life, they will need to speak for themselves... Even though I am deaf, I have the privilege of being able to speak. But many other deaf -- the majority -- would not have the privilege of making that same choice. It is easy to see and imagine that had I chosen to use ASL and allowed the interpreter to voice for me, there is no way Aerial Productions would have won. And this is our dilemma."

Mowl's winning presentation at the Drone Expo was a victory, but also a painful reminder that many with disabilities must face extraordinary, and often unexpected, challenges to participate in the booming technology industries that are changing Austin and other cities.

So Aerial Productions is trying to do something about that.

In particular, Brual said, the company is providing employment to deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals who want to participate in a growing industry that could employ as many as 100,000 in the next decade, particularly in Austin.

"Austin is one of the largest deaf communities in the United States," Brual said through a telephone relay interpreter. "The cost of living is fairly reasonable and there's a lot of support here."

Of particular concern to Brual and Mowl is the high unemployment rate for those with hearing disabilities. Both cite an unemployment rate of more than 70 percent for deaf and hard of hearing individuals, a figure that comes from Austin-based Communication Services for the Deaf, Inc.

Ricardo B. Brazziell / AMERICAN-STATESMANAerial Productions flies a drone near Lake Travis on Tuesday, April 5, 2016. 

In an email, a representative for CSD wrote, "The under- and unemployment rate of the deaf and hard of hearing community is based on data from the 2013 American Community Survey (ACS), a study that included approximately 40,000 individuals... Taking into consideration the full range of working-age people with a hearing disability were not included in this survey (specifically those aged 18-21 years and 64 years and older), and that those employed full time can still be 'underemployed' (defined as employment that does not generate income to sufficiently support the basic needs of an employee or their family without additional financial support), the overall under- and unemployment rate of the deaf and hard of hearing community is estimated at 70 percent."

Aerial Productions is focusing on three areas for its business: To provide drone photography services to companies such as real estate agencies and advertisers; to provide education and training on drones; and to do repair work on flight devices from companies such as DJI and 3D Robotics, which sell for anywhere from a few hundred to thousands of dollars.

Brual says he believes there will be a big market for drone services in areas such as solar energy and insurance as well as roofing, all areas that could benefit from a bird's-eye view. "A drone is a good way to get an image of a roof without endangering an individual," he said.

The company is working with the Texas School for the Deaf, providing workshops and career opportunities as it hires pilots, photographers and social media experts.  Some of that work requires pilot's licenses.

One of the biggest challenges to getting Aerial Productions going was securing an FAA exemption, which has only been granted to about 4,500 companies out of more than 15,000 requests.

Enrico Schaefer, a founding attorney at Traverse Legal, worked as an advocate and legal counsel for Aerial Productions and spent about six months working on securing the company's 333 FAA exemption.

"The FAA is looking for safety," Schaefer said. "Virtually all of the materials that they look at is whether this is going to be a safe operation of drones. Right now we have more drones in the air than we have (manned) aircraft and we're just beginning."

Schaefer said he believes the company's professionalism and intellect, and that it's providing opportunities for a community in need of employment opportunities, will make it an easy business to rally around for investors and those who need drone services.

"Being a drone pilot, running a drone business that does operations for clients, doing drone repairs, all of that is doable safely for the hearing-impaired community," Schafer said. "It's a really great match."

Ricardo B. Brazziell / AMERICAN-STATESMANAerial Productions CEO Hector Brual, left, and drone operator Toks Desalu fly a drone near Lake Travis on Tuesday, April 5, 2016. Aerial Productions is an Austin startup focused on drone photography, repair and training with a staff of about 11, all of whom are deaf, including Brual. The company is one of only a few thousand commercially licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration to do commercial drone work.