By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA
“We have the rocket ship built, we just need some fuel,” Jack Dischner of Knoxville start-up DataFlyte Inc. says.
We sat down recently with the President and Chief Executive Officer of the company that reads water utility meters from the air to get an update on our initial two-part series that posted a little over two years ago. You can find Part 1 here and Part 2 here.
“We’ve read close to two million meters of various manufacturers,” Dischner says. There are nine major manufacturers of water meters that can be remotely read.
“Different brands require different protocols,” he adds, noting that these include everything from speed of flight to altitude.
The product that DataFlyte offers is more efficient, less costly and friendlier to the environment.
“For a 25,000-customer utility, it takes five guys eight days to read meters the traditional way,” Dischner says. DataFlyte can read the entire system in six hours.
“We know we are saving them money,” he says. “There’s even a reduction in the carbon footprint,” thanks to a reduction in fuel used by DataFlyte’s airplane versus the utility company’s vehicles.
So, it sounds like this disruptive technology should be making major gains. There are some challenges that Dischner outlined for us.
“We have a bit of an identity crisis,” he says. “When people look at smart meters, they think of the smart grid and smart cities. Water meters and gas meters don’t connect to the grid.”
This means the sole option to DataFlyte’s flyover service is for utility workers to drive around the service area and individually read the meters.
There’s also the political reality. Automating a process previously performed by individuals could lead to job losses, something local Mayors and City Council members frequently find troubling.
Another key inhibitor is the lack of standardization in the industry. Remember the old VHS versus Betamax videotape debates of the late 1970s? Neighboring utilities might have different systems, and it’s possible that even a single utility might have multiple automated meter readers.
“We need a minimum of 10,000 meters spread out over 100 square miles to make our service feasible,” Dischner says.
Finally, there’s the risk aversion that characterizes the industry.
“We have talked to dozens of water utilities, but no one wanted to be first,” Dischner said, adding that one possible client wanted DataFlyte to have 20 customers before signing-on.
At this stage, the Founder says his team has built a solid, scalable system that has been tested and proven 99 percent reliable.
Using a Butch Jones analogy, Dischner says DataFlyte has built its technology brick by brick. Capital, including Dischner’s own funds, have been used wisely.
“We need smart money going forward,” he says. “Money with influence is an accelerator or an enhancer that adds velocity to the investment. Money in and of itself will help, however the traditional advertising, follow-up, tradeshow circuit, etc. will eventually get us to where we want to be, but will be much slower and incremental. Our system is built to handle volume – we are ready for it.”