Autonomous Flight Technologies, Inc. (AFT) focuses on the advancement of small commercial aircraft related to the UAV/UAS industry. AFT, led by Josh May, is licensed to use drones for commercial purposes.
What motivated and inspired you to start your company?
Josh May: My father and I had a retail business that we started from scratch, but during those years I always had a fascination for flight. I loved to experiment and design aircraft that fly autonomously. Paul Stoutamire, a long time friend, was already doing some flying. He introduced me to Chris Moody as well. Together, we decided that we should join forces. We got an exemption from the FAA that allowed us to fly legally for commercial purposes. We were one of the first companies in Virginia to do so. It has just taken off since. One of the things we pride ourselves on, as a business, is that we are always on the top of the curve of the technology in the UAS industry. We see that the biggest impact we can have on the United States is in the engineering market so that is where we focus, as a data company for engineers.
What is the biggest challenge your company has had to face so far? How did you overcome it?
Josh May: As with any business, the number one challenge is always the actual logistics of starting the business because it cost money to do so. I’ve personally spent a lot of money that I was saving for retirement, to start this business, and it’s a huge risk. When you are starting a business you are taking that money and throwing it on a craps table and gambling whether or not it is going to pay off. Fortunately, before this I had a business of building aircraft that kind of morphed into Autonomous Flight Technologies. In my previous business I tested my hypothesis, that there was a need for UAV and drones in this country. I knew it was going to be the next tech bubble and it is here now. The hardest part of the business so far was fighting our way to being recognized as the leading drone service provider in Virginia and sustaining it financially. We want to scale as smart as possible and not make the common mistakes that can kill a company. One of the great things about being here working with RAMP is having access to mentorship and connections. Our mentor has scaled many multi-million dollar businesses and having that influence is worth its weight in gold.
What do you like about the Roanoke area? Why do you want to be here and grow your company here?
Josh May: I love Roanoke, especially Roanoke City. I grew up in Salem and it is a great place too. My wife and I ended up buying a house in Roanoke and lived there for about 14 years before moving back to Salem. We love Roanoke and it has come a long way, both in the technology field as well as socially, since we first moved there. Now there is a festival every weekend and something is always going on. Personally, my wife and I miss a lot about Roanoke. We definitely call Roanoke home for our business. Autonomous Flight Technologies is here to stay.
What advice would you give to those interested in starting a business?
Josh May: At first, be prepared to eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. You have to dive in 100% and you can’t just do it as a hobby. If you are coming to RAMP be prepared to work, because they are going to put your business model to the test. Fortunately for us we have been in business for a few years and we have tested our business model. Paul, Chris, and I explored just about every single way that you can use a UAS aircraft legally in this country. We have narrowed down our business model to where we know that it makes sense for the direction that UAS is going in the United States right now. As the market changes, we stay on top of it. We started in cinematography and it led us to the engineering side and who knows where that will lead us next. It’s just a matter of sticking with it.
Has your company done something exciting recently?
Josh May: Yes, every time we do a new job it is exciting. One of the greatest things about what we do is we find ourselves in situations or places that we would never have had access to. I’m excited every time I come to work. I know this is a cliché and everyone’s heard it a thousand times, but when you’re doing what you love you never work a day in your life. That is just a fact and I love doing what we are doing. I love coming to work, the business side of things, seeing it prosper, and doing the work itself. I would say that no matter how large we get and how high we climb you are going to find all of us founders still involved in some capacity in some of these jobs.