Editor's Note: Inc.'s 12th annual 30 Under 30 list features the young founders taking on some of the world's biggest challenges. Here, meet Aerobo.
One of the trademark moments of absurdity in "The Fate of the Furious," the action franchise's eighth installment, comes when Vin Diesel's turncoat character runs into his old crew of street racers. They shoot cables that latch into his car, then start revving their engines in reverse to keep him in place. That's when things really go haywire. As the camera rises above the intersection, car doors rip off, bumpers go flying, and two vehicles flip up and smash into each other.
The impressive aerial shots are thanks to Aerobo, a startup co-founded in 2015 by NYU film school graduate Brian Streem. Aerobo owns a fleet of camera-equipped drones, which production companies can charter to capture sweeping aerial shots. For a daily rate, Aerobo provides the drones and the pilots, then works with the direction team to capture the requested footage. The company pulled in more than $1 million in revenue in 2016, its first full year, and already has customers in Amazon, Netflix, Fox, and ESPN.
Streem says the industry has been itching for this kind of service. "These entertainment companies are experts in whatever they do," he says. "They're not experts in flying, operating, and maintaining fleets of drones."
Still, Streem admits drones are not his first love. "I've always more loved movies, and photography in general," he says. After graduating from film school in 2010, he began his own production company, with which he produced commercials and several independent films, including one that earned a screening at Sundance. Then, in 2013, he saw a video of a drone in flight, and a light bulb went off. "I was blown away by it," he says. "I didn't necessarily choose the drone thing. It chose me."
Streem recruited Jeff Brink, his former classmates at NYU, with the idea to build a company around capturing video footage via drones. With their own savings, the pair bought a $70,000, 55-lb drone from a manufacturer in Sweden, brought it back to the U.S., and began experimenting. They rigged it with a camera and started taking trips to see what kind of footage they could get. One video, of the Chernobyl site, went viral on YouTube, and the pair started to recognize the business opportunity.
The co-founders created Aerobo, pouring their own savings into the startup and raising money from friends and family. (The company has since raised $1.9 million, including a seed round led by Valor Ventures.)
In 2015, as drones were rapidly growing in popularity, the Federal Aviation Administration released new regulations barring, among other things, flights that passed over people or outside of the operator's line of sight. Streem and Brink were among the first to apply for an exemption. They were approved, and their new company became one of the first legal drone operators in the U.S.--and the first in New York state.
But that was only part of the battle. "We immediately recognized," Streem says, "that no one would hire us if no one knew we existed." In 2015, as the company officially launched, it brought on a director of sales and paid for a professional profile with the International Movie Database (IMDB), which gave access to essential Hollywood contact information. The team started cold emailing production companies asking if they needed drone services for aerial footage. Every time they got a bite, the co-founders met with the potential client in person to show them the technology.
In the first year, Aerobo earned a number of high-profile customers, including film, TV, and live streaming entertainment companies: Netflix for The Punisher, an upcoming Marvel series; Amazon, for its soon-to-be-released feature film Wonderstruck; Beyonce, for music videos from her "Lemonade" album; NBC Universal, for the eighth installment of The Fast and the Furious. The startup charges between $2,000 and $15,000 per day, depending on the number of staff needed and the complexity of the project--far less expensive and complicated than using a crane or helicopter. It's evidently an in-demand service: The company projects that its revenue will triple in 2017.
Aerobo, which has eight employees between its New York headquarters and L.A. office, plans to expand its West Coast presence to have more staff close to Hollywood. Brink left the company in October, choosing to return full time to the entertainment industry as a film electrician.
For the company's next act, Streem is working on new patented software that will make it easier for photographers and videographers to get the exact shots they need. "The way drones generally work now," Streem says, "is that the cameras are controlled by the drones, instead of the other way around. That doesn't really make sense. The user doesn't care about where the drone is--only where the camera is." Aerobo's new technology, he says, will give the operator control over the camera instead of the drone, helping filmmakers capture the perfect shot.
That new software might give Aerobo a leg up--which is something it will probably need in the quickly growing drone photography and videography industry. "The market is already starting to become saturated," says Patrick Egan, a drone industry analyst. "More and more people are overcoming that learning curve. You're also seeing cinematographers adding drones to their bags of tricks." Where companies like Aerobo can separate themselves, Egan says, is by being experts in their craft. "Hollywood companies aren't going to hire just anyone," he says. "If you're artistic, talented, and really have your act together, you should be able to get work."
Fortunately for Aerobo, that's in line with Streem's background and his philosophy. "I'm less interested in the drone," he says, "and more interested in being able to move a camera anywhere in three-dimensional space. That's what fascinates me."