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JD Claridge is the CEO and founder of XCraft, a new company that builds small powerful flying machines. He’s the visionary and inventor of the x PlusOne design, which as we will hear, is a innovative design in drone technology. JD started his career at Volant Technica as an aerospace engineer and later served several years as the lead electrical engineer at Quest Aircraft. For the past few years, prior to launching XCraft, JD ran his own aerospace design firm. He’s here to talk about xCraft, their revolutionary products and his appearance on the popular TV show Shark Tank.
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Tell Me About Yourself, J.D: I’m JD Claridge, CEO of xCraft, and my background is pretty varied, but for the most part really is heavily involved with aviation and aerospace. I was building model airplanes as long as I can remember as a kid and grew that into a career as an aerospace engineer. I worked at several different firms. One was called Quest aircraft. They built a ten place turbo prop airplane called the Kodiak. I did all the electrical and avionics design on the initial design of the Kodiak. From there kind of develop my own company that works with large aircraft O.E.M.’s to do electrical design work. I’ve also been into drones as long as they’ve been around, specifically just for fun. And also radio control models. Also for fun.
Tell me about the company. Where did the idea of xCraft originate? I co-founded xCraft with my partner Charles Manning. It was really founded around the concept of UAVs, and we saw the big potential in that area. I had done this design of the X Plus One as a side project in my aerospace engineering company. Had some interns working on it with me directing them over the summer several years ago. We had gotten to the point of a flying prototype and I brought that to my friend Charles Manning at the time and said, “What do you think? ” and he said, this is awesome and we should start a company around this, and so we did. We founded xCraft. That was a little over a year ago.
So what’s so unique about the design of your drone? The X Plus One is a high speed VTOL drone, so it can take off and land vertically and also hover. But it can also transition and fly like an airplane up to sixty miles an hour. So it’s much more capable than a traditional drone. And really differentiate it from the market in that way. It’s also a lot better looking, we think, then everything else out there. It’s definitely a different design. Looks a lot like it like an X-wing fighter, which is somewhat of the foundation or somewhere we got the idea for the company.
Do you remember the moment when you were inspired to create the X Plus One? I do actually I was flying just a regular quad copter just for fun. It had a camera on it. I was trying to move quickly and I was moving the ground at a fairly fast. I think that one would do maybe thirty miles an hour or so and I thought you know what it’s tilted about forty five degrees over and pitch. If you could pitch that all the way over to 90 degrees, and use your motor power just for thrust, you could really cruise. But then the problem is you need some lift. So I thought well, just put a wing in place of those cross arms and there you go. That was kind of the original concept. So yeah I started working on the idea myself, just kind of on my own free time. But then eventually brought it into my company as a side project.
So the company was formed about a year ago on the basis of the one product the X Plus One. That was our first product, yes, we knew there would be more, and we’ve already innovated in that space and that we do have more product now. But that was the initial product. And we took that product and launched it on Kickstarter in December of last year. Our goal was fifty thousand on Kickstarter we ended up raising almost three hundred percent of that. So we did pretty well got a lot of exposure, obviously out there with that product. And the X. Plus one is now available to the Kickstarter contributors? That’s correct. We are still in the process of delivering to the original Kickstarter backers. We’ve just started that process. But the parts have been manufactured. And we’re doing final assembly in the US at our facility here.
Who’s buying the X Plus One? We see kind of a variation of buyers and customers for the X Plus One. A lot of them are your typical drone enthusiast. So someone who may have another drone. They’ve got a DJI Phantom or something, but they want something different, something that unique and that will do something that those other drones won’t. And a lot of our customer base is that, those enthusiasts. We do see some commercial uses. We’ve actually had a couple customers file 333 exemptions and using our craft. We actually have a 333 exemption on ours, but obviously that can only be used by us. So there is a commercial use aspect. We have two versions an autonomous version and a standard version. The autonomous – it uses the 3D Robotics Pixhawk controller. And so it’s fully autonomous capable. It’ll do area mapping. Follow me mode. All the various modes that the Pixhawk will do using mission planner software.
In addition to the speed and the ability to fly horizontally, what other features might users be interested in? There’s one key feature that we did integrate into the X Plus One, and that is a retrofitable nose cone. So we made that modular so that we can swap out payloads very easily it’s just two screws. Right now we offer a micro D.V. Camera option that came out there. We offer a fixed amount for a GoPro. And then we also offer a gimbal – a two axis gimbal for a GoPro. But we plan to offer additional sensor capabilities that mount right on that modular nose cone in the future. So that’s one key feature. That certainly would be interesting to a lot of people. Just the overall design of the craft is really such that it’s very capable. It can actually handle pretty high winds, because the wind actually does provide some lift, when over the wing. So you can actually hover in a wind, and it will grab into the wind, but it actually gives you additional lift. So you can increase your flight times. That’s kind of an overview of the features, but the primary feature, obviously of the X Plus One and its market differentiation is really the high speed aspect of it. Not only the before the video that I’ve seen it looks pretty cool just watching a fly. It does. It looks very cool in flight. It’s pretty cool to watch. I mean it’s one thing to see a video, but in real life it’s pretty amazing to watch.
Now you have another product that I’ve seen, which is basically a flying phone. Can you tell me about that? Yes, so we have a product called Phone Drone, and we’re running a campaign on Kickstarter right now. It’s called Phone Drone Ethos. What it is – It’s a device that allows your smartphone to fly. So it’s compatible with IOS and Android smartphones. And it leverage is the sensor capability as well the camera and processor capability that’s already your smartphone for use in the drone. So those components are not needed. They’re just a part of the drone now. We say if giving your smartphone access to the third dimension, because it really is doing that.
So your phone is actually participating in the flight and not just riding along? Correct. Your phone is actually flying. So you can also tether it to another phone or another device to allow control from that device and streaming of the video back.
Are the props collapsible so you can fold it up and take it with you? The design is not that the props are fold-able or collapsible. It is very compact though. It’s something like roughly the size of a sheet of paper, an 8-1/2 by eleven. And then just only about an inch-and-half tall. It’s a pretty compact little unit so it will usually fit in a backpack or some other type of bag.
I’m sure this question has come up a number of times in the past, so I’m going to ask you here. We’re talking about a phone. You know, people’s phones. They are little bit possessive with their phones. How do you alleviate the concerns that someone might have about putting their phone up in a drone and letting it fly? You’re right that is a question we get a lot. We’ve done a lot to protect the phone. It’s a very protective case for a phone so there’s that. We’ve also, being my aerospace engineering background we’ve taken a lot as far as the software and the electrical design to make it redundant and fail safe. So there’s less probability of something going wrong there and having if fly away from you or something. And then it does operate with very low cost phone. So there’s some Android phones out there for as little as $50. That will work in it. The other aspect of this is, people are very protective of their phones and we understand that. But there are also are many people out there who will put a $400 GoPro on a drone without thinking twice about it.
How about taking the images with the camera? Are you limited to just shooting straight down or there are other options? You have other options. You can shoot straight down, and in some cases that’s what you want, but oftentimes you want to shoot forward, or to the side. And we offer a, basically a mirror, that will angle the image so that you can shoot in either portrait or landscape mode out of the side or the front and get that image that you want at that angle. As well as you can remove the mirror and look straight down.
Can you shoot those images at the same time or do you have to go with just one perspective? You would choose which image you and I shoot at for each flight. And you’ve said the phone is on Kickstarter right now? It is. It’s up on Kickstarter right now. It’s called Phone Drone Ethos. We have about twenty five days left in the campaign, and last I checked, we were around 243,000 roughly. And our goal was 100,000, so we’re past that. We’re doing well and hopefully we can finish out the campaign strong.
Now I first learned of your company after I read an article that you appeared on Shark Tank. What led you to Shark Tank and could you describe what that experience was like? What led us to Shark Tank was an initial call from the producers of Shark Tank. They were looking for some innovative drone companies because they knew drones are hot. They hadn’t had any other drone companies on the show. They saw our project on Kickstarter, for the X Plus One, and just decided to give us a call and see if we’d be interested in applying. So course, we were. And we went through the process. I guess, something like 60,000 people apply to be on Shark Tank every year, which is crazy. We just sort of had it fall into our laps, at least the initial contact. But we went through the process, went through the whole application process which is very rigorous, and in the end did get selected to go down and tape. That experience was like nothing I’ve ever done before. I’ve been in the presence of investors before with the company, but it was totally different. It’s very Hollywood, for sure. Something like, I don’t know, thirty cameras on you or something like that, and you walk in there. And as we’re on the set, talking with the sharks, it just felt like a conversation. The focus is all on on the conversation. You know it’s not like there’s a studio audience or anything. So it was really pretty natural discussion, but I was definitely nervous and I’m sure that came through. My business partner Charles kind of clinched the deal by suggesting that all five Sharks should come in on a syndicate. And you know we ended up doing that
Was that the first time that all five Sharks went in on a deal? I believe it’s the second time in Shark Tank history. They’ve been running for this, now seven seasons, so seven years. So yes the second time in history.
When it’s on TV, it’s only about a four or five minute segment. How long were you on the stage? We were in there probably about an hour and a half, total. So they do edit it quite a bit, but they did tell the story. I mean they did a good job. They didn’t make it look different than it actually was.
What surprised you most about the whole experience? What surprised me most was how well it went. How good our reception was. I mean I’ve watched that show for a long time, and they usually, rip the entrepreneur apart and then given the super low valuation. We walked in there and presented, and they started popping up with offers that were over our asking. So it was a surprise for sure, and then I would say, I didn’t prepare for that. I had prepared for all these kind of hard hitting questions I thought they were going to ask, and they did ask some, but certainly went better than I could have expected.
Why do you think it went so well? I think they saw the value in the company, and obviously in the entrepreneurs too. They talk a lot about, it’s a partnership, not just with the company, but with the people. And they saw that and they also saw that we’re not just a product. We’re not just one product. We already have two that we’re working on and there’s more to come from xCraft.
After you make a deal with the Sharks, how long it take for things to get moving? When you shake hands on Shark Tank, if you get a deal, that’s kind of a gentlemen’s agreement basically. And then it starts the due diligence process of researching the company and really working out the details of the deal. And that’s how the sequence runs.
What’s been the impact of Shark Tank to you and your company thus far? Well it certainly opened up a lot of doors that we didn’t have opened before in the areas that we were all pursuing in the past, which was manufacturing, delivering products, marketing/sales, distribution channels – all those areas. We now have just hundreds of inbound a day and e-mails and calls and otherwise that are offering their help, and that’s a great thing. And also in the area of bringing on talent and hiring, because we’re scaling the company right now, and we’ve just had a lot of good applicants already apply. And so it’s been a very good thing for the company. Overall.
Where’s your company located? We’re located in Sandpoint, Idaho.
Can you describe it for me? Sandpoint is a very small town. We’re about sixty miles south of the Canadien border on a lake called Ponder A Lake. It’s a very beautiful area. There’s a ski resort right here. It’s kind of a resort area, but a very nice place to live too.
Did I read that your hope is the manufacture of the drones there? Yes. And we actually already are manufacturing the X Plus One. We’re doing final assembly of the X Plus One here in Sandpoint. Our plan moving forward is to focus as much as we can on U.S. Assembly and manufacturing. I think that’s something that’s missing in the drone space right now and in all of the the space is a U.S. Based company that doing U.S. Manufacturing.
How many jobs do you think you’ll be able to create in Sandpoint? I think long term we could potentially be 300-400 jobs, pretty easliy within two years.
Well that’s exciting to be able to start a company in your hometown that will have a positive economic impact. Exactly. It is a very good thing.
So let’s talk about yourself. You mentioned you’ve been flying remote controlled aircraft for quite a long time. Do you remember the first time you flew a drone? First time I picked up a drone. I think it was a homebuilt one. Flywheel or something. And it was a little quadcopter. Actually no, I made one. That’s right. When the control boards first came out that were the $30 little control board for multi rotors, I got one and it was just for a quadcopter. And I built this frame out of aluminum. And I just put it together. That was probably, I don’t know, maybe six or seven years ago. But I was so impressed that you could do this. I remember having the concept for a multi rotor when I was very young, and I just thought, you know what, just having the concept of four motors and just lifting it straight up and it just wouldn’t work, because the sensor technology wasn’t there. When the sensor technology came about, which is when smartphones became real, that’s what really drove the ability to, I think, to kick off the whole drone revolution, which is happening.
What do you think are going to be some of the innovations we might see in drones in the future? I think the whole area around VTOL – Vertical takeoff and landing and high speed is going to dominate the UAV space, in the ground space moving forward. Because there are so many applications where you just need to take off and land in a small area and you need to get somewhere quick. Whether it’s mapping, whether it’s inspecting, whether it’s delivering packages, so I really think the right area to be in in the VTOL high speed drones.
Yea I could definitely see where something like emergency response or search and rescue would really benefit through the use of the high speed capabilities. Exactly. I think search and rescue is an excellent example. And it seems like almost every application we think of or somebody comes to me, and I just say. You know what, that’s exactly right and that’s why.I have the opinion where I think that’s where the future is. It’s going to be in these drones that are capable of vertical takeoff and landing and high speed.
Looking out into the future, what do you think some of the challenges are going to be? I think I’m with most people in saying that I think the number one challenge is going to be a regulatory. And how do we integrate UAVs into the air space system. There’s a lot of technical challenges around that and a lot of, I think regulatory issues to work through. It’s concerning that the F.A.A. Does not move quickly, and that could potentially stall innovation and development. I’m hoping that we can put faith in our regulators to move in the right direction that that allows industry to find the answers, while keeping, safeguarding public safety. I think that’s the number one challenge for sure.
What’s the state of Idaho like in terms of supporting drone businesses? They’re actually very supportive. There’s an aerospace Alliance for the state. The Department of Interior has been testing a lot of drones in the state and the state has worked with other local states like Oregon to set up the test ranges and things. So I think this state has been very supportive.
Start up companies can go through a lot of different cycles. Some liken it to a roller coaster with ups and downs in a lot of different emotions. How would you describe where your company is now in its development cycle? I would say it’s obviously an exciting time. We have so much opportunity right now. I want to make sure that we capitalize on that opportunity. So that means finding the right people out of all these career in bounds. Finding the right distribution networks and bringing on a lot of top level talent to help this company to get to where I think it can go. So it’s a very exciting time. Obviously there’s a lot of concerns I think. As with this potential for high speed growth. A lot of pain can come along with that, so there’s some concerns there. But nothing that I don’t think we can handle.
And from the perspective of a C.E.O. If someone was looking for a career in the drone industry, what type of skills would you recommend they nurture in order to be successful? Well I think there’s something to be said for just having a passion for this space, for UAVs, for aircraft in general and for everything that surrounds that So for me what I look for is that passion, in that drive and that inner fire that pushes people to do great things. As far as skills are concerned, I mean those are all over the map. I think we could use people with excellent developer skills, assembly skills, hands on building, flying and operating. Obviously we need sales and marketing people so I think it’s whatever, whatever your passion is, pursue that and I think there’s going to be -I think there is going to be a place where you.
And lastly J.D. What do you hope people will feel as a result of doing business or interacting with your company? Ultimately what we want them to feel about our company is that we are the face of the drone world and the drone industry, and that we are the innovators in that space. I think there’s a lot of their players, there’s a few other players in the market, but I think that a lot of them, I don’t feel are innovating. And I think that’s where there’s a hole, and there’s room for us to innovate. So we plan to be in the top three of the UAV space within three years. So that’s where we’re going and that’s really what I would want people to come away with.