Taking to the skies

Mechatronic engineer Rory San Miguel is CEO and co-founder of Propeller Aero, a rapidly growing startup riding high on the advancement of drone technology. Propeller has built a software platform that transforms the images taken from drones into a series of simple online tools. These tools allow users to accurately map and measure volumes and changes between individual 3D maps and models. Propeller has proved very popular among construction companies for use in quarries, mines and landfills; in just three years of business, it’s used across 7000 sites in 120 countries. 

Mechatronic engineer Rory San Miguel, CEO and co-founder of Propeller Aero

What was the inspiration for Propeller?

Our initial idea was to build a drone that would take off every day to capture data from its nominated site, but when we pitched this idea to one of our first big potential customers they came back and said, “Nice idea, but what we really want is the API – the application programming interface – of the drone data to make this information easy to use.” We thought, “Hey, that’s actually a great idea. Let’s park the drones and focus on the data instead.”

What sites use Propeller?

We have a diverse client base because we’ve purposefully built generic software that can be used across wide-ranging locations. For example, we are on mines in Western Australia and landfills all over the world. We’re used on construction projects such as dams and bridges, and our software is being used on projects in developing nations – including emergency response, like mapping floods in low-lying islands.

You’ve had an interesting transition from study to work. What is your career journey so far?

I’m a very hands-on person, so while I was studying for my Mechatronics degree (which incidentally, I haven’t yet finished!), I worked at a tech startup in Redfern called Taggle and in hospitality at Randwick Racecourse. I took my third year off to travel around Europe and when I got back I helped establish a student club called CREATE UNSW, which has quite an interesting story.

We established CREATE shortly after we started buying the tiny components (that we needed for our robotics projects) in bulk to sell to other students working on their own electronics projects; previously you’d pay 50 cents for an electronic component off eBay, then wait 30 days for delivery, which was very frustrating. We ended up making a bucket of cash doing this, and started selling more advanced parts and running our own courses. It was fantastic. I think the club grew to 1000 people in six months and we won Club of the Year after the first semester.

I love it, I absolutely love it – I’m very lucky! We’ve got a great team, great investors and great products.

Rory San Miguel, CEO, Propeller Aero

With all this money accumulating in a bank account, we decided the next thing to do was pick some hobbies and fund them. I picked drones and got completely obsessed: so much so that when a new startup called Flirtey (which was looking into drone delivery) opened across the hall from Taggle, I knocked on the door. Within two days I was one of six co-founders there.

Flirtey got accepted into local Sydney startup accelerator program Startmate, which was excellent, and I got to meet a bunch of people in the local entrepreneurial and investment communities. I didn’t stay too long at Flirtey, but together with one of the guys I met there, Francis Vierboom, started Propeller which is now growing very quickly.

Wow. Are you enjoying it?

I love it, I absolutely love it – I’m very lucky! We’ve got a great team, great investors and great products. My job now is mostly hiring, sales and partnerships and general leadership. We’ve been able to raise money from brilliant investors, and I can see us continuing down that line for a while longer as we keep accelerating growth.

What are your plans for the business?

Airspace Calculation In Situ

What we want, and what we’re starting to build, is a really simple worksite management package that anybody can use. We would see ourselves succeeding if we can get our software product out to all the mines and quarries and landfills around the world that are under-informed about what’s happening on their site.

Talking about your industry, the technology is changing month on month. What innovations are you most excited about?

I’m excited to see that GPS is getting a lot more precise. That’s one of the things that’s holding back the adoption of this technology at the moment. As highly accurate GPS becomes more available and inexpensive, it will become a lot easier to capture reliable data.

So, you’re an engineer, a maker, a leader and a salesman. What do you think are the most important skills that entrepreneurial engineers need to cultivate?

That’s a really good question. I think it’s very important to be good with people. Even when you’re selling to the biggest companies, it’s almost always just an individual who emotionally buys into your solution, then propagates the idea through their organisation. You definitely need to be able to connect quickly and meaningfully with other people and help them understand your perspective.


For more information

If you’re interested in learning more about Propeller Aero or discussing a project, please contact Rory San Miguel: rory@propelleraero.com   

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