Meet the patent attorney who made the drone that won ‘Shark Tank’ happen


Courtesy photo

The next in our series of Drone Girl profiles is with Mel Coombes, a patent attorney at  Lee & Hayes.

Got an idea for a new drone technology? Mel Coombes wants to hear it.

Coombes is a patent attorney at Lee & Hayes who has worked on drone patents including XCraft’s X PlusOne and Phone Drone, the two drones that impressed judges on Shark Tank and landed a $1.5 million deal with all 5 Shark Tank investors, including Mark Cuban.

Coombes’ expertise is rooted in the military, where she served as a former Navy pilot. Coombes was a flight and academic instructor for the U.S. Navy and was responsible for managing training and professional development of hundreds of students, and has received Navy Commendation and Humanitarian Assistance Medals for tsunami relief missions in Sumatra. She was also awarded the Navy Achievement Medal for actions that resulted in saving an aircraft.

Drone Girl: What are you working on right now?

Mel Coombes: xCraft has been consuming my life all week actually; they’re prepping their first shipment to go out this week. xCraft came to us (Lee & Hayes) just one year ago and now they’ve come so far, and even been on Shark Tank. This is all in the span of one year.

SHARK TANK - "Episode 705" - In one of the most exciting moments of "Shark Tank" history, the ante is upped when the Sharks start to bid OVER the asking price for one product and the million dollar offers start to fly. But will greed burst the bubble before a deal is set? Another pitch prompts a brutal brush-off from an irate Shark. Two parents from Salem, Massachusetts pitch their novel idea for managing Trick-or-Treaters' excess candy with a children's book and gifts; two men from Pacific Palisades, California tout their premium beef jerky made from filet mignon which has the Sharks swooning over the taste and the price point; a woman from Sand City, California pitches a full-length mirror designed to build self-esteem, and two men from Sandpoint, Idaho claim they have redefined drones with inventions that fly up to 60 mph and as high as 10,000 feet. In addition, in a follow-up on the NYC-based Bantam Bagels, the company in which Lori Grenier invested last season, we see how their unique stuffed bagels fare when given a national stage, on "Shark Tank," FRIDAY, OCTOBER 23 (9:00-10:01 p.m. ET) on the ABC Television Network. (ABC/Beth Dubber) JD CLARIDGE, CHARLES MANNING (XCRAFT)

JD Claridge and Charles Manning demo XCraft on the set of Shark Tank. (ABC/Beth Dubber)

What are the parallels you see in coming from a military background vs. the commercial and consumer drone market?

It’s kind of interesting. When I started in patent law we didn’t have a great deal of aerospace clients here, so I had very limited exposure right away. With xCraft, it’s been a lot of fun to be able to draw the parallels with my experience in the military and understanding airspace and aviation language and personalities.

Going through the user manual for X Plus One, I was just like, ‘oh! This is so awesome.’ It’s like a NATEC manual in the Navy. They’ve written it almost the same. It’s so neat that they’ve thought of all of these things and spelled it out fort the customer, to make it as simple as possible for the customer.

What’s the wildest patent you’ve ever seen in the drone industry?

I don’t think any idea is really truly crazy. Technology is moving so fast. People would have thought 10 years ago that the things we have today in drones would never happen. As long as an expert in the field can see that would happen — I have an aerospace background — it’s easy to see if something will work aerodynamically or will not. As long as it will work aerodynamically or adds a feature to the device to make it work, then the sky is the limit.

A lot of stakeholders in the manned aviation field dislike drones, and I’ve noticed some tension. Is that true, and what are your thoughts?

There is a need for the drone industry. My job in the Navy was a search and rescue pilot. We supplied ships by carrying cargo underneath. We would fling loads between ships, but a lot of that capability can now be done by a large unmanned helicopter. As long as you make the drone safe so that it’s not going to hurt somebody, it knows how to function and how to land, drones actually keep more people safe.

Courtesy Mel Coombs

Courtesy Mel Coombs

What is most exciting to you as of late in the drone industry?

The thing I get most jazzed about is the ability to deliver packages to people’s houses and to do that efficiently and effectively. Of course you have the safety issues, but it’s exciting to know you can have something to delivered to your house in a few hours. From there, I’m excited about implementation such as the X PlusOne because you can increase your deliveries 10 fold because it can travel so much faster.

What has your experience been as a woman in the industry?

As a pretty definite minority in the aviation industry, it’s been an interesting road for sure. I think as I’m sure you’ve experienced, we have to work a heck of a lot harder than our male counterparts, just to prove ourselves. But if you can hold your own, if you can keep producing, at a certain point in time they stop seeing you as, “you’re just a girl, you can’t do this”.  People start respecting you as a professional. It’s like ‘wow, you’re an aviator.’ Though it takes a little bit more to get there, once you’re there, you almost appreciate having to work harder to get there.

What’s in your future?

I hope that we are able to get more aviation clients and do more drone work, produce more patents to help people build their businesses

And what advice do you have for people in the industry?

Everything is growing so fast. No idea is stupid. Even the slightest improvement can be worth a lot of capital. Anybody that has an idea should seek out patent counsel and at least talk to an attorney to protect their ideas and grow a business around it. Look what xCraft did in one year. Come up with our idea, talk to a patent attorney and get a patent filed and get business going.  Don’t think your idea is stupid.

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