sonal baid kittyhawk

Kittyhawk’s Sonal Baid: ‘startup culture is playing a major role in defining the drone industry’

The drone industry may be ruled by a few major players, but much of the industry is driven by the industry’s many startups.

The government has largely depended on startups to propel its initiatives forward, such as its Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability (LAANC) drone program.

And one of the company’s looking to make a big difference in the drone industry is Kittyhawk, a San Francisco-based software startup.

The startup’s product strategy and product management teams are led by Sonal Baid, an aerospace engineer who has been with the company for about a year. She spoke with The Drone Girl about her predictions for the industry, the biggest surprises when it comes to drones and how startup culture is driving the industry forward.

Sonal Baid kittyhawk drone girl india

Courtesy Sonal Baid

Drone Girl: How did your background in aerospace engineering get you to where you are today in the drone industry?

Sonal Baid: From my very first childhood memories, I remember two things, going to the park with my grandfather and going to my small town airport with my dad every Sunday, just to watch airplanes take off and land. I have always been super excited about machines, especially flying machines.

I got my undergraduate degree in Aeronautical Engineering. I was preparing to pursue my masters in Aircraft Structures in the UK during that time and the job seemed perfect for me as I wasn’t quite ready to step into the corporate world. But due to personal reasons, I couldn’t go for my masters. Instead, I decided to stay in India and joined TATA HAL Technologies as a Graduate Engineer Trainee and was soon promoted to a Structural Design Engineer position. While at TATA, I was working on a project for Airbus landing gear with Messier-Bugatti-Dowty, the leading landing gear manufacturer.  

Listen to Sonal speak in-person at AUVSI 2018.

To further pursue my passion for management and aerospace, I joined Genpact as a Business Analyst where I was working on a project with Pratt & Whitney on their Geared Turbofan engines for A320neo family. This job helped me further validate my passion for business strategy and technology management. I had a degree and also work experience in engineering, but I found myself lagging in business and strategy acumen. And hence to get the final missing piece for my career aspirations, I decided to pursue my Masters in Technology Management.

DG: Phew, that’s a lot! And now you’re based in the U.S. How did you end up here?

SB: I arrived in the US in September of 2016 and enrolled in UC Santa Barbara’s Master of Technology Management program. I joined the Kittyhawk team right after my graduation in June 2017, initially as an intern, but soon took the leading role in product development and strategic operations, and have been improving the Kittyhawk platform by leaps and bounds with every iteration since then.

DG: What are some of the biggest differences between working in aerospace in the U.S. vs. India?

SB: Starting with the similarities,  the aircraft industry in both countries is very detail oriented and moves at a very slow pace. But it’s justified when you consider the high stakes at play.

However, the surge in US-based aerospace startups has not only stirred up competition but has also sped up new technological developments. And I guess this is the major difference in both the countries. There aren’t many startups in the aerospace industry in India. I worked with big corporations back home; and like the US, in India too, these big corporations follow a lot of hierarchy and as a result, the growth is slower. I feel, there is not much of an impact on the culture in the industry based on the geography. It’s the startup culture that is playing the major role in defining the industry.

DG: What’s been the biggest surprise about drones?

SB: I am really surprised by the pace at which this industry is growing. I am also a little paranoid at the same time. The technology in the space is increasing faster than the message of safety.

In the traditional aeronautical industry, safety has been the prime focus but in the drone industry, not so much. This is really surprising and concerning to me.

DG: What is something people don’t understand about the work you do — that you wished they knew?

SB: I am an aeronautical engineer, but I don’t fly planes. That is definitely something I get asked a lot!

People often see my education as my biggest strength but there is so much more that defines my work. I have had my share of struggles. Times when I didn’t have a job, times when I was questioned about my career choices, times when I was desperate and almost got forced into switching industries. But it’s the persistence and determination that defines my work.

DG: That’s so encouraging to hear! Persistence and determination should define your success! So what are you working on now at Kittyhawk?

SB: We are in a continual development cycle and I focus on improving our drone operations and management platform with every iteration. I also work closely with our enterprise customers to ensure Kittyhawk products and services exceed their expectations. 

I have a compelling vision for how UAV operations need to be managed at scale, and it drives every aspect of our product development.  I focus on product development with a critical eye for safety, compliance,  security, maintenance and real-time situational awareness. I am also acutely aware of the unique requirements for drone operations at scale within different enterprise verticals that our customers are in.

DG: So like me, you have lived in both Southern AND Northern California. Settle the debate– which is better?

SB: I love the vibes here in San Francisco. I actually only spent three quarters at UC Santa Barbara, having earned my masters in 9 months through an extensive (and exhaustive) program.

Being a foreign resident, it’s important to have like-minded people around to help you feel at home and I definitely feel at home in the Valley. Santa Barbara is more laid back compared to SF. People in SF don’t just live life, they are building the life. There is so much happening in this small part of the world. I love that. I wake up every morning knowing that I’m a part of the tech revolution Silicon Valley is bringing to the world. And that keeps me motivated.

DG: You work in drones and more traditional aerospace — both heavily male dominated industries. What has that been like for you?

SB: This is an industry where women are a rare species. But trust me, it’s not that bad. And, I know there is a lot of concern around equality especially in an industry like ours, but I do want people to understand that the world is not as bad as it is portrayed to be. The struggles, no doubt are real. But, I really wish the success stories about women are used more often to inspire girls in STEM rather than their struggle stories.

DG: So what can we expect from you in your future?

SB:  The unmanned vehicles industry has an immense potential and I see myself being a part of the revolution this technology is bringing to the world. By being part of the teams developing innovative products, I can help to shape this new and upcoming industry.

I am also involved with a couple organizations promoting STEM education for girls. Currently, I am associated with a mentorship program in SF through which I mentor a group of middle school girls in understanding and developing skills required to become tech entrepreneurs and leaders. In future, I hope to continue being part of more such organizations to give back to the society both in US and India.


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