Interview with Joe Snodgrass, Ex-Navy SEAL turned Drone Engineer

Joe Snodgrass Headshot

Joe Snodgrass
Navy SEAL turned Field Engineer at Exyn Technologies

For today’s interview, we have someone who has a wealth of experience in the military and engineering department. Meet Mr. Joe Snodgrass who was kind enough to make this interview possible and open up his mind. He is an Ex-Navy SEAL turned drone engineer and currently works at Exyn as a field engineer.

In this interview, we talk in-depth with Joe on how he joined Navy and got familiar with drones, how Exyn helped him pursue a career with prior experience, innovative ways drones can get used within military sector, way forward for the drone industry, a secret fun fact at the end, and so on.

If you love military and engineering topics, this is worth the read and even has something for the general drone hobbyist. It is rare to hear from a drone veteran, so don’t miss out on this golden opportunity.

Let us get started and see what Joe has to say for our readers!

Let's Start the Interview

Welcome Joe Snodgrass, Tell us about yourself and your background?

I was born and raised in the Philadelphia area. I attended college at the University of Delaware and graduated with a degree in Mechanical Engineering. Following college, I joined the Navy and received BUD/S training. Then I spent 8 years operating in the Navy SEAL teams while stationed in San Diego (SD) and was honorably discharged last year. I’ve been married for about 3 years and have an awesome dog named Kody.

How did you get started in the drone field?

I was searching for a job after leaving the service in which I could use my military and engineering experience to improve the capabilities of those who serve. Then I heard about the work being done at Exyn Technologies and I immediately could see how their tech would greatly benefit those serving overseas. I interviewed with some of the team, and it seemed like a perfect fit. It is because I enjoy working in small, close-knit groups, and that is what the team at Exyn has.

What is your role at Exyn Technologies company?

I am a field engineer at Exyn. I assist in the design, build, testing, and evaluation of new robots for the field. The field engineering team also visits customer sites and teaches them how to use our technology best. Along with that, I have been helping a lot with our transition into government applications.

Who are most of your customers and tell us about the drone you design and manufacture?

Currently, we are primarily used commercially in the mining industry. Our drone flies into dangerous areas underground and outputs high-resolution, three-dimensional maps of the space without the need for GPS or line-of-sight communications.

Joe with Exyn A3R Drone Standing on the Table

The product, Exyn A3R, is an Advanced Autonomous Aerial Robot. The A3R can fly a mission with little to no interaction from the user. You may plan a mission and press play, or you can give the robot an area to explore with bounds, and it will go through the necessary motions, entirely on its own, and accomplish that exploration.

You are an Ex-Navy SEAL turned Drone Engineer. How much of your knowledge of operating in SEAL teams carry into your drone job?

Even though they seem like wildly different professions, much more carries over than you may think. In the SEAL teams, you are always problem-solving and making use of the sometimes limited supplies available to you to accomplish training or a mission. That directly carries over into engineering and going through trial-and-error processes to find the solution that works best.

Also, the knowledge I’ve gained in the service gives me a lot of valuable insight into how we could improve and expand our offerings to find the most impactful use cases taking these evolving technological capabilities and using them in the future.

Drones are increasingly getting used for surveillance. What are some of the concerns of this particular application?

In terms of my experience with drone surveillance in a military capacity, there are a few concerns about possible counter-drone technologies, early warning, and drones’ potential to be more easily-spotted targets than stealth operatives. As far as other drones being used against us by hostile powers, I believe that is already happening in some areas, and it is hard to combat.

I know there are some companies out there that are already specializing in mitigating these potential issues to maximize drone efficacy. Also, I think others will follow suit in the future to prevent these kinds of counter-drone efforts that jeopardize missions.

What military uses do autonomous aerial drones have?

There are endless possibilities for using drones in the military. I believe they will improve our capability in a variety of ways as well as keep our men and women overseas safer. ISTAR – Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition, and Reconnaissance is the most obvious use case.

Along with that, you can employ a variety of sensors onto our drones to accomplish an even higher number of tasks. Some of these include: Search and Rescue, Mapping, Inspections & Maintenance, etc., enabling governments and the military to prepare for and prevent certain situations from ever occurring in addition to addressing them after they’ve happened.

Outside of military applications, what are the most exciting use cases for drone technology nowadays?

I think it is interesting as we are watching the use of drones following the emergence of COVID-19. A lot of companies have started testing and demonstrating the capability of using drones to disinfect public areas. I think that is super relevant and very important not only for this pandemic, but it also shows how the industry at large is adopting autonomous tech in all kinds of environments.

Also, it is fascinating to think about autonomous inspections and data collection for heavy industry. I’ve also read about Amazon’s plan to use them for deliveries, that would be pretty wild.

What do you feel about the present status of drone laws?

In my opinion, the FAA does a pretty good job with the current laws regarding drones in the United States. Drones have to be registered, and the pilot must be licensed. As drones get more affordable to the average consumer and their flying ranges continue to improve, there will be many more drones in the air overhead.

I think the regulations will have to adapt to that influx in the coming years. But, it will be harder to track and enforce, so it will be interesting to witness the kinds of solutions agencies like the FAA come up with in response.

Where do you find both the commercial and consumer drone market heading in the next 5 years? 10 years?

I think the drone industry will grow exponentially in the coming years. A lot of industries are just beginning to realize drones’ potential. Agriculture, military, first-response, and construction are only a few of the areas in which drones can make a huge impact, and we are seeing the seeds being sown today.

I believe in the next 5 to 10 years it will be much more common, for example, to drive by a construction site and see multiple drones flying around doing structural inspections.

What is your advice for individuals/organizations seeking to incorporate drones into their operation/mission?

I do not have much advice other than what I feel is common sense: if the implementation of drones can make you or your employees’ lives or jobs simpler – and more importantly, safer – in dangerous environments, then go for it. There are so many hazardous but essential jobs out there, and if flying a drone can reduce human risk by even a little bit, then I see that as a worthwhile change to make.

What do you feel the biggest myth is of drone among civilians?

I don’t think many people realize how versatile drones can be. A lot of people I talk to see them still as just a hobby people have, or a cool way to take photos, and don’t imagine the wide range of uses and tasks drones can provide and perform.

What has the drone been able to do for you which you would not otherwise achieve using helicopters?

Drones are incredibly compact and maneuverable, making them ideal for use in underground, dense urban areas and combat zones. Larger fixed-wing UAVs and aircraft simply cannot access a lot of the places that drones can. Those harder to reach areas, e.g., caves, can often be some of the most crucial to get a visual on, making drones an ideal tool.

When you are not working, where will we find you? What is something interesting people do not know about you?

When I’m not working, I like spending time with family and friends, strolling with the doggo around Philadelphia, and mountain biking whenever possible.

A fun fact 🙂 (that I hope can prove inspirational to people who have ambitions in engineering or the military) is that my very first job was for a restaurant on the Jersey Shore. My job description included me dressing up as Spongebob Squarepants in an absolute sauna of a costume and waving down cars as they passed.

Needless to say, I’m pretty happy I moved on from that one, and I am so happy to have found great working communities both in the Navy and at Exyn.

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