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Graphical overlay of Fiona with airplane and map of Australia

High flyer Fiona Church soars through the cloud

"There's going to be highs and lows, but as they say - nothing worthwhile is ever easy!"

The cruising altitude of a Boeing 737 is around 35,000 feet; seven miles above the earth you get a different perspective.

Portrait image of Fiona Church
Fiona Church, Co-founder of Trendspek.

Fiona Church first flew solo when she was 16, before she even had a driver’s licence. She’d grown up in Sydney and always wanted to fly, joining the Air Force Cadets while still in school.

Although she’d considered becoming a vet, the skies beckoned and following a stint as a bush pilot working out of Darwin, she joined Qantaslink flying Dash8 propeller planes around the country.

By age 24 she was a pilot with Qantas, flying internationally for a decade before switching to the 737s and domestic destinations.

Coming into land at any major airport Church would fly over tall buildings, bridges and railway tracks. She didn’t think much about them – then.

Pilots and drones

Church and her former housemates from Darwin, who were also pilots, believed the future would be shaped by unmanned flights.

They realized that removing the pilot would open a new world of opportunities; aircraft could be smaller, lighter, cheaper and with an agility that conventional aircraft couldn’t match. Also they could be sent to tackle dangerous or difficult tasks without risk to human life.

It was this that led Church and her partners Mitchell Deam and Derek Feebrey to set up Hoverscape, one of Australia’s first commercial drone services, in 2013. “Using a drone solved the problem of accessing hard to reach areas, providing a faster, safer and cheaper way of completing building inspections. However we soon discovered that capturing the data was only one piece of the puzzle”, says Church.

To really change the game, we needed to also solve the challenge of making that drone data usable for our clients, so they could complete inspections remotely and make decisions faster.

Enter Trendspek – also set up by Church, Deam and Feebrey.

“We used to go up and take hundreds of photos over a structure, or we’d take video. But we found out that that’s actually not that useful for a client. When you’re looking at a really big structure and they want really high detail, you can’t just hand them a USB with 1,000 photos,” says Church.

Portrait image of two males, a female and a dog
Left to right: Mark Randall, Fiona Church, Derek Feebrey, and Charlotte (dog)

Trendspek’s software takes images and turns them into 3D models – digital twins essentially – of any physical asset such as a building, bridge, or train line.

She acknowledges that; “The 3D modelling came about through trial and error trying to provide a solution for inspection of large infrastructure assets. The vision was, if we could create a very high-resolution model using the drone to capture the imagery, the client would be able to use the model to do the inspection, without needing to access the thousands of individual close-up photos – which would have been a nightmare to deal with.

“We capture the full 3D model of the external as well as doing things like a roof deflection report. We can even tell them from the model, how much the roof is deflected, which normally would take a surveyor weeks to do and would cost a fortune.”

Property and asset managers can access the Microsoft Azure based solution when and where they need, drilling down to see images on demand.

Silo solution

One of Trendspek’s first clients was the Port Authority of NSW which owns the Glebe Island silos, a famed feature of Sydney’s skyline.

There are around 24 silos making up the structure which is so big that conventional work platforms can’t reach the top. The only way to inspect the silos is to dangle abseilers over the edge – but even then it’s not possible to cover every square centimetre.

Trendspek’s photogrammetry platform used GPS data to link the drone-collected image to the location on the silos where it was taken, creating an exact visual, digital replica.

“That was quite a groundbreaking. This now can apply to lots of different structures. So, roofs, rail, different industrial sites, anything where it’s really hard to access, hard to see large structures. It completely replaces the need to put humans in dangerous situations,” says Church adding that Trendspek is now working on a system that will permit internal inspections.

It’s this sort of ground-breaking work that really excites Church.

Graphical overlay of a female and two males with drones

We are not just doing something better than the everyone has done before. We are creating something completely different.

“It’s not just IoT sensors and aggregating of analytics and data. This is the actual condition of that structure at the time.”

While Church is future-focussed, she worries that drone regulations aren’t keeping pace.

Portrait image of Fiona Church holding a drone
Fiona leverages drone technology and a Microsoft Azure based platform to deliver a game-changing data solution for their clients.

“This technology has very quickly and rapidly evolved and become more advanced, but our drone regulations are stuck back in 2009 where people were flying a drone as a toy and all the rules are related to someone flying it around a park, not applying to commercial applications. That’s been a big challenge,” adds Church who is on the management committee for Australian Certified UAV Operators which advocates to CASA on behalf of commercial drone operators.

Steps to success

So how did that 35,000-foot vantage point prepare Church for her current role?

“Coming from an aviation background, all I knew was how to be a pilot. It’s a very specific skill that it doesn’t necessarily translate.

Meanwhile; “I’ve learned a lot about every single aspect of building a business. Your people are really important. That’s probably the number one thing.

Make sure you build the right team around you. Don’t try to do it all yourself. Get the right expertise in. Like they always say, if you’ve got smarter people in the room than yourself, then you’ve won. And try to work on the business rather than in it.

“Because we were working as pilots when we had the company initially, we actually did that by default because of, we were out flying so we needed other people to work in the business. That worked for us quite well just by accident in the beginning.”

Accidental or otherwise, it’s worked well for Church, her co-founders and the growing client base of Trendspek.

Speaking like the high flyer she is, Church adds that all entrepreneurs need to be brave and expect some turbulence along the way. “There’s going to be highs and lows, but as they say – nothing worthwhile is ever easy!”