Five Questions with Alumnus and Entrepreneur Will Chaney

Will Chaney with drone
Will Chaney, B.S. ASE '13, with the Skyhunter UAV used for aerial imagery during flight testing in January.

As a student in the Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics department at UT Austin, Will Chaney spent time getting hands-on experience on the Design/Build/Fly and UT Unmanned Aerial Vehicles teams, where he designed and built unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV). Chaney joked that he would love to make his student projects professionally. Now, just a few years later, he is the founder and president of Chaney Aerospace, where he has been able to merge his passion for drones with his career.

While looking for jobs after graduating in May 2013, Chaney discovered that firefighters needed UAVs. He decided to fill that need by founding Chaney Aerospace. Chaney Aerospace creates UAVs with an emphasis on ground control stations and other equipment targeted to firefighting departments. On Feb. 18, Chaney partnered with Choleta Fire, LLC to run a first test flight over a controlled burn. Channeling his inner Hank Hill, Chaney describes his company as specializing in “drones and drone accessories.”

How did you decide to start Chaney Aerospace?

Pretty much just a little bit of market research. I found that fire departments were interested in it, just from emailing a bunch of fire departments in the state of Texas. That’s what really kickstarted it, and a lot of them were interested in it for wildland fire, like wildfires, and property management or agricultural management for control burns.

How did your education at UT Aerospace prepare you for starting your own business?

Work ethic. The daily grind in the aerospace department was pretty rough, just the amount of homework that you have and the difficulty of exams really taught me how to crack down on a schedule and meet my goals.

I would say they’re pretty much the same a lot of the time, just all the different things to manage, because I’m still working a full-time job. 

What kind of problems are you trying to solve at Chaney Aerospace?

Wildland firefighting is definitely the biggest. There have been government contracts out to survey land, to figure out the health of the vegetation and what they’re using is NDVI imagery, which pulls the near infrared band or color spectrum, and the amount of infrared light shows if the plant is alive or dead or in the process or dying. Firefighters can use that in planning what areas are hazardous to burn. One of the contracts is to find a type of beetle killing trees, so then of course there are a bunch of dead trees, which is also a fire hazard.

How do you think you can help firefighters?

It’s another asset to keep the guys on the ground safe. There’s also a big cost benefit in there.

A man is in the airplane they fly now, which creates high-end costs to operate the plane, plus the cost of the pilot for every hour that he’s in the plane, then the sensors from the altitude that they’re having to fly. It’s really expensive because they fly at several thousand feet. A sensor that can do the same from 400 feet is relatively cheap.

In 2014, you came to talk to the ASE 102 class. What was that experience like? What did you tell them?

It was a pretty awesome experience. They’re freshmen, and they haven’t gone through really the grind of aerospace yet. Basically you get to remember that there’s a point where you still have that excitement, that ‘Hey, I’m at UT in aerospace.’

I said to make sure you keep on schedule for your studying, that you attend office hours. If you see an opportunity for something, whether it’s an app for a phone or something that you think can solve a problem in the world, go for it, especially while you’re still at UT. I think there are even some programs for entrepreneurship, and you ought to take advantage of that while you’re there.