Flying High with Justin Dee of TerraData Unmanned

Justin Dee became involved in the unmanned systems industry after serving in the army for seven years. In 2017, he founded TerraData Unmanned, a company headquartered near Gainesville that seeks to solve some of the most complex unmanned and remote sensing challenges. 

Dee grew up in the Illinois-Wisconsin border north of Chicago. After moving to Tampa for high school, he returned to Illinois with the intent of going to college. When he didn’t qualify for financial aid, he decided to join the Army. Dee started as a loader on an M1 Abrams tank. After two and a half years of training around the world, he was asked to attend the Army’s unmanned aircraft systems school. He went to Iraq after the training and gained a lot of experience working with small aircraft.

“In Iraq, our unit wanted to use this aircraft heavily. The tremendous amount of experience I received flying the aircraft in an incredibly challenging environment was invaluable.”

During that deployment, Dee sustained a back injury and returned to the U.S. In 2013, he had three back surgeries and decided to leave the Army. That same year, he enrolled in the Subsea Robotics program at Temple College in Texas. The program trains people for large gas and oil companies to go offshore and pilot underwater robots. After the program, Dee underwent months of job searching but soon found a company in Gainesville that was hiring for a drone operator for military projects. He worked there for four years as the director of flight operations

After working in the unmanned aircraft industry for several years, Dee decided to take a chance and start his own company out of his garage. Within a couple of years, he moved his business to a small aircraft hangar near Gainesville. TerraData Unmanned now operates nationwide and worldwide, specializing in providing both remote sensing services and consulting.

“Our remote sensing services are basically a lot of mapping and photogrammetry. The aircraft will fly over the site that the customer needs information regarding and with the data collected, we’re able to recreate their location three-dimensionally.”

TerraData Unmanned is entrusted by several types of companies ranging from mining to military units. The business’ remote sensing and consulting services have given them conversance with standing up a drone program for mining exploration and participating in counter-drone testing as subject matter experts. 

“Construction companies, mines, companies that sell ornamental rock, asphalt companies, and such, need us because we can recreate their site in 3D, give them volume calculations, and take 2D acreage measurements.”

Throughout his career, Dee has worked on several projects that have allowed him to travel all over the world. One of his projects, in particular, sent him to the Galapagos Islands where he worked with the Galapagos Science Center and the universities of North Carolina and San Francisco. 

“It was the first government-authorized flight of a drone on the islands. I was counting sea lions at night with thermal and I was making 3D models of sites on the mountain where archaeologists are currently exploring.”  

Approaching four years since its inception, TerraData Unmanned is headed for expansion. Come December, Dee will be deciding the future of the business in terms of capabilities, getting involved with specific sensor technology, and new personnel and services.

Listen to the 125th episode of WHOA GNV podcast to hear more about Justin Dee’s experience with unmanned aircraft and the future of TerraData Unmanned. 

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