Recapturing memories, one flight at a time

In many ways, the gift Tom Davis provides hospice patients is like a dream. Maybe even a dream come true. Davis gives them a chance – perhaps their last – to visit a favorite park, childhood neighborhood or summertime stomping ground.

“We create an enjoyable experience during a difficult time when most feel like there isn’t much to celebrate,” says Tom.

How he does this might surprise you.

After discovering the drone movement on YouTube, Tom was inspired to give the hobby a try.

“So I bought one on eBay,” he says. “And then crashed it a whole bunch of times while learning to fly it.”

You are providing a rare moment of happiness during a trying time. It’s hard to do, but the reward is awesome.

Once he mastered the technique, Tom turned his hobby into a side business, Aerial Anthropology, using his drone to capture video for film, construction and real estate companies.

“I could go where they couldn’t and get shots that, in the past, you would have rented a helicopter to get,” he says.

The creative spark

The drone’s unique capabilities took on new meaning when Tom was discussing a friend’s child, whose illness was preventing her from attending an event.

“I thought we could go with the drone and live feed the event from the drone, so she would feel like she was there,” Tom says. At that moment, he wondered who else might benefit in the same way.

Tom contacted a number of hospices, sharing with them his idea of taking patients virtually via drone to places they may never have the chance to see again in person.

The Hospice of the Western Reserve was the first to respond. “They didn’t understand the technology,” Tom says. “But they were excited by the idea and the concept of such an innovative service to their patients.”

Aerial Anthropology conducted its first patient experience in fall 2015. Tom’s wife, Ashley, sat with the patient, a woman in her 90s, and family members, and set up the laptop through which Tom streamed live footage of Punderson State Park in Newbury Township, Ohio.

Tom was at the park, communicating via cell phone. The family would direct him where to go.

“We flew over boat docks and along the beach. Even to a hill in the park where the family used to sled. It was quite emotional,” Tom says. “Your heart is always heavy because you know you’re showing someone a place they are likely seeing for the last time. You’re not necessarily granting a dying wish, but you are providing a rare moment of happiness during a trying time. It’s hard to do, but the reward is awesome.”

Afterward, the family told Tom they wished they had $1 million to fund his project, so that everyone who wanted to experience the program could.

We have a chance to do something really special for people when they need it most.

A lot of people are helping make that wish a reality.

For example, Hyland donated three flat screen televisions and mobile carts so patients and families at the Hospice of the Western Reserve could better share the experience together. There have been many other valuable contributions from the Hyland family, too. We created and designed the company logo; Matt Discenzo donated his time and voice to narrate a short film about the program; and Elijah Bisbee donated original music from his band, Nomads, as the soundtrack for the film. All of these contributions were pro bono.

Hoping to share his vision with a wider audience, Tom created a short film, Through the Lens, using footage from patient flights. The film captures both the spirit and the serenity of the experience.

It won the “Benefiting Humanity” category at the 2016 Bay Area Drone Festival, which celebrates movies shot entirely with drones.

People took notice and wanted to get involved. Apple, Oracle and several other companies, drone pilots and hospice organizations wanted to talk. Smithsonian Magazine, The Washington Post and other media outlets wrote stories.

DJI, the world’s leading maker of unmanned aerial vehicles, with more than $1 billion in revenue, saw the film, read the stories and understood Tom’s vision.

“DJI reached out to me, both the North American marketing team and a team from its headquarters in Shenzhen, China. I was shocked, but extremely excited at the opportunity to work with DJI,” Tom says. “They want to help us take this all over the world.”

Through the partnership, Tom plans to leverage DJI products exclusively for the program.

Taking off

Momentum is building. Aerial Anthropology has now transitioned into an official nonprofit, Flight to Remember Foundation. Hylanders involved include Travis Roe on the board and Lisa Jackman on the advisory council.

Recently, Tom visited Washington, D.C. to meet with the National Partnership for Hospice Innovation. He’s proud to announce a partnership that will provide the aerial service all over the country.

Tom has co-presented with Bill Finn, CEO of Hospice of the Western Reserve, at several nonprofit hospice conferences, hoping to expand the program and raise funding. Tom would like to see the program fully funded from outside sources. That way, he can provide the service to hospice patients and families for free.

He is also building a vast network of drone pilots to complete the Flight To Remember Experiences. To do so, he’s working on a potential partnership with a well-established drone pilot network provider, which is somewhat like Uber for drones. Tom will be able to send the company details about the Flight To Remember, they assign a pilot based on geography, and that pilot provides the experience for the patient.

The network will allow Flight To Remember to provide participants with destination flights from places like Hawaii, the Yukon, South Africa, Australia, Puerto Rico and beyond.

“We have a chance to do something really special for people when they need it most. We are very excited about where this program will go,” he says.

To continue evolving, he sees three keys:

  1. Continue partnering with nonprofit hospice partners willing to provide this service to patients.
  2. Continue developing a drone pilot network to allow him to have on-demand flights to deliver services wherever they are located. The potential partnership, which would open up a network of over 10,000 drone pilots, will ensure that Flight To Remember can scale and provide the service at any location in a matter of days.
  3. Continue to raise funds through foundational grants, public and private donations, and fundraising events. Funds will allow Flight To Remember to hire a small staff to ensure they are providing the highest level of service for this very sensitive and meaningful experience. Tom believes that the business model would allow Flight To Remember to operate very efficiently at a high level with a very low employee count.

The Flight To Remember Foundation will be at the Hospice of The Western Reserve Walk To Remember this Sunday, June 11 at the Cleveland Metropark Zoo to raise awareness. Tom is also looking forward to attending InterDrone, the international drone conference and exposition, this September. He sees it as the opportunity for a big launching point.

“The vision,” he says, “is becoming a reality.”

Tom Tennant

Tom Tennant

Tom Tennant is the Content Marketing team lead at Hyland Software. He joined Hyland in 2010 as its first brand journalist - and he carries the bona fides: 12 years as a news reporter, editor and trade magazine editor.

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