I am going to start with the most exciting part of my day, meeting with the 3D Robotics team. This was one of the interviews I was most excited about, and the 3DR team did not disappoint. I met with Dan McKinnon, who joined the company recently to develop 3DR’s Enterprise program (i.e.: commercial applications). Of course the Solo is the big hit, and it is actually central to their Enterprise program as well. It was great to meet a company filled with young and energetic engineers, and in a lighter moment he had to step away since he left a bag in an Uber car last night. But using Uber, they were able to get in touch with the driver and get his bag back – modern technology and innovation!
Dan’s background in in agricultural surveying. About halfway through his PhD program he started an agricultural survey business with his father. It is still running and is called Agribotix, and their use of 3DR UAS is what brought him to 3DR.
He and Jeremiah Johnson, a senior product engineer at 3DR, went over the versatility of the product and how it makes aerial photography and cinematography much easier. The Solo has “cable” and “orbital” functions for taking video. This means you can set the Solo to follow a path or circle an object respectively, and it will take care of the flight through its powerful Linux computer allowing you to focus on camera operation.
These features make for great consumer videos, but will also make the Solo a powerful Enterprise tool. For example, one can circle a cell tower for an inspection or plan a flightpath along a pipeline. Additionally, the Solo is entirely modular. This will allow for commercial application since users will be able to employ different imaging sensors and 3DR plans to add a mission planning component for advanced users.
I then met with Colin Guinn, a co-founder of 3DR. He is undoubtedly a busy person and a headline speaker at the conference, so I am grateful that he took the time to meet with me. His background is in cinematography, and we share some non-UAS similarities in boating so we got sidetracked for a short bit.
He started taking ground photos for home builders and eventually built an RC helicopter for a camera (I believe he said a Canon 5D, but it was hard to hear). The videos were shaky, so he set off to create the best UAS gimbal on the market, and now arguably the best consumer UAS on the market.
We discussed the modularity of the Solo, which also applies to consumer upgrades of various components. 3DR’s model is open innovation and modularity. They are working on a tethered drone for long-term operations and have partnered with Aurora Flight Sciences‘ Panoptes to work on Sense and Avoid issues. Panoptes is based in Cambridge, Mass and has developed a basic collision avoidance system for the Phantom and 3DR’s Iris.
I’ll round up the day chronologically now. The day began with two announcements, one from AUVSI and one from the FAA. The Unmanned Systems conference is being rebranded as “Exponential,” starting with “Xponential 2016” in New Orleans, LA. “Xponential encapsulates the tremendous growth and innovation in the unmanned systems industry, as well as the broad societal benefits of the technology,” says Brian Wynne, president and CEO of AUVSI. “Xponential will help the world understand the potential of this industry by providing a single gathering place where people can see and interact with the technology and systems that will soon become part of our everyday lives.”
The FAA made their own announcement. They will release the B4UFLY App this summer and the Pathfinder Program. The app’s purpose if fairly self-explanatory and will be entering beta-testing. The latter is is a partnership with three businesses to research how to best harness UAS for various purposes. The three companies are: CNN (VLOS for news-gathering in urban areas), PrecisionHawk (BLOS to survey crops), and BNSF Railroad (BLOS to inspect rail infrastructure in isolated areas).
I stopped by NUAIR’s booth, which runs the test site in upstate New York and Massachusetts. I’ve linked to my previous article about them, and it was a pleasure to meet their Executive Director, Lawrence H. Brinker.
I also dropped in on my friends at American Aerospace, whose test flight I attended in Cape May a few months ago. Their work has been going well and they just received a COA from the FAA to start operations out of Cape May Airport. They are also hoping to being flights at the Massachusetts test site (which is linked to the New York test site and NUAIR) in the near future. Not only do they have great pilots and technology, but they have a knack for finding the best locations to fly!
I went to NASA Langley’s booth and got to put on goggles to watch a flight of an experimental UAS. It is called the Greased Lightning GL-10 VTOL UAS. It currently runs on LiPo batteries, but they are developing a hybrid diesel. Hence the name Greased (it can run on Biofuel) Lightning (the electric propulsion system).
Finally, I ran across Persistent Systems. They are in communications, which is not my forte, and I will admit I went to the booth for the swag (a Nalgene bottle). Their company grew out of a PhD project and has been focussed on military communication applications. They have tested their systems in the cavernous midtown section of Manhattan and have had found that the WaveRelay system has great range. It is also applicable to UAS, since it can be used to send multiple encrypted video feeds from a single UAS. It sounds like a great company, and I suggested they test shipboard applications by heading over to the Intrepid Museum in NYC and testing it in there.
I’ll finish on a light note.