These aren’t your mother’s drones. Autonomous industrial drones, developed by these startups, are poised to revolutionize the industry.
Over 600 feet above ground, a majestic wind turbine spins over the rural landscape. But though they may be the pioneers of energy transition, these colossi aren’t immune to the simple passing of the seasons. Winter, especially, freezes the blades, causing them to stick and preventing the turbine from performing its single, energy-producing function. The human hand of repair, underneath this giant, seems tiny and helpless. So what do we do? Climb the walls to try to reach the affected area? That’s the traditional, but highly dangerous, answer. Fix it from the ground, with a ladder? Impossible. Water it? Not anymore. Send a drone? Now we’re getting somewhere. But not just any drone; introducing Aerones, a Latvian startup chosen in 2018 by Y Combinator, one of the largest incubators in the world.
“The drone we’ve created can carry 200 kilos and measures 2.5 meters by 4.5,” explains its founder, Jānis Putrāms. To try to describe this titanic drone would be mere euphemism. With its odd dimensions, Aerones’ drone looks like a cross between several different drones in order to give life, in fine, to the ultimate aircraft. “What’s more, it’s linked to ground-based water and electricity supplies,” adds the engineer, assuring that the star-shaped drone “can fly as long as it needs to” to perform its task. Time for takeoff.
In less than two minutes, the aircraft reaches an altitude of 330 feet, the exact height of the paralyzed propeller. It automatically stabilizes itself while its pilot on the ground, controller in hand, releases a water jet by pressing a small joystick. As simple as that, the drone begins unfreezing the propeller. “This is the result of three years of research,” says the former computer engineer, who decided to launch the business after realizing “the untapped potential of heavy industrial drones. There are large planes, helicopters, and small drones, but until us, there was nothing in between. A lot of dangerous work is done by industrial climbers who could be replaced by drones.” Applications include cleaning, defrosting and coating wind turbines, sure, but also maintenance of offshore platforms, skyscraper windows, or firefighting, as well as high-mountain rescues.
This may sound futuristic, but it’s already becoming commonplace. Or in any case, Aerones is working feverishly to make this the case. “A lot of companies are working on autonomous vehicles, but the aircraft is the most efficient form of transportation. There’s no better way to get from point A to point B,” says Jānis Putrāms, adding that “whatever is done on the ground can be done in the air. With advanced sensors and other electronic systems, it’s possible to delegate manual control of drones to reliable stabilization programs.”
The Latvian paints a picture of a future of industrial landscapes where gigantic autonomous drones fly alongside birds, supervising, surveilling, and “quantifying” designated zones. And all this without workers having to do it themselves or risk their own lives. Efrat Fenigson, VP of marketing at Airobotics and self-titled “Mother of Drones,” can envision this panorama vividly. Which is expected, since she talks frankly about the “transformation of the industry.”
In 2014, driven by a desire to “develop the first fleet of autonomous drones dedicated to helping workers at mining sites, construction sites, and ports,” Ran Krauss founded Airobotics. A workaholic, the Israeli entrepreneur is now celebrating the creation of his fourth company. After having invented the parachute of the future at Parazero, improved local air commerce with Bladeworx, and built public shelters for catastrophes with Wisec, he’s now going after drones. The mission of Krauss’ little flying things – quite a bit smaller than Aerones’ – will be to inspect sites and to efficiently inventory stocks, all while doing surveillance. Each drone by itself is capable of covering an area of three to four miles.
Today, Airbotics has grown a lot. The company is worth more than $400 million according to Funderbeam’s barometer. Notably, Noam Bardin (founder of Waze), Richard Wooldridge (formerly of Facebook and Google), and David Roux (founder of Silver Lake Partners) have invested a collective sum of $61 million. Krauss himself is happy to “lead a team composed of around a hundred experts.”
Efrat Fenigson’s enthusiasm equals the scale of the solution developed by Airobotics. Because even if she “can’t really talk about it,” she can’t stop herself from confiding that Airobotics “just sealed a partnership with an Israeli port” where the company will deploy its drones.
Trucks will start arriving there, and soon. When the shippers unload their cargo, they’ll pull out anthracite and orange metal boxes containing robot incubators straight out of science fiction. Once placed on the ground, the metal box will remain inert, before suddenly activating itself. Its roof will slide off sideways and liberate its host: a drone rising slowly, vertically. After this impressive show, the small aircraft will behave like a newborn. But it’ll swap out the bawling for a few warm-up rounds, in order to map out the zone it’ll circulate innumerable times over the years, but mostly to adapt itself to its new environment. Because from now on, these skies belong to it, and it carries a bold promise: to revolutionize the daily tasks of the workers on site. For that, it will have to be perfect on three specific points.
First, the automation of tasks. “The drones we’re talking about here are not toys,” Fenigson warns. “They would need to train a pilot, a long and expensive process. That’s why they’re entirely autonomous.” Autonomy is Airobotics’ number one asset. It establishes a zero-risk principle, that human error or imprecision will not affect the drone’s work. “Its results could not be more exact,” Fenigson assures. Through rain, through snow, through a flu epidemic sweeping the entire community that Elon Musk has finally built on Mars, the small aircraft “will repeat, solo, the same mission every day of the year down to the millimeter, gathering the same data and automatically creating a data table that its owner can study.” All its operator will have to do, then, is to show up at work, push the “on” button, and grab a cup of coffee.
Second, to speak of a company’s automation is to speak of the safety of the company’s employees. In 2017, France’s National Health Insurance index reported 33.8 work accidents per 1,000 employees. “Our clients work at very dangerous industrial drone sites where accidents happen quickly. The role of the drone is to monitor each mistake, like a badly adjusted valve, that can lead to an explosion,” Fenigson explains. Aerones’ solution is useful in this case. Among the causes of accidents, handling errors are involved in 53% of cases, as well as falls. If a drone falls 330 feet, at best, you’ll only have to repair certain parts. At worst, you’ll have to send it back to the manufacturer. “For a human worker, the result could be much more dramatic,” Putrāms says.
Finally, the third requirement these little flying workers will address is the optimization of operations, thanks to big data. Here, the drone won’t be playing a sidekick role, ready to lend a hand to a worker, but rather an omniscient one, whose verdicts from the sky, made from aerial observations, will be absolute. And all that without a human being lifting a finger. “Globally, workers won’t need to know how to pilot a drone, nor how to extract data or how to recharge it. It’ll do all of that itself. And that’s exactly what the bosses want,” Putrāms says. So if a task will take longer than expected? The drone will know it. The numbers aren’t sufficient or, alternatively, are too large for the task in question? It’ll record that. The workers are more efficient or less efficient following a change in their method of work? That will be reported at the end of the day.
In addition to improving the working conditions of employees, the drone provides a new way to perform inventories. By flying over piles, it can evaluate their quantities. At a port site, that could be one way of resolving the gigantic Tetris of containers. “All the engineers will have to do is sit down with their coffee in front of the maps made by the drones and plan their future missions according to what they want to do and to the observed results,” Fenigson says.
Lead in the wing
To believe Efrat Fenigson, the autonomous industrial drones have everything they need. And if they “aren’t themselves an industrial revolution, they’ll strongly contribute to the global transformation.” They bring an unprecedented “visibility” to the company’s operations, which will allow it to “continually improve,” she says. But in that case, why, today, do we only see the sky and the birds, but not small aircraft, at industrial sites? Simply because “drones are still considered a risk. Before deploying them, you have to ensure that they’re functional, but mostly that people know how to behave towards them,” she says.
According to the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), 1,400 aerial accidents were caused by drones in 2016 on the continent, or an increase of 470% from 2011-2015. “There are more and more drones flying anywhere, any way,” EASA explains in its report, which cites too-rapid development of drone operations as the primary cause of the huge numbers. The deployment of drones disrupts the hegemony of airplanes, until now the only vehicles using airspace. Outside the accidents, Efrat Fenigson cites another speedbump in the industrial development of drones: “too strict regulations.”
In France, the Directorate General for Civil Aviation (DGAC) regulates professional drones with an iron fist, as do similar organizations in 63 other countries. In France, in 2012, each flight had to be communicated to DGAC and to the Ministry of the Armed Forces. Since 2016, things have eased up. In unpopulated areas, you can now fly at night, with a 650-foot distance limit from the pilot. That limitation prevents the implementation of Airobotics’ solution. But there’s reason to believe that legislation will adapt to the introduction of progressive technologies. The Israeli port where Ran Krauss will try his solution will be a world first. “We’re an exception. We get to deploy drones in an Israeli port because we received a governmental exception,” Fenigson says.
Who knows, maybe if the experiment proves successful, in the near future we’ll see aircraft buzzing overhead on a walk through the harbor. “For that to happen, the added value will have to be greater than the risk,” Fenigson admits. It would seem, then, that the next industrial “transformation” is in Airobotics’ hands. And beyond that, in its drones’.