Commercial Drones Boost Fairbanks Startups
NES and Aquilo on cutting edge of new technology
A Ptarmigan unmanned aerial vehicle flies over the tundra.
Photo courtesy Northern Embedded Solutions
For the past decade, biologist John O’Brien of ERM Alaska has been looking for a way to use unmanned aircraft to count salmon in Alaska rivers. In October 2015, he finally got his chance.
O’Brien met up with two people from a Fairbanks startup to compare a drone survey of salmon in Lignite Creek near Healy with a traditional helicopter survey. The experiment was a success. The drones, operated by Carl France and Corey Upton of Aquilo LLC, came back with markedly clearer and more stable video of the salmon in the creek, O’Brien notes.
“This is a great demonstration of the utility of this technology and it can be done safely and responsibly with low impact and extremely environmentally friendly with outstanding results,” O’Brien says in the video.
A couple of weeks earlier, the crew was out filming an early season snowfall and came on a group of linemen trying to diagnose a power outage. They sent their drone along the powerline and helped the line crew pinpoint where trees were shorting out the lines, saving them hours of slogging through deep snow.
Aquilo CEO Carl France (left) operating the controls of a drone on a salmon counting demo with ERM Alaska freshwater biologist John O’Brien last October.
Photo courtesy of Aquilo
Unmanned aircraft systems are booming, and Aquilo is at the cutting edge of a burgeoning industry. With the motto “Making Drones Work,” Aquilo is one of a handful of FAA-approved commercial drone firms, offering unmanned systems operations, consulting, and training in Alaska and the Northwest. Carl France is CEO.
It is a subsidiary of Northern Embedded Solutions (NES), an engineering design firm started by three University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) engineering graduates. The trio started NES to develop data loggers, mini-computers that could be embedded in things such as unmanned aircraft and scientific instruments. They work closely with the Alaska Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration at UAF. NES founder Ben Neubauer helped design and build the Ptarmigan hexacopter, a workhorse for the organization. They also designed payloads and instruments carried by unmanned aircraft and are developing ideas such as smart plugins for cars, among other things.
NES was created as a way to market the technology.
Neubauer moved away, and NES is now a three-way partnership between Steven Kibler, Corey Upton, and Samuel Vanderwaal. All three have strong ties to Fairbanks and were looking for a way to use their technical knowledge without having to leave the area. They found it in the rapidly expanding field of unmanned aircraft systems and associated technology.
A Northern Embedded solutions/Alaska Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration Ptarmigan unmanned aerial vehicle and control interface.
Photo courtesy Northern Embedded Solutions
Although NES’s partners have close ties to UAF, it is a private company and isn’t directly affiliated with the university, says Vanderwaal, who joined NES a few months after its startup. However, UAF is turning out some very talented engineers, many of whom NES hires to work on various projects. That gives NES a strong pool of workers and provides them with beefy projects for their resumes.
“There’s a surprisingly good tech base here,” Vanderwaal says. “The goal is to help create a tech industry here in Alaska and hire these tech students who want to stay in Alaska and give them job opportunities.”
NES is also reaching outside the state. It is working with a lithium ion battery manufacturer in California to write new firmware and is working with Lockheed Martin on payload integration.
NES’s work with Alaska Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration allowed them to go into the field to operate unmanned aircraft before there was a commercial opportunity to do so. The first commercial drone operation didn’t take place until June 6, 2014, and the FAA still hasn’t completed new rules overseeing commercial drone operations. But industry is discovering how much better the clarity, stability, and detail of the data drones can collect versus traditional helicopter or small plane operations. It is also much safer.
Drones are ideal for tasks that are “dirty, dull, or dangerous,” Vanderwaal says. That includes infrastructure inspections such as flying over pipelines with a thermal camera, or creating a three-dimensional model of a wind turbine. Drones are also safer than in situations where it’s necessary to put people up by an antenna tower or power lines or turbine blades. It is also ideal for mapping forest fires or sampling gases from a volcanic eruption, among many other potential uses.
NES spun off Aquilo to take advantage of those commercial opportunities, which Vanderwaal says could position Alaska as a tech mecca on par with Silicon Valley.
“This is brand new,” he says. “Some people are predicting it’s going to be a $20 billion opportunity in the next twenty years.”
Aquilo performing air space safety training near the Nenana Airport in April under their Certificate of Authorization granted by the FAA.
Photo courtesy of NES/Aquilo
That opportunity is brought in part by recent changes in FAA regulations regarding drones.
Hobbyists who buy an unmanned vehicle only need to register it, stay more than five miles away from an airport, and keep the drone in sight while flying. For commercial operations, the rules are more stringent.
Three things are required before any aircraft, big or small, enters national airspace: the aircraft must be registered with the proper certification; a licensed pilot; and operational approval. The drone must also be flown during daylight hours and operators must stay in visual contact with it.
“I anticipate that’s going to change, but I anticipate it’ll be three to five years,” Vanderwaal says. That would open up opportunities for beyond-line-of-site operations such as inspecting oil and gas infrastructure, search and rescue missions, minerals mapping, or assessing storm damage.
The FAA plans to release comprehensive rules about commercial drone operations, but not until 2017. But because of the demand for such services now, in 2015, the FAA came up with special rules that allow operators to get waivers.
A Section 333 Exemption to the 2012 FAA Modernization and Reform Act grants the US Transportation secretary the authority to determine if an airworthiness certificate is required for an unmanned aircraft to operate in national airspace. It provides operators who wish to pursue safe and legal entry into the national airspace a competitive advantage in the marketplace, while improving safety and discouraging illegal operations, the FAA states.
“It is anticipated that this activity will result in significant economic benefits, and the FAA administrator has identified this as a high priority project to address demand for civil operation of UAS [unmanned aircraft systems] for commercial purposes,” the agency states.
The exemption gives operators a competitive advantage in the UAS marketplace. Without the exemption, permits can take months to acquire. Aquilo already has its FAA certification and is exploring many opportunities.
It’s a fast-growing field, and the perception of drones has changed dramatically in just a few years. While many in the field dislike the word drone because of its early military connotation, preferring instead to use terms such as UAS, Vanderwaal uses the word drone casually.
“What we’ve seen in the last couple of years is that people are connecting drones with the quadcopter-type of vehicle,” he says.
Those changing perceptions and the rapid advances in technology could help develop a tech industry in Alaska that would bring money into the state and keep talented workers here.
“I think Alaska needs a more diverse economy,” he says. “We’re still tied to the vagaries of resource development, which creates boom and bust. Alaska has never been a hotbed for the tech industry, but we feel we have a really good opportunity for it.”
Julie Stricker is a journalist living near Fairbanks.
This article first appeared in the July 2016 print edition of Alaska Business Monthly.