How will drones change the way business is done?

By 2025 there could be 175,000 unmanned aerial vehicles -- also known as drones -- in United States airspace. They could be anywhere from the 11-pound flying robot being developed in Michigan, to micro- or nano sized devices. Or they could be a full-scale airplane that doesn't have a pilot on board shipping cargo for UPS.

Danny Ellis of SkySpecs, is CEO of SkySpecs, a University of Michigan incubated company that is now out on its own in Ann Arbor and working to tap into the commercial market for unmanned aerial vehicles.

A 2006 Portage Central High School graduate, Ellis has been leading the team developing a four-motored, quad-rotor drone since its beginnings, developed by a student project team.

The Michigan Autonomous Aerial Vehicle (MAAV) student team, founded by Ells in 2009 to compete internationally, demonstrated the early promise of its device when MAAV won its first competition, defeating 20 other teams from around the world. With the win in hand the group went on to pitch its idea for a company to a group of U-M alums in San Francisco, came home with just enough money to start SkySpecs LLC, and went on to win the first five business competitions it entered.

Much of the early work on the unmanned aerial vehicle took place while the team was still attending classes at U-M, securing their advanced degrees.

Today the company has grown to nine employees, all of which are paid. (A second member on the team also is from Southwest Michigan. Tom Brady, from Three Rivers, originally worked with Ellis at Parker Hannifin where they joked about starting a company together and came up with all manner of terrible ideas, Ellis says.)

SkySpecs' successes have brought the right kind of attention to attract investors--one quarter of which are from Kalamazoo--and enough funding to make it through July of 2014.

The flying robot has changed a lot since its first competition in 2009 as the SkySpecs team has homed in on the market it will be serving. Ellis says the original was designed for the competitions it would enter and used laser to navigate its way through a building and retrieve a flash drive. The newest design it tailored to the needs of potential customers.

SkySpecs is currently focused on companies that do inspections on structures like bridges or wind turbines. If the structure is difficult to get to, in a tight space, or a place where GPS does not work then it could be the type of structure SkySpecs' unmanned aerial vehicle is being designed to inspect.

"We did a lot of customer discovery," Ellis says. "Our prospective customers say they really want this tool." Inspecting wind turbines, for example, is one of the first ways the unmanned aerial vehicles will be used.

During their research phase the company also was advised not to pursue a military contract. Getting a military contract is difficult, comes with detailed, strict requirements, and a research and development budget can be quickly eaten up trying meet those standards.

The Department of Defense is obviously a huge market for those in the business of building drones, but Ellis says any business they do with the military would be through selling SkySpec's autonomous aerial vehicles to an already established defense contractor. The flying robots would be ruggedized and fitted with military grade equipment at that point. "It's difficult for a company our size to deal with the military," Ellis says.

The drone's quad-rotor design allows it to hover and maneuver precisely, making it ideal for safe, low-cost infrastructure inspection. It uses cameras, ultrasonic sensors, and thermal sensors to do the inspections.

"Any large structure that usually a rope team or a large crane is used to access, we're flying sensors to those locations to get a non-contact inspection," Ellis says. "And the first one that we are pursuing is actually wind turbine inspection."

So what's next for SkySpecs?

From a regulatory standpoint, the FAA first must make it legal for devices like the ones SkySpecs is developing to fly. The FAA recently released a report that provides a road map for what it sees as the future of autonomous aerial vehicles. "They are putting a process in place and we will have regulations over the next 10 years," Ellis says.

SkySpecs expects to have certification to fly its vehicles in certain circumstances in 2014 and to have them flying in the field by 2017. They expect to be able to obtain permission to get special clearance to fly in special case scenarios, such as flying next to a wind turbine which where they would not encounter other aircraft.

From a technological standpoint, the next step is testing them in the field. Currently they are not good and sensing their environment, which can lead to crashes. So one of the keys to success will be making the system more aware of its environment and safer. They also will be working with a wind turbine customer soon to test the vehicle by flying it near wind turbine blades.

The company also is being proactive when it comes to concerns regarding privacy. It's building what it calls a "safe, friendly UAV", one that will not be collecting data unrelated to the inspections it is used for. "We will not be giving data away." If clients use the vehicles for collecting such data will be in breach of contract. For that reason, the drones will be leased and not sold to customers. SkySpecs will know where the vehicles have been flown and the company will have the ability to shut down the vehicles to make sure they stay grounded it they need to be.

As Ellis told the TEDxKalamazoo crowd recently, there will be as many uses for autonomous aerial vehicles as there are ideas for them.

Listen to the broadcast edition of this story here. Or hear it on WMUK 102.1 FM at 5:25 p.m. Dec 5 and Morning Edition on Dec. 6. 

Kathy Jennings is managing editor of Southwest Michigan's Second Wave. She is a freelance writer and editor. 

Photo of Danny Ellis by Kathy Jennings

Unmanned aerial vehicles photo courtesy SkySpecs.
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