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Maxon recently announced that the company has developed a new brushless DC motor optimized for Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs or drones). The drive system was developed in conjunction with Flybotix, a Swiss startup that offers the ASIO drone based solution for indoor industrial inspection applications. The announcement was timed so that the upgraded ASIO drone could be showcased at Xponential 2020, a tradeshow show for unmanned and autonomous systems.
- EPFL Innovation Park – Flybotix is located in the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) Innovation Park, a university and research institute and in Lausanne, Switzerland that is noted for advanced engineering, along with a strong technology transfer program that takes primary research and commercializes it. Flybotix CEO Samir Bouabdallah has 15 years of experience in developing drone technology at the EPFL and its sister institution – the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETH Zurich) – a research university based in Zürich, Switzerland. Bouabdallah received his PhD from EPFL (Robotics) and worked as a post doc at ETH Zurich (Aerial Robotics).
It should be noted that maxon also has a presence at the EPFL Innovation Park, and that the facility is also home to a number of other robotics, automation and autonomy companies. Cyberbotics, fastree 3D, ActLight, and Schindler provide examples.
- ASIO – Flybotix’s ASIO is a lightweight drone that employs a 4K and IR cameras for inspection applications in hard-to-reach, often confined spaces, in industrial facilities. The system is small, constructed from an ultra-lightweight thermoplastic composite, and is encased in a protective ‘cage’ making the systems collision tolerant, a critical feature for in-structure and indoor drone work.
The ASIO drone uses only two propellers, instead of the more typical four. maxon and Flybotix collaborated on the development of the patented, light weight drive system for the ASIO, which naturally is powered by brushless DC motors from maxon. The ASIO also boasts of an advanced propulsion and stabilization system, which in combination with the drone’s small size allows the platform to fly for twice as long as conventional drones according to Flybotix representatives (approximately 24 minutes).
Unlike the eye-catching pilot projects and click worthy outlier applications favored by much of the tech and gadget press, the business case and need for more prosaic drone-based applications such as inspection of industrial assets is clear.
- Drone Inspection Business Drivers and Value Proposition – Industrial inspection has emerged as one of the leading applications for drone systems. Unlike the eye-catching pilot projects and click worthy outlier applications favored by much of the tech and gadget press, the business case and need for more prosaic drone-based applications such as inspection of industrial assets is clear. More importantly, drone systems for industrial inspection are currently in commercial use, and that use is expanding and providing real value.
Such inspections, which are scheduled and recurring (and often mandated by regulatory agencies) can be both dangerous and costly, especially if plants are shut down or taken offline. Using sensored drones, visual and otherwise, can decrease the costs of inspection operations and reduce the injuries associated with them. In many cases, drone inspections are more efficient and effective.
- Flight Time and Robustness Limiting Factors – While drone based industrial inspection has much appeal, the usefulness of the approach has been significantly reduced by the limited operational flight time of the systems themselves. Non-electric power sources are a non-starter for indoor applications, so to extend flight time the typical recourse is some mixture of multiple short flights, hot swapping of batteries, employing multiple drone systems, or by combining drone inspection with manual methods.
The robustness of drone systems, too, is a gating factor for their expanded use for indoor industrial inspection. Although most commercial class drone systems are highly maneuverable, it must be assumed that they will come into contact with elements of industrial infrastructure at some point during normal operations.
Flybotix appears to be the prime beneficiary of the ASIO engineering partnerships. The company can now go to market with a much more capable drone-based industrial inspection solution that addresses a real business need.
- Smart Partnerships and Smart Engineering – Flybotix has engineered a solution that extends the flight time of its drone through a combination of smart partnerships, and equally smart mechanical engineering, software engineering and material science. For example, for the ASIO drone’s shell and caging, Flybotix turned to a lightweight, carbon fiber, thermoplastic composite developed by Solvay, a global research and engineering services firm with deep expertise in chemistry and materials science (Announcement HERE).
The maxon partnership was similarly critical. Flybotix and maxon worked together on a patented drive solution that incorporates maxon’s widely respected motor technology – in this case lightweight, brushless DC motors (and decades of experience developing custom motors), along with application optimized controller hardware. The ASIO drone also benefits from advanced propulsion and stabilization software developed by Flybotix management at EPFL and ETH Zurich. The result is a UAV platform that requires only two rotors for stable flight instead of the more typical usual four.
- A Win for Flybotix – In the near term, Flybotix appears to be the prime beneficiary of the ASIO engineering partnerships. The company, which received a Seed Round of US $ 1.6M only in April of this year, has benefited from the experience and capabilities of two global 2000 engineering and technology firms. The company can now go to market with a much more capable drone-based industrial inspection solution that addresses a real business need. The marketing kick from association with two renown and respected partners is an additional bonus.
- More Than Drones? – For Solvay and maxon, the advantages derived from the Flybotix partnership exceeds the revenues derived from their contribution (if any) and the short-term value of the Flybotix cross marketing push. The work to develop the Flybotix system deepens each company’s sector and technological expertise, extends their intellectual property portfolio, and enhances their reputation in the commercial drone space, a market currently experiencing rapid growth.
But is there more? After all, both maxon and Solvay, have previously developed advanced technologies for Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (maxon notably for the Ingenuity drone which will become airborne on Mars in 2021). Also, projected revenues for the commercial drone sector for industrial and agricultural use, while substantial, are not astronomical and are largely derived from software and services, not hardware and materials. Perhaps more importantly for Solvay and maxon, the knowledge and expertise accrued during their Flybotix work can also be applied to the emerging Urban Air Mobility (UAM) and commercial drone delivery (logistics) sectors, promising markets whose business potentials are yet to be realized, but given time could be massive.
Admittedly, the UAM market is off to a shaky start. Each week sees huge investments being made, along with equally large pronouncements, even as companies – both large and small – continually enter into and retreat from the market. Ditto for drone delivery. But there are synergies aplenty between the industrial / agricultural drone markets and the drone delivery and UAM sectors, many of them technical and much related to materials, propulsion and stabilization.
Dan Kara is Vice President, Robotics at WTWH Media where he charted with driving the company’s robotics and intelligent systems initiatives. Prior to joining WTWH, he was Practice Director, Robotics at ABI Research and Chief Research Officer for Myria RAS, both research and advisory services firms focused on automation, robotics and intelligent systems. Dan was also President of Robotics Trends, an integrated media and research firm serving the personal, service and mobile robotics markets.