September 20, 2018      

As hurricanes and typhoons bring devastation around the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, the need for reliable data and communications to respond to emergencies has never been greater. Aerial drones are increasingly crucial to that response, thanks to evolving technologies and companies such as CyPhy Works Inc. working closely with end users. The company’s persistent drones serve a variety of needs, from security and emergency response to utilities.

CyPhyWorks‘ Persistent Aerial Reconnaissance and Communications, or PARC, platform includes a modular drone, a unique tether providing power and connectivity, and a variety of cameras and sensors. At an altitude of 400 feet, the persistent drones can see up to 25 miles away.

Robotics Business Review recently visited CyPhy Works in Danvers, Mass., and spoke with CEO Lance VandenBrook (see video above).

Drones aid emergency response

After Hurricane Florence, about 53 drone teams have been working with utility companies in North Carolina to assess damage and help restore power to affected communities.

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) granted a waiver from unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) restrictions to the Virginia Tech Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership. This waiver allows UAVs to operate beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) and over people for State Farm insurance assessments.

“After last year’s hurricanes in Puerto Rico, we carried a 4G LTE payload to provide communications backhaul to fixed infrastructure,” said VandenBrook. “We’ve worked closely with telecommunications providers in Texas and Florida.”

Emergency responders have also increasingly looked to drones after earthquakes, to fight wildfires, for law enforcement, and to perform search and rescue operations.

“It takes only five minutes to set up CyPhy Works’ platform,” VandenBrook said. “PARC is payload-agnostic, and our persistent drones can both act as a temporary communications tower and provide optical sensing.”

CyPhy Works' PARC persistent drones are tested in Massachusetts.

The PARC tethered drone launches at CyPhy Works’ test site. Credit: Keith Shaw

Diversifying use cases for persistent drones

In June, CyPhy Works raised $4.5 million and revealed that founder and Chief Technology Officer Helen Greiner had left the company to work with the U.S. Army.

“Helen is passionate about keeping warfighters out of harm’s way,” VandenBrook recalled. “We saw commercial applications beyond defense and surveillance.”

“For the first six years, we did R&D for the Army, but we’ve narrowed our commercial focus in the past four years,” he said. “Not only is CyPhy Works disrupting markets; it’s also helping to create markets.”

“For example, because of FAA regulations, you can’t fly a plane or helicopter near refineries, and there are 140 in the U.S.,” explained VandenBrook. “There was a tank explosion in Texas, and we got a waiver to fly a drone. We found out that the foam was shooting 50 yards off from where the fire was.”

“That’s the downstream situational awareness that PARC can provide,” he said. “In terms of upstream data, PARC can provide connectivity from the back of a truck out in oil fields or shale plates where there is none.”

Regulatory and privacy concerns slowed the drone market, but the FAA has been granting waivers to the news media and other organizations, according to VandenBrook. CyPhy Works’ persistent drones have provided security support at events such as the Boston Marathon.

The PARC persistent drones can be broken down quickly.

CyPhy Works’ PARC is designed for multiple payloads and quick deployment. Credit: Keith Shaw

“For sporting events and concerts, you don’t want fixed infrastructure,” he noted. “As arenas and stadiums expand their parking footprints, there are more choke points, and we want to guarantee a safe user experience.”

During a demonstration for RBR, Randy Maldonado, director of field service at CyPhy Works, showed how PARC can switch between infrared and regular cameras, as well as recognize and track moving objects such as cars.

In border control, a vehicle could patrol the U.S. border with a tethered, persistent drone, which can fly at up to 35 mph. PARC can also be used by the merchant marine, cruise ships, and any organization that wants to capture data with persistent drones, VandenBrook said.

Worldwide spending on drones will reach $9.3 billion this year, and enterprise uses will experience a compound annual growth rate of 37.1% over the next five years, predicts IDC.

CyPhy Works keeps focus on solving problems

PARC is a pioneer in persistent drones and tethered technology, with intellectual property in its tether, spoolers, and Data Platform. The company is also working on new technologies.

CyPhy Works is “keeping its focus on solving other difficult problems,” said VandenBrook. “We’re even collaborating with competitive partners to satisfy global demand.”

Partners supporting the PARC persistent drones include Bessemer Venture Partners, Lux Capital, Motorola, and UPS.

The company is building on its government experience to build fully autonomous systems and analytics. “Nobody wants to watch 24 hours of video,” VandenBrook noted.

CyPhy Works has hired more engineers, and it has sent them to job sites such as refineries to better understand customer needs.

“There has been an automation explosion in the Boston area; we need more talent,” said VandenBrook, who previously led sales at Kiva Systems Inc., which was acquired by Amazon.com and renamed Amazon Robotics.

Editor’s note: Editor Keith Shaw contributed to this article.