Once again, Fargo technology is at the forefront of innovation. And this time, it’s at the head of an estimated $98 billion market – the drone industry.
Aerobotic Innovations, a small seven-man company built up of military pilots, software developers, and electrical engineers, has developed a game-changing software application called Botlink. Among other things, this app allows you to track your drone in real-time via radio signal and creates a visual map using the Cloud showing other aircraft in the surrounding airspace.
The application poses a solution to a major problem for drone users, one that triggered a light bulb moment for Aerobotic Innovations CEO and military pilot Shawn Muehler as he was remotely flying a drone earlier this year.
“I was sitting there flying one night, and I was watching Fox news at the time,” he said, “And I saw another drone fly through the New York airspace and almost hit an airliner.”
Instances of drones nearly hitting aircraft is not an uncommon occurrence. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) says pilots have reported 15 close calls with small rogue drones near airports in the past two years.
A spokesman for the FAA, Jim Williams, was recently quoted in an article in the Wall Street Journal saying that the results of an airline colliding with a drone could be “catastrophic.” He called attention to the 2009 incident, when a flock of birds sucked into the engines of US Airways Flight 1549 forced the pilots to land on the Hudson river – and that’s without the big lithium battery of a drone.
This begs the question that Muehler had when he watched the airliner narrowly escape collision on the news:
“How are these people doing this? How can you just fly a drone through New York airspace?Do they not know what they can and can’t do?”
The answer, he found, is no, they don’t.
As an experienced pilot, Muehler knows there are tools available for establishing what is called situational awareness (SA): knowing who and what is around you as you fly. But after doing some research, he found there is currently no such platform available to the public when flying drones.
His immediate reaction was “this needs to be built.”
He took the idea to his friend Alex Kube, a software developer who he has known since freshman year at NDSU, and said, “Let’s build something really cool, to help people out, so people aren’t crashing into each other when they’re flying these things.”
“Can you build this?” he asked Kube, who is also the Technical Director at Unseen Ministries.
“It seemed very ambitious,” Kube said. But he agreed to try.
Their brainstorming led to weeks of whiteboards scribbled full of ideas and late-night conversations of what-ifs and imagine-thats. Together they began building what is now Botlink.
They called themselves Aerobotic Innovations – “it’s a fusion between the words ‘aerial’ and ‘robotics’,” Muehler said – and in the following months they acquired what now makes up a very unique team.
“All our competitors are software engineers, that’s really it,” Muheler said. “Whereas we have a military pilot who flew fighter jets, hardware guys, electrical engineers…Our team is really probably one of the most experienced teams doing a platform like this.”
“A lot of the companies out there, they’re doing research as to what works and doesn’t work. We’ve been flying full-scale drones for four years,” Muehler said. “We know what works and doesn’t work.”
“It’s not theoretical for us,” Kube agreed. “It’s taking practical hands-on experience and just putting it in a different domain.”
To illustrate the potential of the work being done at Unit 307 of downtown Fargo’s Black building, take a look at the upcoming tidal wave that is the drone industry.
Business Insider recently estimated that over the next decade, the cumulative global spending on aerial drones, or unmanned aircraft systems (UASs), would hit $98 billion. They also predict that 12% of that money, approximately $11.7 billion, will be for commercial purposes.
Major companies are beginning to put drones to commercial use; both Amazon and Google claimed they may use drones to deliver packages, and Facebook is exploring the option of streaming Internet all over the world using drones. Hobbyists and enthusiasts are also purchasing drones as a sort of high-tech toy, flying them from their rooftops and backyards; an online social platform entitled DIY Drones: The Leading Community for Personal UAVs, has nearly 60,000 members, based everywhere from Israel to Illinois.
And while the FAA sets guidelines for private use of drones, there is no “safety net” currently in existence to aid drone users safe flying. Right now, drones function similar to an old RC car, Kube said; you take your drone and fly it around with a remote control, but you have no display of what’s around you. This is a problem that will hinder drone use not only for the hobbyists, Muehler said, but for the major companies as well.
“What Facebook, Google and Amazon are doing, without a platform like ours, [they’re] not going to be able to do it,” Muehler said.
With Botlink, drone pilots will have the safety net of seeing where their drone is and what is around their drone at all times. If you accidentally fly your drone into private airspace, a warning will pop up. You are aware of other drones at all times, and a future update to the app will even let you send chat bubbles to other pilots, communicating who you are and what you’re up to. No more hazardous collisions, no more drones out-of-control.
One would imagine that such a solution would be obvious. But Botlink has zero direct competition.
“We’re literally the first and only company on the market doing this. In the entire world,” Muehler said.
The team believes that having a safety net should be included with every product moving forward in the drone industry. Currently, Botlink is the only application that offers that feature. And the safety platform is only 10% of what the application offers, Muehler said.
The app will be released in five versions, he explained. The first, which is scheduled to be released in just a few weeks, is the safety app. But a month after that, an update will be released that allows users to control the drone from the app – mapping out a flying pattern with the touch of your finger. After that, you’ll just have to wait and see.
What the team hopes to do with the release of Botlink in the next few weeks, is first grab the attention of the multitude of hobbyists who currently own drones. The FAA is expected to allow commercial use for drones sometime between 2015-2018, and by that time, the team hopes Botlink will have established brand loyalty among current drone owners.
“We want to target those guys [the hobbyists and enthusiasts] now, because the future commercial operators are going to be those guys.”
This is just the beginning of the opportunities out there for Botlink. For instance, after Marlo Anderson spoke about the autonomous highway at 1 Million Cups last Wednesday, Muehler and Anderson had a conversation about the possibility of using Botlink to regulate the drones that will use that airspace. They also hope to implement the application in control towers all over the world, so that traffic controllers can see where drones are flying at all times.
With so much potential for their application, it’s easy to start thinking in dollar signs. But Muehler and Kube, who both put in 8-10 hours a day on the project in addition to working other jobs, say that money is not the goal.
“What we really want to do is just build amazing technology for this industry,” Muehler said. “I love doing this. This is coolest thing in the entire world.”
“We’re definitely in this for the long haul,” Kube said.
Although their work is ground-breaking, they have been so focused on building the product that they have spent little time promoting it. Both are excited to announce Botlink to the public for the first time tomorrow morning at 1 Million Cups, and hope to see the support that Fargo has offered to so many other startups open to them as well.
Come see Muehler present tomorrow at 9:15am at the Stage at Island Park, and – spoiler alert – he may or may not be bringing a drone. Sign up here and don’t forget your mug!