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Drone aircraft are in the news a lot these days. The military uses them to attack terrorists and Amazon says it hopes to use drones to deliver packages right to your door. Now a new Michigan company called SkySpecs hopes to take the pilotless devices to another field it hopes will be profitable: the often dangerous task of inspecting large structures like wind turbines.
SkySpecs in Ann Arbor was founded by students who started the “Michigan Autonomous Aerial Vehicles Team” at the University of Michigan in 2009. The company’s CEO, Danny Ellis of Portage, led the team and the effort to turn the student experience into a for-profit venture. Ellis says SkySpecs has raised about $500,000 of the $700,000 it is seeking to commercialize the technology.
Those who make or fly drone aircraft call them UAV’s, for “unmanned aerial vehicles”. Others prefer “unmanned aerial systems”. But whatever you call them, Ellis says you will see a lot of them in the future. "The most recent prediction that I read said that by 2035 they expect 175,000 of these systems just in U.S. airspace alone.” Ellis says they could be anything from a tiny “nanodrone” to a full-size pilotless cargo airplane.
Ellis says the future of drone aircraft is bright, if some hurdles can be overcome. One major problem now is the federal regulations don’t allow private commercial drone flights in civilian airspace. And Ellis says there are also technical challenges in the way of truly autonomous drones, or aircraft that do not need a human pilot controlling them from the ground. “A majority of the systems out there can't sense their environment. You can send them on some sort of mission and they can run into things pretty easily, whether it be a static object or a moving object in the airspace.”
Ellis says SkySpecs UAV is a four-motored “quad-rotor” drone similar in shape to those sold to hobbyists but larger and much more capable. “You don't need a skilled pilot on the ground operating it. Anyone can pick it up, command it where to go and give it a way point and a destination and some sort of task, and it handles the rest of the flight.” But Ellis says his company’s machine still needs much more testing since it has never flown outdoors.
"We've never flown near the blade of a wind turbine before. You know, we kind of know what to expect but, then again, until we actually do it we know there's going to be some things we have to change.”
Ellis says SkySpecs hopes to begin working with a wind turbine inspection company to test the drone next year. He says his firm is confident that federal officials will give it full clearance to fly by 2017.
The prospect of widespread commercial use of drones raises significant privacy issues that make a lot of people nervous. Ellis says that is a problem and a big reason why SkySpecs doesn’t want its vehicle look or be threatening. "It's actually built out of carbon fiber, so it's black and looks menacing until we paint it white and make it look friendly. One of our phrases here is that we're building a 'safe, friendly UAV'. We want people to feel safe around it and know that we're not collecting data against them."
Ellis also says SkySpecs doesn’t plan to sell its drones, only lease them. That way he says there’s an extra safeguard against misuse because they can be grounded remotely.
It’s now a case of when, not if, lots of un-piloted aircraft will take to the sky. And Ellis says they will be put to some surprising uses. "I actually had a guy call us who wanted to see if we could put a fish finder on it, fly it out over the ocean, and use it for his charter fishing boat. So, whatever people can dream of they're going to be able to utilize these systems for."