Bay Area company expands to Reno, helps autonomous drones avoid collisions
March 5, 2018
RENO, Nev. — On a clear October day, in a field outside of Reno, a drone lifts from a blaze orange launch pad, quickly becoming a black dot flying through the blue sky.
It's not an unusual sight, drones taking off into the crisp Northern Nevada air. This, however, was more than your typical drone flight.
The drone, a DJI M600, is equipped with a unique technology aiming to take the future of autonomous drones and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) to new heights — a collision avoidance system.
The technology is a development of Iris Automation, a San Francisco-based startup — which expanded to Reno last year — with a team from NASA, Boeing and Airbus, among others.
In a nutshell, Iris Automation, a Y Combinator alum, is tackling three big challenges facing the industrial drone industry: reliability, safety and autonomous flight beyond line of sight, said Alexander Harmsen, CEO of Iris Automation.
"If we can raise the standard or safety (of industrial drones), if we can reduce the risk, that becomes a new bar to hit," Harmsen said in a phone interview with the Northern Nevada Business Weekly.
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Quite simply, much like vehicle safety measures became necessary as the number of cars on the roads — and their speeds — increased after the invention of the Model T, Harmsen feels the same now applies to drones, especially those used commercially.
"In the early days, cars didn't have seatbelts or airbags, and today it's ridiculous to consider buying a car without them," Harmsen said. "In the drone space, especially as we move from piloted drones to more autonomous drones — flying for pipeline inspections, railway inspection, package delivery, what have you — that's really where you need these (collision avoidance) systems to operate completely autonomously; to get the right sort of benefits, efficiency and safety. Otherwise, it just doesn't make sense."
Landing in Reno
Eight months ago, Iris Automation expanded from the Bay to the Biggest Little City, opening an office at the University of Nevada, Reno Innevation Center. Harmsen said they initially didn't have plans outside of an office, but quickly realized Northern Nevada was an ideal space — in more ways than one — for data collection and flight-testing.
The company's San Francisco office is primarily focused on software development and business operations.
"Obviously, it's a lot easier to fly in Reno than San Francisco," said Harmsen, noting that the company wanted to conduct tests against manmade aircraft and not be constrained to flying over small pockets of land in the Bay Area.
Once in the Silver State, Iris Automation stretched its wings, exemplified by the aforementioned flight test outside of Reno this past October. Which begs the question: What did this test, one of many the company has conducted in Northern Nevada, entail?
Putting Iris' collision avoidance system to work, a pilot in a Cessna 162 aircraft made a pass across the drone's field of view as it hovered above the valley. Using a camera and nuanced computer vision algorithms, the drone detected the object, drew a box around it, and used machine learning to classify the object as a small plane.
What's more, the drone calculated the distance between itself and the aircraft — an estimated 500 feet.
Later, the Iris system did the same calculations except at 1,500 feet, which is 50 times greater than the bumper solutions some drone companies currently use, according to Iris Automation. The product itself is packaged into a physical, plug-and-play perception unit.
Ready for takeoff
According to the most current data by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, the top uses of commercial drones are aerial photography, real estate, aerial inspection, aerial survey and construction. Other uses include infrastructure, agriculture, filmmaking and search and rescue.
Without sense and avoid technology, however, the industrial drone industry is "completely held back," Harmsen said.
"Every single drone in the world has ambitions to fly beyond the visual line of sight, to fly autonomously," he continued. "There's one big barrier in the air right now: the trust from regulators and National Airspace System that you're going to be free from collisions. We can alleviate that fear."
And the number of industrial drones lifting off of orange launch pads isn't slowing down. In fact, the Federal Aviation Administration forecasted there would be at least 600,000 commercial drones in the airspace by 2018.
"The vision is that these millions of drones that are coming into the world, especially in the industrial and commercial side, are flying these sensor avoidance systems," Harmsen said. "We want drones to be safe, we want them to have huge efficiency gains."
Harmsen said Iris Automation is not disclosing publicly which companies it has partnered with, though he said the company has customers in five different countries.
He added: "We are just starting to introduce these systems, but there's no doubt in my mind that these will be as common as seat belts and air bags in cars."
Boosting the economy
Founded in 2015, Iris Automation recently closed an $8 million first round of funding, led by Bessemer Venture Partners. To date, the company has raised $10 million in venture capital, Harmsen said, and is planning to expand its workforce this year.
Iris Automation currently consists of 18 employees, including six at the Reno hub, he added.
Doug Erwin, senior vice president of entrepreneurial development at the Economic Development Authority of Western Nevada, said companies that are able to "raise that kind of capital" are few and far between in the region.
"That funding will allow them to grow in Northern Nevada and hire more local people," Erwin said. "The great thing about a company like that is you look at the types of jobs they're hiring and they're all high-wage, high-skill. We love companies like this because every job they fill will definitely be above our target wage."
Moreover, Iris Automation's presence in Reno helps grow the region's technology sector, Erwin said.
"As our economy has shifted away from 'we just need to fill jobs until we're at full employment' … we're really trying to diversify the economy — and we're focusing on technology," he said.