Russ: Hi, I’m Russ Capper and this is The EnergyMakers Show, coming to you today from CERAWeek, and I’m very pleased to have as my guest, Helen Greiner, the founder of CyPhy. Helen, welcome to The EnergyMakers Show.
Helen: Thank you. Nice to be here.
Russ: You bet. Tell us about CyPhy.
Helen: CyPhy is a company that builds really rugged, hardened drones to industrial companies and the military.
Russ: Ok, what’s special about industrial and military that requires a special drone?
Helen: You know, the time of flight isn’t very long on the standard drones. We build them as platforms. They’re really tough, they’re really rugged, and they’re connected to the internet. Because drones are all about data and you need to get the data everywhere.
Russ: Ok, so how do you make them stay up longer?
Helen: To make them persistent, we have a secret source, it’s called a microfilament tether. So, these drones are being powered from the ground, but they’re not just attached to a cable, anyone could do that. Our drones fly at 400 feet; that’s really high. That’s as tall as most skyscrapers. And from that vantage point, you’ve got a wonderful view of an entire facility, an entire combat outpost, an entire camp or an entire port.
Russ: This tether must be lightweight for the most part.
Helen: It’s really lightweight, it’s very durable. It’s twisted copper pair and it’s completely, double shrouding. It also has a Kevlar strengthening element, which means you know your drone is staying within the length of the tether.
Russ: And it’s both supplying power and data transmission.
Helen: Power and communications, that’s right. So you don’t have to worry about Wi-Fi, you know, wireless technologies being jammed, or spoofed, or intercepted, or just disrupted in any way.
Russ: So, that causes lots of questions. Number one is, does it connect with satellites for control or is it all the controls for the flight of the drone, are they coming up through the tether?
Helen: They are coming up through the tether. We could connect to satellites. One of the applications of PARC is to carry communications equipment. And when you carry communications equipment up high, it just works better. When you have antennas off the ground, you can see for miles and miles and miles, whereas, on the ground you’ve got occlusions, but you have buildings in the way but you also have ground effect that sucks the signal in.
Russ: So, I’m familiar with controls on normal drones where you use the GPS location from multiple satellites. Do you implement that, too, on your drone?
Helen: You mean those low time of flight, battery operated drones?
Russ: Yes, those.
Helen: We actually use the same kind of control. We close our location loop on the GPS, but we only fly in one spot. We’re like a tower without a tower, where you can set up an instant surveillance post and instant communications network very quickly and easily, and we carry more high powered equipment because we are able to carry larger weight capacity.
Russ: Because you’re not carrying a big battery up there, too.
Helen: We don’t have to worry about time of flight and the battery just getting drained very quickly, and so we’re able to zoom in on objects of interest, and we’re able to use more high powered radio transmissions. We’re just persistent, right? And persistence is something the other drones don’t do. To control the drone, we’re doing it all locally. All you do is you set an altitude, you push a button, and your drone is flying and all the intelligence is right on board.
Russ: Ok, and the communications is going back down through the tether (Helen: Exactly.), whatever you need to do, too. Ok, really cool. So how long has the company been in business?
Helen: I founded the company in 2008, and we spent the first years developing this really deep technology that allows drones, we routinely fly for hundreds of hours at a time in all kinds of conditions that go well beyond the state of the art in drone technology.
Russ: And so are you actually in business now? Are people sending you checks and doing business with you?
Helen: Yes, we have the PARC system in production, and we have them deployed with the military. We have them in pilots for the DOT, we have the first orders coming in from oil and gas, and other industries. So, it’s a really, really great time to see this technology making a difference for people in the real world.
Russ: Ok so when you look into the future, I mean, how big a role is the oil and gas business for your product?
Helen: We started out with military. They’re really great early adopters to get the technology, you know, get them prototype systems and be able to advance it. Now we have them deployed. We’re on an acquisition path, but the oil and gas, you know, the next industry to attack. I brought in a CEO from the oil and gas industry, and we have a sales team targeting the oil and gas industry because we just see so many applications in incident response, in asset tracking and management, in extending communications ranges, in viewing an entire facility, and at first monitoring it, but then using that data to manage the facility using the data coming back from the drone.
Russ: Ok, so I know you’ve already pointed out that the tether itself is really strong even though it’s real thin, but it could break. What happens then?
Helen: Well, first, we have not broken one. In all the years we have been experimenting with them, we haven’t broken one. We have systems on board, if you lose communications or you lose power, the robot has a small battery on board, it immediately lands. In fact, there’s fifty different other conditions that if it sees something that might be out of place or missed, the robot immediately has behaviors on it that allow it to land. Now, although we’ve never broken a tether, we have had people forget to fill up a generator when we’re running in the field. It’s running from generator power, and oh we forgot the gas. We have had people, when we’re plugged into a wall socket, kick the plug out.
Russ: Ok, so that caused an emergency landing.
Helen: It causes an emergency landing but we consider that a really great thing, and any sensor reading that looks like it’s out of spec, the robot immediately lands, and that is a really safe system to have.
Russ: Ok, I see all of the advantages of a tether, so I’m not trying to disrespect it at all, but the GPS controlled drones, if something happens or they get lost they automatically come back to the exact point that they took off. Does yours do that or does it just come down?
Helen: Ok, so our system just flies in one spot.
Russ: So it’s close by, always.
Helen: What we do is we carry really high zoom optical equipment, and so we can see further than those drones, and it’s a much safer paradigm, because how many applications are there that see over the next hill, right? What you usually want is you’ve got a facility and you want to monitor that facility. We can do it from one spot. We’re showing video that’s coming live from Mobile, Alabama today that is looking miles out to see an entire facility. It gives you that really life feed, without having to go fly into it. You don’t want a drone that might end up in the middle of a road, or in a building, or smashed against expensive equipment because of the wind. We fly in one spot, we’re tethered, it’s constrained, and you know the robot isn’t going to end up somewhere else.
Russ: Ok, really cool. Well, I wish you good luck on that and before I let you go, I know this is not your first product to hit the market. Share what your first company did and what you invented.
Helen: I cofounded iRobot, and served as President and Chairman for eighteen years, and we put the Roomba vacuuming robot on the market. We sold over sixteen million to date. We also delivered tactical equipment to the military. We got the first small robots in combat situations, and so really rugged, reliable, and so I used all of that experience getting real robot products on the market in this new endeavor at CyPhyWorks.
Russ: That’s really cool. From vacuum cleaners, to robots, to drones now. Well, Helen I really appreciate you sharing your story with us and we wish you good luck.
Helen: Thank you so much.
Russ: You bet. And that wraps up my discussion with Helen Grainer, the founder and CTO of CyPhy, and this is The EnergyMakers Show.
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