Journey to the C-Prize: Behind the scenes with Vortec

The story of Vortec UAV Limited began with a one-word text message: “Beers?”.

Over the resulting beverage with an old friend from engineering school, I was informed of an upcoming drone design competition called the C-Prize. The goal was to address one of three issues facing the local film industry when it came to drone usage, namely wind resistance, noise reduction, and object tracking. The $50,000 prize showed that these were problems people were willing to pay to solve!

I’d already been through the finals of what was then called Spark (now Velocity), the University of Auckland Entrepreneurship challenge, with a drone-related business idea. I was also keen to get back to my engineering roots after beginning a career in consulting, so getting my hands dirty again had a lot of appeal.

I ran into another old friend from uni at a C-Prize information evening – our group grew to four, and the brainstorming sessions began in earnest. It quickly became clear that we were most interested in the wind resistance track. The thing about wind is that it influences every drone, rather than only those fitted with a microphone or camera.

Eventually we whittled down our many ideas to one concept, which we call thrust vectoring. In order to move sideways, a standard drone must pitch or roll its entire body, which is a relatively slow process. By contrast, thrust vectoring allows the drone body to stay still while the propellers’ thrust is individually directed. The benefits are twofold. Firstly you get faster and more responsive sideways motion, and secondly the drone stays flat and level at all times. These factors both help hold position in the wind, and help keep the camera steadier – a match made in heaven!

We wrote up our proposal, sent it off to the prize organisers, and waited to hear what they thought. We were lucky enough to make the finals, which came with a grant to help build our prototypes over a three month period. Easy, we thought. We’ve already done most of the design work, we’ve got 3-D drawings – now we just have to build it. How hard could it be?

You know how people say ‘hardware is hard’? They’re not wrong. The number of things we had to modify to make the drones manufacturable, change because we couldn’t buy one with the right dimensions, or just realised was stupid was… well… considerable. For most of the three months we were working upwards of 60 hours a week. It was utterly draining, and utterly addictive.

Ultimately the deadline came. Obviously we weren’t finished yet (like all of the best engineering projects) but nonetheless we tested our two prototypes in front of the judges. Testing was a nerve-racking but awesome experience – it couldn’t get much more Kiwi than testing in a ‘wind tunnel’ made up of a special effects fan and a tent, surrounded by a state-of-the-art motion capture suite.

When the night of the winner’s announcement came, we were fairly confident we hadn’t won – we’d seen what the other competitors had built, and it was all incredibly impressive. Hearing Steven Joyce read out the team name I’d selected in thirty seconds flat because I needed a placeholder in our proposal was quite surreal, but very exciting.

Since then I’ve gone all in, replaced my steady day job with the risky and unpaid position of entrepreneur, and we’ve been working on scaling up our concept. We’re currently testing a film-grade, heavy lift version of our competition-winning drone and results are extremely encouraging! We’ve also just returned from the NAB Show in Las Vegas, which consists of 150,000 people and every piece of film and television equipment you could think of. We’ve learnt that we’re doing something that no one else has thought of, and that people are legitimately excited about the implications of our tech – very important for the future of our business.  

Going forward, we’re looking at finding manufacturing partners and further funding to get our innovative technology to market. We’re also getting a lot of flying hours under our belt to demonstrate reliability. What happens next will be the acid test - we’ve been able to develop the tech this far thanks to the C-Prize, but to go further will require people to actually part with money in exchange for our product.

We’re very grateful to everyone who has helped us get this far, and I invite you to help us get further. If you’re interested in drones, cinematography, or Kiwis doing interesting things, then please check out our website www.vortec.nz or follow us on Twitter @VortecNZ to keep updated on our journey!