Aeronavics in Raglan has created recon droids specially designed to go into dangerous areas - think forest fires, large scale disasters - and it's flipped the traditional model on its head
The EV Recon, a multi-rotor robotic aerial vehicle, is flying high in a market tipped to be worth $8.35 billion by 2018. At the giant end of the market, craft carry out military strikes, but this little droid is one of the good guys, designed for an entirely different kind of reconnaissance.
Made by Raglan company Aeronavics, one of only a few in New Zealand developing unmanned craft, the EV Recon shoulders the burden traditionally carried by human heroes. Weighing 4-5kg and measuring 110mm from one propellor tip to the other, it’s armed with rings that act as bumper bars for the propellor, squeezing into tight spaces with sensors and cameras that can find trapped survivors at search and rescue scenes.
In forest fires it can carry sensors to find burning hotspots, and if bridges and buildings need inspection after disasters, it can soar as high as 400 feet, the legal airspace limit, with cameras mounted on top and underneath.
Aeronavics (formerly Droidworx) nutted out a novel design for the EV Recon that literally flips the traditional model on its head. “With this design the motors are actually upside down,” says owner and director Linda Bulk. ”You can’t usually encapsulate motors because they need cooling, so we’ve put a cone over the top to weatherproof it. And the flight electronics are all in the centre hub, so it’s protected in all weather circumstances.”
The EV Recon, which at the time of writing was yet to hit the market, is pitched mainly at urban search and rescue personnel and the public safety sector. Tait Communications has a strong network in public safety and utilities and a nascent collaboration between the two companies is raising exciting possibilities.
Tait sees potential to extend customers’ work areas by combining droids with its comms technology and Aeronavics visited Canterbury earlier this year to demo its wares, says useability design manager Leon Erasmuson. For police the technology tandem might mean the ability to track sniffer dogs; for fire services it could be using hot spot sensors in rural or factory blazes.
“It’s extremely dangerous in a lot of those instances to send people in,” says Erasmuson. “These things are expendable but people are precious, so we treat them like that.” He adds that droids offer a cheaper alternative to helicopters in these scenarios.
The EV Recon is the little sibling in a family of craft that Bulk and her partner and co- owner Rob Brouwer – a former commercial pilot – began prototyping after moving the three-year-old business to Raglan from Australia in 2011. They discovered the technology in Australia in 2008 and spent a year and a half actively developing it.
Droidworx first carved out a market among movie-makers and aerial photographers. That market had a problem the company could solve: speed wobbles.
“It was around the time the Go Pro was becoming really popular. At their highest resolution setting it was hard to get good footage from any craft. You’d get what they call the jello effect. We managed to get jello-free footage. People got really excited about our rig and said it looked really professional, and the flight electronics were also at a level where you could really rely on them.”
Other breakthroughs helped drag unmanned vehicles out of the recreational realm and into the professional. Flight times of three to five minutes are fine for framing an aerial photograph, but not for applications in agriculture and industry, says Bulk.
Last year thecompany began working with a Chinese company to develop motors and a propellor that increased flight times to as much as 30 or 40 minutes and gave craft the ability to carry 5kg loads for 15 minutes rather than six or seven.
Like most Kiwi businesses that innovate to stay ahead in a fast-growing global market, Aeronavics has invested heavily in R&D. It spent $200,000 on design, build, testing, development and start motors for the EV Recon and AgMonster, half-refunded by government body Callaghan Innovation.
The company has another common innovator’s conundrum: scale. The business now has 15 staff and Bulk and Brouwer have made a decent return on their personal investment. The business started out making to order, with customers accepting that the product could take four to six weeks to arrive. Within five months it was able to deliver from stock.
Now it can assemble a craft in three days. Making it costs in the thousands, but they command about $30,000. Aeronavics will likely continue production in New Zealand, with other services outsourced.
“The distributors would service them and train end users and offer further implementation and consultancy to end users, but they buy the product from us and we can therefore properly do the quality control,” says Bulk.
“We’re looking at different scenarios. Even if we open up centres around the world, with partners as a possibility, it would have to be a really clear recipe – like McDonald’s, wherever you go around the world, a Big Mac is a Big Mac. It has to be like that with our craft as well.”