Congratulation to our Generator member and current Generator-In-Residence: Ian Ray, for being featured in Seven Days this month:
Below the Radar
Stashed under Ian Ray’s desk at Generator, Burlington’s high-ceilinged, industrial-chic maker space, is an angular contraption that looks more like a child’s Erector Set than a $20,000 business venture. Perched atop that same desk is another, slightly smaller contraption covered in multicolored electrical tape and topped by four helicopter-type blades.
They’re not toys but drones — or, more accurately, unmanned aerial vehicles. Ray’s cubicle is home to AirShark, a two-man startup intended to put drones to work surveying, inspecting and photographing large solar installations. Ray is a photographer by training and a tinkerer at heart; he brought the drone expertise to the partnership. His cofounder, Jon Budreski, is licensed pilot who spent eight years selling solar panels through RGS Energy and SunCommon before striking out on his own with Ray.
“If there’s a panel that’s failing, it’s going to generate more heat,” said Ray. With a thermal image, he said, “You’ll see that well before you notice a physical problem.”
Surveying large solar arrays for ongoing maintenance is just one of the ways drones could help solar developers. Budreski imagines deploying drones to scope out sites for solar development and to document the construction process for state permitting agencies and insurance companies. As the solar industry matures, drones could also evaluate the condition of larger, aging projects.
While Budreski and Ray focused on the solar industry first for their startup, it’s just the tip of the iceberg for AirShark. Drones equipped with thermal sensors could perform energy audits of buildings — pinpointing the places where heat is escaping, for instance. They could inspect wind turbines and other industrial infrastructure, such as bridges or power lines, that can be difficult or hazardous to access.
Ray and Budreski do face one major hurdle: The legal framework governing drones in the United States is “nebulous” at best, said Budreski. The Federal Aviation Administration was set to release regulations for drones by the end of next year — but the FAA has pushed back the release of new drone regs before and is running behind schedule this time, too. In the meantime, the pair is talking to would-be customers and focusing on developing software and engineering solutions — like the little gimbal Ray designed to house a GoPro camera and high-end thermal sensor on one of the drones. It was fabricated on the 3D printer at Generator.
When they take their drones out to fly, Ray and Budreski follow common sense: Stay within line of sight. Use checklists. Avoid airports and manned air traffic.
“It’s a learned skill — like riding a bicycle or driving a car,” said Ray of flying the drones. But as AirShark’s makers think about industrial applications for the unmanned aerial vehicles, he said, the value won’t come from the contraptions themselves.
“At the end of the day, we’re not going to be a drone company,” said Ray. “We’re going to be a software and data company. The value comes from the information.”
The trick is educating clients, many of whom are unfamiliar with a drone’s capabilities, about what that information can be. It’s a good problem to have, said Ray: “To be on the bleeding edge of something is a good place to be.”
SOURCE Seven Days, 11/18/2014