August 19, 2013
IU investing in unmanned aerial vehicles
Unlike military drones, products from PrecisionHawk are used for geological research
Part of Indiana University's $10 million investment fund has been poured into an "unmanned aerial vehicle" manufacturer.
But, according to PrecisionHawk, the startup company that received an Angel Investment from IU's Innovate Indiana fund and the software company Red Hat, the word "drone" has egative connotations and controversial uses, none of which the university or the company has any interest in.
Unlike the drones shooting missiles in Pakistan or those used by police domestically, researchers at IU are hoping to use PrecisionHawk's 3-pound, almost toylike unmanned plane to find geological patterns on the ground -- not people.
Sally Letsinger, a research hydrogeologist at IU, has been working with PrecisionHawk to measure the saturation of soil and the health of vegetation on a 40-acre property in Henry County. The startup's drone camera takes hundreds of thousands of pictures from the air, "stitching" them together with a third-party program once it's back on the ground, creating a map of the entire site with infrared bands.
"This is an opportunity for people to come out and see (demonstrations) and change this negative connotation around the word 'drone,'" PrecisionHawk spokeswoman Lisa Reich said. "The possibilities for civil applications are astronomical."
PrecisionHawk's CEO is Pat Lohman, an IU graduate, and Innovate Indiana, which has a mission to invest in companies "originating from Indiana University, has invested an undisclosed amount of money in the company. Tony Armstrong, president and CEO of Innovate Indiana, said the investment was "a few thousand dollars." Reich said the company would not say what percentage of the company IU or Red Hat owns as PrecisionHawk tries to procure more investment from other groups. In a news release, the company said it was trying to create partnerships with Purdue and Indiana State University, as well.
The use of drones by these institutions would further connect the state of Indiana with drones. Indiana partnered with Ohio in 2012 to boost the area's profile in a competition with dozens of other state contingents to become one of the Federal Aviation Administration's test sites for drone flights, designations that are expected to be made by the end of 2013 and could bring billions of dollars to the states' economies.
Reich called IU because of its research exception from laws against drone flights domestically, one potential testing ground for the company's unmanned aerial vehicles as the FAA starts to loosen regulations domestically. But she emphasized that PrecisionHawk has devoted itself to civil uses and has no ambitions of becoming a defense contractor.
"We wouldn't even call them drones," Armstrong said. "This isn't for any military application."
In fact, the technology doesn't have a "live feed," according to Letsinger, who has already had PrecisionHawk fly two missions for her in May and June to help map her research area by
Summit Lake State Park; instead, its onboard camera has an SD card like any other camera, which has to be removed once the craft touches down. The UAV has an ability to fly the same course by itself, allowing for data collection at the same location over multiple days.
Before PrecisionHawk, Letsinger was considering both manned and unmanned options for her research. She estimated it might be another year before PrecisionHawk officially becomes her vessel-of-choice and, in the interim, Letsinger is trying to substantiate her theory that she can measure the wetness of soil and plants with infrared. So far, she believes she can see how healthy plant life is by its "redness" in the frame.
She is interested in PrecisionHawk because it is lightweight. All the UAV needs is a toss into the air and then it will do the rest itself, flying a predetermined course and returning to the launch site.
PrecisionHawk's technology has the craft adjust "on the fly" to weather patterns, keeping a consistent heading as it takes its series of pictures.
Letsinger said there are dozens of other uses for the drone, such as the analysis of bedrock types or the tracking of invasive plant species or acid drainage near reclaimed mining areas.
"One thing I would say to anyone who has fears is, when this instrument is flying around, it's not like you can view what people are doing in real time," Letsinger said. "It's taped. It's more like a flying GPS, but we can't see what it sees. We aren't using it to spy on people."
Armstrong called IU's investment "seed money," and there is an expectation that, if PrecisionHawk succeeds in developing its technology and gains interest from investors with millions of dollars to spend in several years, IU would exit and make a profit.
"We see it as a win-win situation, where researchers with the company are able to work with our researchers to see what they are looking for," Armstrong said. "Where it might be too expensive for our researchers to buy this equipment, now they will have a chance to work with the newest iterations of these UAVs."