Revolution.Aero Uplift: Command and control – Drone system that sees (ai) everything
The Greeks won the war because they were inside the walls of Troy. Or so the myth leads us to believe. The famed Trojan Horse was most effective because it enabled the soldiers inside it to conquer from within. This is how sees.ai, a start-up that is developing an advanced Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) command and control solution for drones, is aiming to conquer the world of drones.
There are two different approaches to building BVLOS expertise, the company’s CEO, John McKenna told Revolution.Aero. On the one hand, some companies are moving quickly and deploying systems far away from people and things or in less-regulated parts of the world.
“In contrast our approach is to start inside the walled gates – inside Troy. With this approach we are engaging from the outset with all the challenges of the western world – and in particular with more stringent regulation and higher safety standards. While this approach is slower initially, we believe it will enable us to develop a solution that finally has much greater potential to scale,” he said.
McKenna’s previous drone work led to the formation of sees.ai, in April 2017. Chief technical officer Eduardo Aldaz Carroll was next to join – in June, followed by vice president of Engineering, Richard Hopkirk and vice president of Software, Damian Charveriat in October the next year.
Together, the team’s career highlights include helping to win one Formula One World Championship; two America’s Cups; designing and building the first hybrid engine used in supercar the McLaren P1 and prototyping FaceID for the iPhone.
The start-up addresses the biggest challenge faced by the drone industry today: the constraint of visual line of sight.
“The military have been remotely operating unmanned aerial vehicles at altitude since the 1970s,” says McKenna. “Now companies are working to bring these missions closer to people and things. This is both a regulatory and technical challenge. But we believe many of these companies are leaving an important need unaddressed.”
The team decided its best strategy was to engage with “the hard part of the puzzle”, regulation, which is where expertise from some its members helps. Hopkirk’s experience working with McLaren, in the Formula One environment and his experience working with regulators to develop the P1. And Charveriat, who has a background in deploying code with fiduciary responsibility for billions of pounds.
“By facing the challenge of these harder missions and engaging with regulators up front – we are developing a solution that is almost unlimited in its potential to scale outwards. And we are doing this on the inside, while others are preparing for battle miles away and then figuring out how to approach Troy and get inside,” said McKenna.
The system, which uses similar technology to autonomous cars, enables highly automated drones to be flown under tight human supervision by pilots based in a central control room hundreds of miles away. Pilots can precisely execute complex missions remotely – including close-quarter missions encountering GPS-denial, magnetic interference and loss of communications.
The start-up is one of only 10 entities selected into the UK Civil Aviation Authority’s (CAA’s) Regulatory Sandbox (alongside Boeing and Amazon). The Sandbox’s aim was “to create an environment where innovation in aviation can be explored and flourish in line with CAA core principles of safety, security and consumer protection”.
McKenna said it was the company’s focus to get as far down the regulatory path as it can with the CAA. “Once we get our BVLOS permission, which we expect to get in the next months, then we plan to open discussions with EASA and the FAA.”
The sees.ai solution can be integrated with a wide range of commercially available drone platforms.
“We are not developing hardware – for several reasons: first, there are plenty of great platforms out there already – the right one for almost every job. Second we plan for our journey to start with smaller drones in the industrial space – where our objective is to work with the world’s best drone service providers who usually have particular hardware they want to use – and eventually we aim to extend to support larger systems carrying cargo and people.”
It is trying to make integration of its solution as easy as possible, so that anyone can do it with some design support from the team, if required. At present, the sees.ai solution is designed to integrate with medium-sized drones, suitable for urban and industrial sites – spanning construction, infrastructure, nuclear, oil and gas, chemicals.
Recently, sees.ai led a consortium of 16 aerospace and industrial giants and won a share of a £30m fund run by UK Research and Innovation, called the Future Flight Challenge. This funding will accelerate development and testing of their solution to enable it to be delivered at scale.
Future Flight Challenge
The grant is offered through Phase 2 of the Future Flight Challenge, part of the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund. The Future Flight Challenge is a four-year, £125m programme.
Phase 2 was split into two different sub strands: fast track development projects (for projects costing between £150,000 and £500,000) and development projects (for projects costing £500,000 and £10m).
Phase 3 is expected to open later this year.
McKenna said the Future Flight Challenge came out of a lot of conversations with end customers. “If you look at the consortium, many are end beneficiaries of the capability we’re developing.”
He is talking about construction companies Skanska, Costain and STRABAG (SCS) working in partnership with HS2, and other UK institutions: nuclear site Sellafield, Lancashire Fire and Rescue Service and Network Rail.
The sees.ai Future Flight project will cost about £2m, including the grant money and contributions from some of the consortium partners.
It is backed by Techstars, a leading tech accelerator and is planning to launch its first institutional funding round – a seed round – in the coming months.
Future Flight Covid-19
Future Flight Challenge – Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund
BVLOS will lay the framework for UAM
The company’s work with autonomy and software for BVLOS missions will lay the framework for an eventual application in flying cargo and people. Louisa Smith, head of R&D, National Air Traffic Services (NATS), said: “Whilst certain operations are currently conducted under BVLOS these are often performed under a waiver/exemption and/or operating in segregated airspace with a tailored and specific safety case. In order for BVLOS operations to successfully scale, sustained safe operations across a range of use cases must be demonstrated.”
NATS is one of the technical contributors to the consortium. It will bring its expertise as the UK’s largest air traffic controller.
Smith said the project will assess the suitability of the control and command (C2) solution as part of a number of demonstrations, each with a specific, targeted end user. “The range and diversity of demonstrations will help assess the appropriateness of the selected technical solution in the context of future/scaled BVLOS operations.”
A majority of the conversations that sees.ai is having are with drone service providers, OEMs and end clients. McKenna said: “The medium-term strategy for the business is to be the command-and-control system – in the urban and industrial domain – of choice when a business approaches a regulator or a procurement professional. Our most likely route to market will be via drone service providers.”
In the longer term, as the hardware becomes more important and the industry moves towards UAM and cargo, it wants to be the software component of the certification of VTOL vehicles.
“We are positioned deliberately to take on high-risk operations to be able to get to scale earlier than others. The technology we are developing – although not limited to UAM – is starting to address the problem that UAM will really need to address.”
It was Virgil who warned the Greeks: “Don’t trust the horse, Trojans, I fear the Greeks even when they bear gifts.” In 2021, that’s not a problem. Drones flown using sees.ai’s software will be able to see things we, on the ground, could not see for miles.
Good things come in small packages
Kay Wackwitz, Drone Industry Insights