By Arun Sivasankaran
You know you are doing things right when an investor in another part of the world sees enough potential in you to invest hard-earned millions in your system.
It is less than three years since it was founded, but SkyX, a Canadian long-range unmanned aerial monitoring and data collection company, has already attracted plenty of attention, not just from investors as far away as in China – Kuang-Chi, a disruptive technology group, has invested US$5 million – but also from target industries. The company is yet to begin deploying the system but already has letters of intent from companies in seven countries, including Canada, Brazil and China.
Founded by a former air force captain and drone pilot in 2016, the Toronto-based company uses drones and big data analytics to monitor long-range infrastructure and provide actionable data to companies that, so far, have had to depend on manned aircraft, ground inspection, or satellite imagery to inspect assets.
The SkyX system includes the electrically-powered SkyOne Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV), remote charging stations for UAV recharging and range extension, and an operating system for real-time monitoring of mission status. Unlike most UAVs on the market, SkyOne features vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) technology, thus enabling it to take off vertically like a helicopter but fly like a plane.
“It can fly from anywhere, without the need for launchers or runways,” says founder and CEO Didi Horn. “It is fully autonomous and does not need to come back to the place it took off. It flies fast, at 100 km per hour, capturing high quality data along the way.”
According to the International Energy Association, more than US $37 billion is spent annually in North America alone for inspecting oil and gas pipelines. The SkyX system offers accurate and much easier to use data, at a fraction of the cost and time, says Horn.
“We target critical, long range infrastructure – oil and gas pipelines, transmission lines, water pipe lines; you name it. The system provides bird’s eye view data. We then process the data and give it back to the customer in the form of an actionable report, within a day. With SkyX, customers will be able to save US$3 million to US$5 million a year, for every 500 kilometers. Our customers do not have just 500 km; they have 5,000 km or more.”
Proving its Worth
In July this year, SkyX successfully completed an unmanned data collection flight in China, following up on the success of a major 102-kilometer data collection flight in Mexico in November 2017, which unearthed as many as 200 problems over a gas pipeline Right-of-Way that would have otherwise gone unnoticed. The flights were programmed and monitored remotely from the company’s headquarters in Toronto.
“In any industry that has long range infrastructure, you need to do surveillance and monitoring to know the health of your assets,” says Jason Braverman, SkyX Chief Technology Officer. “SkyX captures all of this data continuously. It can tell you, for the first time in history, what your infrastructure looked like six years ago, a year ago, six months ago, and so on. This is data that companies have never had before. That helps them decide on a better maintenance schedule.”
SkyX is a gamechanger for industries that it targets, says Braverman. “There are oil and gas, and energy companies that now have full squadrons to monitor their assets. They have to maintain helicopters, fixed wing aircraft and pilots. With SKyX, you can get rid of all that. You don’t buy the system; you just pay for the data.”
Technology and Partnerships
The success of the two test flights has added to the buzz about the system. “We are inundated with customer requests from all over the world; we are currently in talks with customers from the U.S., Canada as well as Asia,” says Horn. “We see ourselves as a global company; the opportunities all around Asia are tremendous.”
Oil and gas companies have been the company’s early customers, but the system has been designed in such a way that it can be used to monitor long range infrastructure of any kind, be it railway lines, energy lines or water pipelines or even for coastline monitoring. Apart from visual data in the form of high resolution images and video, the system also collects thermal data, which helps reveal hidden objects and issues such as soil degradation besides being useful in first responder missions.
“The lidar sensor in the UAV essentially maps every centimeter of the path that the UAV flies,” says Braverman. “Lidar data gives us a very accurate picture of what we are seeing, better than what a two- dimensional camera can give us. It gives us depth; if there is crack in the ground, we can see how far it is. We have a customer in Japan that wants to use our system along 12,000 km of high power transmission lines. Right now, they are using a fleet of Bell helicopters. Four times a year, they fly all of these routes and visually inspect the powerlines for sag.”
Although the company’s mission control center is capable of controlling any number of drones in different parts of the world at the same time, the company believes partnerships in different countries is key to success.
“This is the year that SkyX goes from R&D to production and manufacturing, and real deployments,” says Braverman. “Probably in the future, we will open mission control centers in different regions such as Asia and Latin America. If we go to a country, say India or China, we can have an entity represent SkyX in the country while the technology remains in Toronto. We are definitely looking for partnerships.”
Big Plans for the Future
At the recent Farnborough International Airshow, the company not only showcased the system but also gave participants a peep into the future by unveiling the prototype of SkyTwo, its next-generation of UAS. According to Horn, SkyTwo will be market-ready by mid-2019, with test flying planned by this fall.
SkyTwo looks strikingly different from SkyOne, even though it is still a vertical take-off and landing vehicle that transitions to fixed-wing mode. It will have only two propellers instead of the four on SkyOne, thus reducing the weight of the aircraft and making it ideal for applications that need longer distances or heavier payloads.
“SkyTwo will be able to fly 180 kilometers, compared to 100 km for SkyOne,” says Braverman. “That is a significant increase and will help use reduce the number of stations needed to cover a route by almost 50 percent. It will able to stay in the air just short of two hours. SkyOne will remain relevant even after we introduce SkyTwo; we will just have more options.”
The company, which has a test flight center 50 km north of Toronto, has been granted a Special Flight Operations Certificate (SFOC) by Transport Canada to fly line of sight anywhere in Canada outside of controlled airspace. The company expects permission for Beyond the Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) in the near future.
“In ten years, I am pretty sure we will be able to fly anywhere,” says Horn. “Five years from now, we will be flying inside the cities. We will be flying in non-populated areas outside the cities within a year.”