Ten years ago, a team of University of Florida biologists and engineers decided to develop an unmanned airplane to capture certain kinds of data, such as field research on migratory birds or invasive species, without using helicopters.
Their goal was two-fold. They wanted to improve the quality of the data they were getting, and, more importantly, they wanted to save lives.
Little did they know their solution might launch an entirely new industry where unmanned aircraft aren’t just used on war fronts or in spy movies, but serve vital roles in a variety of civilian contexts.
Initially, the UF team was looking for an alternative to manned helicopters, which provided spotty data and placed researchers in danger. “[Helicopters] have to fly very, very low to the ground to see the species they’re attempting to count,” explains current team member John Perry. Some of those low flights resulted in deadly crashes, he says.
So the UF group started work on alternatives. Now, after several people have graduated and moved on, current team members Brandon Evers, John Perry, Thomas Rambo and Thomas Reed say their product is ready to launch. The four Gator graduate students have formed a company named Altavian to construct and market unmanned aircraft for commercial uses in science and engineering.
Their craft, which weighs about 10 pounds and is named Nova 2.1, is launched into the air by throwing it. Once in the air, it’s fully autonomous because it’s guided by an autopilot. It can land on the ground or in the water.
“It’s a sleek little airplane,” Perry says.
What really makes this plane attractive to scientists and engineers is its efficiency in collecting high-quality data, Perry says. Using GPS and a high-resolution camera, the plane captures better data that a helicopter, Perry says. There’s more detail, it’s cheaper so they can deploy it more often and it’s more consistent, he adds.
“There’s a demand for it out there. It’s something that’s needed by scientists and engineers,” Perry explains. “And we’re trying to fill that demand for them.”
While there are many potential applications for the plane, including research on migratory birds, monitoring for invasive aquatic plants or checking levies or other infrastructure, current federal regulations bar unmanned aircraft from being used in many applications where they might interfere with piloted aircraft.
There is legislation pending in Congress about changing those rules and making a path for unmanned aircraft in the commercial arena, Perry says, but there’s no guarantee when and if it will pass.
“It would definitely open up the market,” he says. But, the limitations don’t really concern Perry at this point because the unmanned planes can be used by public agencies under current rules and “many of the most critical applications are in the context of public agencies,” he says.
With those uses in mind, the Altavian team is now introducing their product to the public research market.
“It’s a matter of educating the scientist and engineers about what’s now available and getting that word out there,” says Perry, who has worked on the plane for five years while earning his doctorate at UF.
The team understands learning curves—it took five generations of graduate students to refine their plane’s technology to create something that met all of the specific research and data-collecting needs.
“I think this is a story of specialization,” Perry says. “You wouldn’t send your grandma to Ohio in a fighter jet. We’re having to create a special plane for a special task.”
With Nova 2.1, the four partners in Altavian were able to get the reliability and ease of operation they wanted, and with it, they might spark a new industry.
“There are going to be new and growing opportunities, particularly if the regulations clear up,” Perry says. “If it’s possible, we’d really like to pursue this as a career, all of us.”
Gainesville’s Innovation Culture Helped Altavian Take Off
While Altavian isn’t an official UF spinoff, the team definitely turned to UF’s entrepreneurial programs for guidance as they looked to turn their lab work into their day job.
Their biggest challenge was finding a business plan that would work for them, Perry says.
“As an emerging industry, there are a lot of niches to fill,” he says. “You could manufacture them, repair them or service them.”
As of right now, Altavian is focusing on manufacturing the planes.
The Innovation Institute at the College of Engineering provided a tremendous amount of guidance and assistance, and a class on entrepreneurship in the College of Business helped them to set down their business plan.
UF’s Office of Technology Licensing was very upfront with how to get the technology out of the lab and into the business arena, including licensing issues, Perry says.
“I think they’ve been critical,” Perry says of the expertise coming out of UF’s business-generating programs.
And it hasn’t just been UF nurturing this young company, Perry says. Gainesville’s business community has been very supportive of the start-up, including Santa Fe’s Center for Innovation and Economic Development’s incubator.
“There’s been a whole ecosystem in Gainesville to get us started,” he says.
Altavian is starting to take flight, Perry says. They’re concentrating on generating revenue because four graduate student budgets don’t cut it as investment capital, he adds.
Now that the company is growing, investors are much more willing to talk to them.
“What we really have to do is pay for at least four engineer salaries,” Perry says of their short-term goals.
As to long-term plans, Perry says the company plans to continue to manufacture the planes in Gainesville because it’s cost-effective to do it locally.
“That would be a point of pride for us to be able to keep jobs in America,” Perry adds.
In addition, Gainesville has a great environment for their kind of industry, with other companies focused on similar robotic technologies and unmanned aircraft in this area.
“That’s all the support we need,” he says. “We’re looking to grow here.”