February 21, 2020

Altavian taking drone technology to new heights

Imagine being a graduate student working a part-time job in a lab with expert aerospace engineer faculty members and geomatic scientists. Never in your wildest dreams would you imagine that a short time later you would be developing technology for the Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Geological Service.

A modern day “Shark Tank” type success story, Altavian was born out of the UF Micro Air Vehicles (MAV) lab. The three young soon-to-be founders of Altavian first collaborated on a project at UF to develop an unmanned craft that could perform surveys on wildlife in the Everglades.

The co-founders of Altavian, Thomas Reed and Thomas Rambo, were aerospace engineering students, and the third co-founder, John Perry, was studying geomatics in the UF ecology lab. Today, Altavian is an Unmanned Aircraft System design, manufacturing, and solutions provider. They founded the company building on a decade of applied research and development on drone-based surveying and mapping.

“As students, we didn’t join our respective research labs seeking to start an unmanned aircraft system (UAS) company, nor did we ever envision that we would become so heavily involved with the Army. The idea for Altavian organically appeared over time as one opportunity turned into another bigger opportunity and so on,” said Thomas Rambo, Altavian’s Chief Operating Officer.

Shortly after the launch of the company, Altavian began providing UAS to the Army Corps of Engineers for precision 3D modelling (inspection of levees, dams, and bridges) and environmental monitoring (wetland monitoring, coastline maintenance, and landscape restoration). Based on their performance with the Corps, Altavian won a prime contract with the U.S. Army for parts and supplies to the small UAS (sUAS) programs. In the years since, Altavian has grown to become a leading supplier of sUAS to the U.S. Army.

Altavian supports the U.S. Department of Defense with the use of unmanned technology, which helps to keep soldiers safe by providing better situational awareness without exposing themselves to harm. Civil clients use Altavian’s technology to map floodplains in the Mississippi delta to better predict flood models and fly the swamps of the Everglades to monitor the environment. Commercial clients also use drones to reduce pesticide and fertilizers on their crops, inspect power plants for faults that would have taken an inspector climbing a tower, and perform search-and-rescue missions following a natural disaster.

Currently Altavian is a team of a few dozen engineers, scientists, pilots and data enthusiasts who have an unmistakable passion for unmanned technology, an obsession with quality data, and a sense of pride serving the military, Rambo said.

“By far the thing we are most proud of is supporting the Army. Parts that we have designed and manufactured which are actively saving lives is the most important thing we do,” Rambo said.

“On the civil and commercial side, anytime we can perform a task with the drone that otherwise would have been done by a low-altitude aircraft (airplane or helicopter) we feel successful. We’re not here to replace pilots, but instead if we can keep a wildlife biologist counting invasive species, a lineman inspecting power lines, or a pipe inspector surveying an oil line on the ground instead of 100 feet in the air, we are successful.”

Being part of both the UF and Gainesville business community has been very beneficial in cultivating their business.

“The UF Engineering Innovation Institute (within the UF College of Engineering) was foundational to us getting started. We were able to vet our business plan, go through the basics of incorporation and play out different funding scenarios, and learn about entrepreneurship,” Rambo said. “It was a crash course we immediately put to use in founding Altavian. From there we discovered a vibrant startup community within Gainesville with resources from the city, chamber of commerce, and other entrepreneurs.”

The future for Altavian and drone technology is certainly sky-high (pun intended). However, Rambo notes, it’s important for the technology to work hand-in-hand with the government regulations.

“As has been the case for the last decade, the technology outpaces the regulations so it’s not so much a question of what the drones can do. This is a new era where potentially thousands of drones could be flying in the busiest airspace in the world, and we have to figure out a way to make that a reality without risking the safety of our manned counterparts,” Rambo said. “I would expect in the next 10 years to see larger and larger drones flying safely alongside manned aircraft in all classes of airspace. As for Altavian, we’ll be right there providing the vehicles and enabling technology to make that vision a reality.”

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