For industrial applications, drones — flying unmanned robots — offer a significantly more affordable, nimble and safer alternative over traditional aircraft or helicopters. However there is one significant drawback. Drones, which are typically powered by lithium batteries, are limited in their flight time and range. With the added weight of sensors and cameras, the average industrial drone can only achieve about 15 minutes of fly time, including take off and landing.
This time constraint has proved to be a huge inhibitor for growth, explains Matthew McRoberts, CEO of Pegasus Aeronautics. “If you are doing a land survey or inspection of a wind turbine, the fact drones today have very limited air time really limits their usability.”
McRoberts and co-founders Joe Kinsella and John Biskey met in residence while studying engineering at University of Waterloo. Over the four years, the three collaborated on various school projects, and in fourth year, McRoberts and Kinsella teamed up for their final engineering capstone. The challenge they sought to tackle: a new solution to extend the range of drones.
“We always knew we wanted to do something that was drone related. Drone range limitation is a well understood challenge within the industrial sector and one of the largest problems facing industrial drone manufacturers, so it was a logical choice,” explains Matt McRoberts.
Many other companies have sought to solve the problem in the past, but most solutions have focused around the battery itself, says McRoberts. “They’ve tried tweaking the battery. Automatic battery swapping. Recharging stations. Even solar power. But they basically are stepping around the primary source of the problem – the battery.”
McRoberts, Kinsella (Biskey joined the team after the initial capstone) decided to chart a different course with their engineering, setting out to create gas/electric (hybrid) powertrain alternative to the battery.
“We felt that a gas/electric hybrid system was the only and best way to solve the problem. But no one had done it before. First, it is very difficult to make gas engines run in the first place. And on top of that, we had to design power electronics that would be lightweight enough they can fit on something that can fly.”
Proving through the capstone that it was possible to create the envisioned powertrain, the team was encouraged by its faculty advisor to found a company to commercialize the technology and Pegasus Aeronautics was born.
FedDev Ontario JumpStart funding, secured through the Accelerator Centre, provided the young company with a critical injection of capital to move forward. “AC JumpStart funding and mentorship was a real tipping point for our business,” says Matt McRoberts. “We were facing two paths post graduation. Leave our technology on the table, or pursue it as a business. AC JumpStart allowed us to take our project and turn it into a real commercial opportunity.”
Access to Accelerator Centre’s team of mentors, provided as part of the JumpStart funding program also provided to be instrumental to the founders. “The mentorship we received totally changed the way we thought about how we would structure business. The mentors — Kevin Hood (sales mentor) in particular urged us to do primary research to really understand our industry, our competitors. It gave us a huge edge on the competition. First, we learned that a universal powertrain would have widest appeal and allow us to partner with all industrial drone manufacturers. Second, we learned that ease of use was critical – researchers in the field are not engine experts. I can’t overstate the contribution Kevin made to our business.”
The team at Pegasus Aero are now readying to bring their final product to market. Over the next few months, they will be doing some field beta testing to collect final feedback, and have customers lined up anxious to get their hands on the company’s unique hybrid powertrain.
“Just to get the job done, field teams using drones today are lugging hundreds of pounds of batteries into the field and are spending $14,000 a year or more per platform in battery costs,” says McRoberts. “Our solution is so easy to use, a field worker can pull the drone out of the back, siphon gas from the truck and be up in the air for 8 times as long. Fortunately for us, marketing around those kinds of advantages is pretty much a no brainer. We help industrial drone manufacturers overcome a really big barrier. So when we explain what we do to folks in the industry, the response is “how soon can get our hands on it?”