Skygauge and the rise of task-specific drones

Skygauge and the rise of task-specific drones

Today, we take a dive into a pretty cool drone company.

That company is Skygauge Robotics. It’s a Canadian firm featuring an innovative drone design purpose-built for highly specialized inspections. It’s unconventional and breaks the traditional quadcopter mold.

And what is that mold? Four fixed motors, four fixed rotors – and a common sensor.


Tried and true…


With rare exceptions – such as fixed-wing drones and fixed-wing VTOLs for longer-range missions – most drones are variations on the above theme. The quad-rotor design has become the industry workhorse, and rightfully so. Quad-copters (or X8 configurations) are reliable, maneuverable, and they get most jobs done. The main differentiator between these drones, when it comes to use-case scenarios, has been sensors/payload.

End-users tend to either purchase drones with the sensors needed for the job or get a machine that allows you to swap payloads.

For a recreational pilot, that sensor is nearly always a camera. First Responders often want drones with thermal capabilities, allowing them to assess fires or search for missing persons (particularly at night) by identifying their heat signature. Other end-users might require LiDAR, precision agriculture sensors – even molecular sniffers that can detect gas leaks, the presence of toxic chemicals or measure overall air quality. Plus, of course, some operators simply want to move goods, meaning the payload is the cargo itself (though always with a camera).

All good, right? Well, to a point.

Though there’s been a rapid growth in sensors, there are some jobs for which the standard quadcopter design simply isn’t well-suited. Tasks like inspecting ductwork, chimneys, the interior of large pipes or other confined spaces are generally not a great fit for quads. Identifying that shortfall is what led Flyability to create the ground-breaking Elios (and now, Elios 2) drone.

Though technically still a quad, the Elios flies within its own collision-resistant cage, allowing it to go places where other drones cannot. If you haven’t seen it before, check out the video.

Specialized drone designs


The point is that, in addition to new sensors, we’re now seeing the development of highly specialized drones for specific applications. The UK firm HausBots is another company with a very different spin on traditional drone design. Its machine can seemingly defy gravity by “sticking” to walls as it climbs them using wheels. It uses rotors to create the pressure differential necessary for it to be held against the wall.

HausBots are being used for visual inspection, Non-Destructive Testing – even tasks like painting. As you’ll see, it gets up close and personal with the surface in a way that would not be possible with a standard quadcopter design:


Skygauge Robotics


With that context out of the way, we wanted to introduce you to an innovative Canadian company called Skygauge Robotics. It has created a very unique drone intended for very specific applications. Its design is unlike anything else we’ve seen.

And why is that? Well, the motors (and protected rotors) can be vectored to direct thrust. This allows the drone to be positioned in ways that would be impossible with a standard quadcopter design. Instead of simply hovering parallel to the ground, the Skygauge machine can vector its eight motors to allow the drone to hold its position (or maneuvre) while the entire machine is at a pilot-defined angle. This can include even contact with the surface of a structure while remaining in hover.

Before we get into why that matters, just take a look at this short video from Skygauge. Though it has eight motors, this is definitely not a traditional drone design.

The drone reinvented


We’ve borrowed that headline from the Skygauge website, along with this definition: “The Skygauge uses patented thrust-vectoring technologyto achieve the most stable and precise flight of any drone yet, making it ideal for carrying out industrial work.”

And, says Skygauge, this design is perfectly suited to a specific type of application: Ultrasonic testing, which requires a probe to make contact with the surface of the object of interest. Check out this video, which shows the Skygauge system in action:

Non-Destructive Testing


That probe is using ultrasound to carry out Non-Destructive Testing, or NDT. This kind of testing can measure the thickness of metal walls, protective coatings and more. The Skygauge drone comes equipped with an Olympus 38DL Plus gauge, capable of collecting a wide range of data. With swappable tips on the probe, even the integrity of weld joints or corrosion can be assessed.

In the absense of a suitable drone, such tests would normally have to be carried by a person holding this sensor up against a surface. In sectors like oil & gas or shipping, this requires scaffolding and even expensive shutdowns so that a human being can safely carry out these tests.

The Skyguage system offers massive efficiencies, with many inspections carried out in a single day by a two-person crew – and without requiring mechanical shut-downs. It’s the only drone using this design we’ve seen (though companies like Voliro Airborne Robotics are also in the NDT sphere with new styles of drones).

Funny thing is, the Skygauge drone was not initially designed with these applications in mind.


Indro Idea Lightbulb

Cart before the horse…


We spoke with CEO Nikita Iliushkin about his company, and how it got started back in 2016. Interestingly, co-founder and Chief Design Officer Linar Ismagilov invented the design before figuring out precisely what the final use-case scenario would be. A Mechanical Engineer, Ismagilov simply knew there would be applications for a drone that could come into physical contact with a surface – and Iliushkin (who attended the Schulich School of Business) could also see the potential:

“At the time, we didn’t know exactly what it would be capable of doing, we just thought it was a cool project to work on,” explains Iliushkin.

Next step? The duo succeeded in finding another Founder (a fortuitous match made via AngelList in seven days).

“That’s literally like finding a partner on any dating site and marrying them within a week,” laughs Iliushkin. “It’s like, technically, that’s possible – but the odds are one in a 1,000, one in 10,000.”



Skygauge Robotics was on its way, though it quickly discovered that even startups with a great idea can face challenges when it comes to attracting capital.

“No investors would fund us – so we initially funded the first prototype on our student loans,” continues Iliushkin, who had luckily invested in Bitcoin. He cashed out his stock in late 2017 and put all of it in the company.

With that capital, Skygauge built its first flying model and was able to start testing the capabilities of the product. One thing was immediately clear.

“This design had radically different capabilities that other drones do not,” he says.


A solution in search of a problem


Its maneuverability and ability to make contact with a surface meant this drone would be a good fit for a variety of aerial tasks, including painting or even power-washing. But as Ismagilov refined the technical elements, Iliushkin focused on exploring business use-cases, looking to find the niche that might best suit this highly unusual design. It was during this phase that he discovered Non-Destructive Testing (NDT) using ultrasonic sensors. They knew they had a fit.

“The same way that doctors use ultrasound to see inside of people, drones can use ultrasound to see inside of metals,” explains Iliushkin. The team quickly realized its drone could be used for this kind of inspection on virtually any metal infrastructure – everything from offshore drilling platforms to ships to petroleum refineries.

“What we found was that drones today can’t do this and apply consistent force to take these readings. So drones have largely not seen adoption in this contact-based work.”

As the company’s website explains:

“Large challenges exist in the NDT industry surrounding worker safety and high-cost inspections. Using a drone would eliminate worker risk, cut downtime, and reduce costs associated with equipment rental. Thus, the Skygauge was conceived. With the help of CTO Maksym Korol, the drone’s engineering was refined and advanced. Together, the three founders assembled a team of highly capable engineers and set out to revolutionize the industrial inspection industry.”

And some of those inspection jobs? Using people, they can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in scaffolding, shutdown costs and protective gear. Skygauge Robotics could disrupt the old way of doing things.


A ringing endorsement


The Skyguage Robotics team approached Dave Kroetsch, the former President/CEO/CTO of Aeryon Labs – which designed and manufactured high-performance UAS for military, public safety, and critical infrastructure inspection. Aeryon was purchased by FLIR in 2019 for $200 million, and Kroetsch was looking to share his expertise with other startups.

Though Kroetsch was actively assisting startups in other tech spaces, he wasn’t particularly looking to jump back into the drone world. But once he heard the pitch from Skygauge Robotics in late 2019, he could see the company was definitely onto something.

Instead of just another quadrotor, Vertical Takeoff and Landing craft that had been done 10 ways till Sunday…These guys came with a platform that was different, funded well enough that they could actually execute,” Kroetsch tells us.

He could also see, in this startup, echoes of the early Aeryon days – which resonated with him.

“I continue to tell the stories, regale the new startups about the challenges of making things fly and how much harder it is than things that operate on the ground,” he says. “When your code crashes and the drone crashes, it’s not just like it just sits there and stops working: It falls out of the sky and crashes spectacularly or flies away or something of that nature. So it’s definitely a hard business.”

Kroetsch has expertise not only as an engineer, but also a highly successful entrepreneur. He knew that the current enterprise market for standard quadrotor drones was pretty much saturated – and that significant money would not materialize for simply another variation on a theme.

But the Skygauge team had something new. In fact, so new and innovative that CEO Iliushkin and Chief Design Officer Ismagilov were singled out for recognition on the Forbes 30 under 30 list.  

“What they had was something very innovative. I’d seen the simplicity of a quadrotor design, but also the limitations. And that limitation is being able to do that (contact) work at height,” explains Kroetsch. “For me this is a capability that opens up a whole new swath of opportunity.”

(Here’s Dave, below, in a screengrab from our interview.)

A huge market


Skygauge Robotics could see there was a huge potential market. Kroetsch quickly realized this, as well. And when he accompanied the Skygauge Robotics team to a recent conference for the oil & gas sector in Texas, the reaction from the convention floor confirmed it. People came to the booth throughout the show, saying this was precisely the kind of solution needed.

And, says Kroetsch, he’s continuing to learn of more use-cases for the Skygauge product.

“One is doing tank inspection inside of tanker ships,” he says.

“Today they’ll drain the oil out of tank, then actually fill it with water, and put a boat in it and put inspectors on that boat as they take measurements and whatnot from the inside. As you can imagine, this is generating thousands of gallons of contaminated water, at a cost of millions of dollars to deal with this in an environmentally friendly manner. So to be able to go and do some of these applications in some of these environments without the environmental footprint I think is really, really valuable.”

Kroetsch says the documentation and governance he saw when coming on board was also quite “mature” for a young startup, likely owing to CEO Nikita Iliushkin’s business training.

And it’s that business head that has Skygauge Robotics opting not to sell its product the traditional way.


Leasing model


Skygauge is now taking orders (and deposits) from customers interested in leasing its drones on an annual basis. We’ve seen this model with Percepto, and suspect it will grow in popularity – particularly for highly specialized drones. Under the leasing model, customers will receive upgrades as the technology improves.

Dave Kroetsch believes it’s the best approach for both the company and its customers.

“One of the benefits of a leasing model comes from the continuous improvement and change in technology. It makes sense (to purchase outright) when you’re buying a dump truck; that dump truck is going to operate exactly the way you need it to for the next 15 years, whatever your useable life of the vehicle is. An asset like this is very different. You’re going to want the continuous improvements that are coming.”


Coming soon


Skygauge Robotics is now on the fourth iteration of its NDT drone and is gearing up production to start shipping to customers, likely in Q1 2022. Kroetsch is not only confident in the capabilities of this product, but believes we’ll see more and more highly specialized drones come to market in future.

“Absolutely,” he says. “Indisputably. What we will see going forward in the (drone) industry at large is specialization of manufacturers and of products tailored to a specific market.” 

Skygauge CEO Iliushkin knows the market is there. He’s done an immense amount of research over the years, learning along the way that most refineries and offshore oil platforms etc. have already adopted the standard quadcopter for visual inspections. But their maintenance crews and engineers, he says, have been clamouring for an NDT solution.

“The drone industry has reached an inflection point for drones for visual inspection. The next leap is going to be in this ultrasonic testing space.”

And Skygauge Robotics? It’s ready for contact.


InDro’s view:


As a company focused on engineering and R&D, InDro Robotics celebrates innovation. We’re pleased to see the progress Skygauge Robotics has made – and also applaud that this is a Canadian company.

Because we build our own specialized solutions for end-users, we also agree with the assessments from Kroetsch and CEO Iliushkin: The future of drones and robotics will become increasingly specialized, with task-specific products for the markets and clients that require them. (That’s why we’ve developed products like ROLL-E and Commander.)

We wish Skygauge Robotics all the best – and look forward to seeing this unique piece of engineering in action.

When it comes to Last Mile, InDro’s ROLL-E delivers

When it comes to Last Mile, InDro’s ROLL-E delivers

By Scott Simmie, InDro Robotics


Picture this: You’re expecting an important delivery at home.

But instead of peeking out the window to spot a cargo truck or van, you’re awaiting a text. One minute before delivery, your phone pings with a notification and a QR code.

You look outside and see it approaching: A small robot. It pulls up directly in front of your steps (possibly even climbs the steps). You head outside and present your QR code to a reader on the robot. Once it has scanned to confirm, the lid protecting the cargo bay unlocks and slides open. You remove your package and go back inside. Before you’ve even closed the door, the robot has already moved on.

The transaction was rapid and contactless. The robot did not emit any CO2.

A decade ago, such a scenario would have sounded a bit like sci-fi. Not anymore. Such deliveries are coming – and not solely for the purpose of convenience.

Some context


On any given day, on any given street in North America, a large truck or cargo van is likely to come down the road. Inside? Groceries, clothing, electronics, books and more – on their way to people’s homes and businesses.

Even prescription medications are delivered by many pharmacies – which can be particularly helpful for those who may have mobility issues or lack access to transportation. Deliveries are now so ubiquitous that these vehicles have become part of the urban landscape.

But while deliveries have grown exponentially over the past couple of decades, so too have concerns about the efficiency – or inefficiency – of this approach. And that conversation now focuses on something known as the Last Mile.

That, and the potential for robots to become part of a cleaner and more cost-effective solution.


The Last Mile


The Last Mile phrase refers to the final, critical but inefficient phase of any delivery: Getting the product down that last path to its ultimate destination. That destination is most often the home of a consumer. But it might be to a client, waiting for just-in-time parts. Ultimately, it could be anything, to anyone, anywhere. And with the global pandemic, demand for delivery of everything from soup to nuts to meals has skyrocketed.

Currently, nearly all these deliveries are carried out by vehicles powered by internal combustion engines. It’s one thing to load up a truck with parcels headed from a warehouse in a suburb to, say, Toronto. That part of the voyage can be fairly efficient, because there’s a large volume of goods all initially headed in the same general direction. But things become far less efficient once that truck starts heading down scores of residential streets. Things slow down, more fuel is burned, and costs add up.

Here’s how Business Insider describes the problem:

“In a product’s journey from warehouse shelf, to the back of a truck, to a customer doorstep, the “last mile” of delivery is the final step of the process — the point at which the package finally arrives at the buyer’s door. In addition to being a key to customer satisfaction, last mile delivery is both the most expensive and time-consuming part of the shipping process…

That “last mile” is more costly than you might realize.

“As a share of the total cost of shipping, last mile delivery costs are substantial — comprising 53% overall. And with the growing ubiquitousness of “free shipping,” customers are less willing to foot a delivery fee, forcing retailers and logistics partners to shoulder the cost. As such, it’s become the first place they’re looking to implement new technologies and drive process improvements.”


Delivery by drone

Drone Delivery

The image above is from trials InDro Robotics carried out with London Drugs, Canada Post, and Country Grocer on Salt Spring Island. We demonstrated how delivering medications can save time – and potentially lives – by getting prescriptions quickly to people in remote communities. In some of these deliveries, the consumer would have had to travel by hours and take ferries to pick up medications that were delivered in minutes. In the case of products like an Epipen, or Narcan (used to save lives during opioid overdoses), minutes and even seconds can count.

In fact, InDro was a Canadian leader in delivering COVID-19 tests by drone, allowing health care providers on an island-based First Nations community to remain at their clinic – rather than travelling a full day to deliver and pick up test kits. (You’ll find our story on this here.)

But while drones can receive regulatory permission for these kinds of remote flights, we’re still some ways off from routine aerial deliveries to consumers in urban areas. The world of Advanced Air Mobility is certainly coming (see our deep dive into the topic here), but the regulatory landscape will take time to ensure that crewed and uncrewed aircraft can routinely (and safely) share the same airspace when it comes to cities. 

We’ve all seen the exciting vision of drones flying packages right to your doorstep, but in many cases it’s not the best solution,” explains InDro Robotics CEO Philip Reece.

“Ground robots can bring many of the same solutions with no impact on airspace – and due to their compact size they can utilize existing infrastructure. I’m confident in the future we’ll see drones and ground robots enabling delivery by working in unison, but that will take some time.”

And that brings us to UGVs, or Uncrewed Ground Vehicles. Specifically, an InDro-developed delivery product we call    ROLL-E.


ROLL-E delivers


ROLL-E has been designed by InDro’s engineering team to be part of the Last Mile solution. And there are very specific reasons why the company has chosen to develop this product.

First of all, UGVs are not subject to the same regulatory framework as aerial vehicles, so UGVs can be deployed in urban centres now. In fact, a company called Tiny Mile is already delivering meals in Toronto with its “Geoffrey” platform – and was just featured in this McLean’s magazine article. Though Geoffrey gets a lot of attention from curious pedestrians, this kind of delivery will become commonplace in the years to come. Plus, as noted earlier, we’re in an era of unprecedented global demand for deliveries – coupled with mounting concern over the environment and greenhouse gas emissions. The time is right for a green and efficient solution.

And that’s where ROLL-E fits in.

Last Mile Delivery Robot

ROLL-E is built on the AgileX Scout 2.0 platform. But that’s only the beginning. While platforms like the rugged and reliable Scout are great, they require software and hardware – and generally a lot of tweaking – to transform them into fully-functioning robots.

We did that by integrating another InDro innovation that we call ROS-IN-A-BOX, or RIAB. You can read all about RIAB here, but the key point is that it’s a hardware/software solution that relieves the end user of the tedious task of integrating the Robot Operating System software, plus any other hardware or sensors (such as cameras), and getting them all to work properly together.

With RIAB built in to ROLL-E, the customer has a solution onboard that will allow them to begin running remote deliveries via cellular connection. They simply drive ROLL-E using a gaming controller while watching its path, in real-time, from a remote location via a browser-based console.

Simple to operate


ROLL-E is a snap to operate – whether you’re across town or across the country. (In fact, during one recent internal company demo, an InDro employee who had zero background with ROLL-E operated a mission at our Area X.O location in Ottawa from her home in Vancouver.)

UGVs have lower barriers to entry than UAVs for deliveries,” explains Luke Corbeth, an InDro Account Executive specializing in UAV and UGV solutions with a specific focus on delivery.

“They can be setup and deployed quickly, don’t require certified operators and have notably less regulations – this means deliveries can happen anytime at a moment’s notice.”

And throughout the delivery, the robot operator can see what ROLL-E sees, in real-time. The screengrab below was taken from the console while running a demo at our Area X.O facility in Ottawa.

Last Mile Delivery Robot

With ROLL-E’s ample and insulated storage, its top compartment can be divided in two, allowing (for example) for the shipment of frozen goods on one side of the center divider, with non-refrigerated goods on the other. Or, in cases with larger objects, the divider can be removed entirely. This is InDro’s second-generation ROLL-E.

Delivery Robot

Accessible, but not autonomous


As noted, ROLL-E requires a human operator with eyes on the road. And while ROS-in-a-BOX platforms are AI capable, this is not an autonomous vehicle.

“It’s critical that it’s not misconstrued as autonomous in any way,” says Engineering Manager Arron Griffiths. “ROS-in-a-BOX is autonomous capable – it has the capacity to put autonomous software on it. But the real core advantage here is the ability to carry teleoperation over 4G and 5G networks.”

In other words, as long as there’s a cellular network at each end, ROLL-E can be operated remotely from anywhere.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that InDro won’t make a fully autonomous product using a LiDAR sensor, SLAM (Simultaneous Localization And Mapping) and obstacle avoidance down the road. It simply means that for this road,    ROLL-E is ready to go.

And – seriously – you could learn how to operate it in an hour. (It also features wireless charging, so no plugging in or battery removal required.)


Delivery Robot

Building simple solutions


That concept, of doing the heavy technical lifting so that end-users can deploy a simple and pain-free solution, is at the core of InDro’s R&D philosophy: Build innovative things that work reliably and are easy for the end-user to operate.

“We develop specialized robotic solutions for our customers so they can do what they do best and then simply add our solution on to their existing transportation options,” says Philip Reece.

“InDro looks to make using ground robots easy. Working together we can make the end customer experience easier, more convenient and even fun. Who wouldn’t want their groceries delivered right to their door by a friendly robot?”

Or anything else, for that matter.


InDro’s view


Robots are already beginning to play a role in the Last Mile solution. This is particularly true in China, where robotic vehicles making deliveries are becoming commonplace in cities like Shenzhen. And they’re already making inroads in North America, with even Amazon running trials.

Like ROLL-E, the Amazon robot has been designed to make Last Mile deliveries more efficient, while using current infrastructure (sidewalks, crosswalks, even paths through parks) without being obtrusive.

Products like ROLL-E will play a significant role in the future both by delivering securely and safely – and helping to ease the burden of that last, critical mile.

If you’re interested in what ROLL-E might do for your company, you can get more information (and possibly even drive it remotely!) by contacting Luke Corbeth here.