Putting Sentinel through its paces at EPRI

Putting Sentinel through its paces at EPRI

By Scott Simmie


There’s testing. And then there’s “real-world” testing.

For example, InDro Robotics builds and tests drones and ground robots. We do this constantly, pushing for continuous improvements (and even breakthroughs) with our products. In BC, we’re frequently flying missions to test cellular connectivity or our new proprietary drone software, InDro Pilot.

At Area X.O in Ottawa, we routinely deploy our ground robots on missions to test tele-operations, new sensors, and even autonomous functions. (We have a real advantage here, because Area X.O is made for robots. There are several roads – and even traffic lights – designated for testing and use by autonomous vehicles.)

And while such research always provides us with useful data, it’s just not the same as putting technology to the test in a real-world environment.

That’s why we took Sentinel – our custom-built robot for monitoring and inspection at remote facilities – to Massachusetts.


Autonomous Robots

The EPRI challenge


EPRI stands for the Electric Power Research Institute. It’s a non-profit energy research, development and deployment organisation. EPRI is constantly doing research – collaborating with more than 450 private companies across 45 countries globally. The purpose, according to its website, is to “ensure the public has clean, safe, reliable, affordable, and equitable access to electricity across the globe.” EPRI shares its research with members, which represent virtually all facets of the power generation and delivery sector.

EPRI has multiple research facilities, including one in Lenox, Massachusetts. This particular location features an electrical substation that can be energised, de-energised – and can even simulate rain for testing purposes.

Earlier this year, InDro Robotics was one of a small number of companies to participate in research to analyse the effectiveness of remotely-operated and autonomous ground robots in a variety of conditions. The purpose was to determine the ability of such devices to carry out inspection and monitoring – including whether these robots could detect problems such as arcing.

InDro Robotics Sentinel

The InDro Team


We dispatched InDro Account Executive Luke Corbeth and Robotics Engineer Austin Greisman (along with Sentinel, of course) to the EPRI facility in Lenox, Massachusetts.

“EPRI’s goal for this program was to evaluate technologies that are capable of 24/7 autonomous substation inspection and security monitoring,” explains Corbeth. “This put Sentinel in a real substation environment, to conduct inspections and security patrols amidst powerful electrical currents.”

In fact, there was a series of specific tests during the week-long demonstration. These included all permutations of the following:

  • With the substation energised and de-energised
  • With simulated rain and without rain
  • During daylight and at night

That makes for eight separate missions carried out in different conditions – including an energised substation with simulated rain during nighttime, and a de-energised substation on a clear day.

In addition, each of the above eight missions was carried out both via remote teleoperations – and also autonomously. Factor that in, and there were 16 separate challenges.

And that’s not all. EPRI engineers carried out their own tests on Sentinel, seeing how well it handled inclines, manoeuvres through mud, what weight it could carry at what speeds, and battery life. On these tests, Sentinel performed very well.

“Once we were on site, the value that Sentinel brings to utilities became very apparent – especially identifying thermal signatures to identify (overheating) components onsite or intruders trying to break in,” says Corbeth.

“The performance at night and during simulated rain tests was very successful. They actually have hoses that go overhead and can blast the site with water.”

FYI, the image below is a screenshot from the secure, browser-based controller for Sentinel. The operator can see all key parameters, control propulsion and camera systems, in real-time.


Lessons learned


At the outset, we told you this was very much a real-world test for Sentinel. If this article were simply a piece of marketing, we’d tell you that everything went perfectly. But it didn’t, and there were lessons learned.

For one thing, we discovered that Sentinel’s track-based locomotion – though ideal in numerous demanding terrains – fell somewhat short in the heavy gravel bed of this substation. Pieces of gravel got caught in the tracks from time to time. As a result, we’re now building a rugged wheel-based variant of Sentinel specifically for this kind of surface (though the tracked version will still be available).

We also faced some challenges with autonomous missions. For one thing, at the time of testing Sentinel did not yet have an optical-based docking system for wireless re-charging (it does now). We also originally thought that a GPS-based guidance system would work in this environment. And while it did, we soon realized that SLAM (Simultaneous Localisation And Mapping) would be a better option. That feature will be integrated into Sentinels going forward.

“The opportunity to get onsite enabled us to test our autonomy package and understand what it’s good at, as well as what needs to be improved,” says Corbeth. “We believe we’re well on our way to a complete, 24/7 autonomous solution. I’d say we’re 85 per cent of the way there. This is new technology” 

InDro Engineer Austin Greisman on-site in Lenox with Sentinel

InDro Robotics Sentinel

InDro’s Take


Research and development, as we often say, is at the very core of InDro Robotics.  And a big part of R&D is testing outside of the confines of the lab.

And while we were very pleased with many aspects of Sentinel’s performance in the field, we also identified areas where there was room for improvement. Sentinel is now capable of fully autonomous docking to its wireless charging station, and we’re well along the path with fine-tuning SLAM on this device.

Full autonomy, as many of you know, is a difficult challenge. Whether it’s ground robots or drones, InDro has always taken a “Crawl, Walk, Run” approach. Sentinel is now hitting its stride with walking – and getting ready to run.

InDro Robotics partners with UBC, Rogers, Honeywell on 5G UAV project

InDro Robotics partners with UBC, Rogers, Honeywell on 5G UAV project

By Scott Simmie


Picture a small fleet of drones, flying over an urban centre. They are connected to pilot-observers – and each other – over a 5G network.

Some are carrying critical documents, others prescription medication. The UAVs are flying autonomously, able to avoid any conflicts both with each other and with traditional crewed aviation. One of the drones is powered by a hydrogen fuel cell.

The energy requirements of each flight – factoring in payload, weather and distance were calculated prior to takeoff. The financial cost of each flight is also known, valuable data as companies weigh the business case of drones versus more traditional deliveries.

Sounds valuable to us. And that’s one of the reasons InDro Robotics is part of an ambitious research project, in conjunction with corporate and academic partners, at the University of British Columbia.

Drones Canada



If you’ve been following the work of InDro Robotics, you’ll know that collaboration is a big part of what the company is about.

InDro has partnered with such companies and organisations as NASA, the Canadian Space Agency, Ericsson, the National Research Council – and many others. (If you’re interested in seeing some of our other partnerships, check out the bottom of this page.)

We’re now pleased to announce our latest collaboration: A major project involving the University of British Columbia, Rogers, Honeywell and more.

It’s called the UBC Mini Cities Research project. And it has ambitious goals.

Below: UBC Campus. Photo by Martin Dee / UBC Brand & Marketing


Canada Robotics



Let’s start by taking a look at what the term “Mini-Cities” actually means. For that, we contacted Omar Herrera, Senior Program Manager at UBC.

“UBC is just like a small city,” he says. “It has its own population, its own services, streets, garbage disposal – so it’s like a mini-city, in a way. One of the things we’re interested in with this project is how can we really deploy UAVs in the cities.”

So you can think of the UBC Campus, which is also serviced by a Rogers 5G corridor, as kind of a test-bed to prove the safety, viability and economics of drone deliveries in a major urban centre. What weights and sizes of packages can be delivered and over what range? How many drones can be operated autonomously at a single time over the network? Does 5G connectivity vary with altitude? Can an Unmanned Traffic Management system – to minimise the potential for conflict with low-flying traditional aircraft – be successfully deployed and demonstrated in a mini-city? Can AI use data from previous flights to accurately predict energy demands for future missions? How efficient (and cost-effective) is a hydrogen fuel cell drone when compared with one powered by lithium-polymer batteries?

These are all questions – and there are more – that the project will be answering.

If that sounds like a major task, it is. In fact, InDro has relocated mechanical engineer Keegan Richter from our Vancouver bureau to a lab office at UBC – allowing Richter to work directly with the UBC team and MéridaLabs.

Richter is now InDro’s “traveling scientist,” working on the UBC campus three days a week, connecting with broader engineering departments.” That’s Richter below, on the UBC campus.




“I’m really excited to be working with the MéridaLabs team,” he says. “They’re truly reimagining clean technology.”

Richter is acting as the technical lead for InDro’s proprietary hardware and software (Wayfinder and InDroPilot), serving as liaison between InDro Robotics and other partners, and assisting with project management.

The InDro robotics Wayfinder drone will be flown over 5G using InDroPilot for the first phases of the project. Rogers has supplied a CradlePoint router which will measure and log 5G signal strength along the flight corridor – including at various altitudes. Heat maps created with this data will be used to optimize future flight planning.

“We want to assess the capacity of InDro’s Wayfinder to deliver packages,” explains Richter. “Demonstrating how much, how fast, and how far we can carry essential goods are questions of particular interest to the team.”

A Masters student, working within MéridaLabs, will be crunching the data for energy demands and costs. The goal is to build an AI model that can quickly determine energy needs and ranges for future planned missions. This software could prove to be of great assistance to other UAV companies hoping to conduct deliveries at scale.

Canada Drones

UBC’s Interest


Omar Herrera also has a technical background. He’s a chemical engineer with a PhD in mechanical engineering. He explains that a major project about energy was already underway and that this seemed a logical next step.

“The reason why this all came to be is because we (MéridaLabs) had a project with the University – a large test bed – combining different kinds of energy sources into energy storage. Moving that energy is what really drives us, and our research is related to that.

“One of the visions we have is that transportation doesn’t have to be limited to manned vehicles. And that’s how we got connected with InDro Robotics.”

The project will also capture data to help determine how many drones could potentially be operating simultaneously (and autonomously) in a 5G environment.

“We’re going to look at a few things, including the implications of antennae. Let’s say we have hundreds of drones (in flight) with hundreds of signals underneath. With drones flying autonomously, what would be the threshold for the number of drones that can fly safely (over 5G)?

It’s a good question. And while the project will at one stage involve multiple drones flying simultaneously – there won’t be a real-world test involving hundreds. But Herrera says software developed for the project will be able to predict, based on a small number of drones, what is likely to happen with many more in the air.

You’ll recall Herrera mentioned MéridaLabs is deeply involved with energy and energy storage. This video (which includes drones!) provides a good overview.

InDro’s Take


UBC was North America’s first 5G campus, and this isn’t InDro’s first involvement with the institution. It is, however, the most ambitious.

“This project should produce excellent data – along with further solutions – to enable safe and autonomous BVLOS drone missions and deliveries over 5G,” says InDro Robotics CEO Philip Reece. “We believe the results will be useful not only to project participants, but to the RPAS industry as a whole.

“A world where drones and ground robots carry out important tasks at scale, utilising the bandwidth and power of high-speed networks, is coming. I believe this research is an important part of the way forward.”

Stay tuned. This is a long-term project. But we’ll keep you up to date as we hit milestones along the way.

InDro’s “Drone-in-a-box” captures precision agriculture data without the hassle

InDro’s “Drone-in-a-box” captures precision agriculture data without the hassle

Recently, we told you about a really intriguing InDro Robotics solution.

It’s one that appeals to people who need drone data – but don’t have a drone or a certified pilot. It also appeals to people who like to keep an eye on their money, and can’t quite justify the expense of hiring a contractor to come on-site.

In a nutshell, it works like this: InDro ships you a fully-charged drone with the appropriate sensor for the job. We arrange for a mission time when you’re available and the weather is cooperating.

And then what? You simply pull the drone from the box, follow our instructions over the phone, and we’ll do the flying.

In our recent post, we talked about how this is ideal for solar farms – and it is. But that’s not the only sector where we can help. Our “Drone-in-a-Box” program is also ideal for precision agriculture, an area where it’s helpful to have a professional fly the mission and crunch the data.

And that…looks like this:



You might have noticed that video is from 2017. Which means InDro Robotics is now in its fifth year of offering remotely piloted services.

But some things have changed since that video was produced. We are now capable of remotely piloting using 5G network connections. That translates into near-zero latency for our remote pilots – and more. We now have the ability to stream even extremely dense data directly to the cloud. This means clients with 5G service in their areas have only a minimal wait time before receiving actionable data.

In the early days of this service, InDro would process the data once the drone was returned. With direct-to-cloud uploads, processing can begin literally while the mission is being carried out.

What’s more, literally any kind of aerial inspection can be done in Canada using our system. If you haven’t seen it, please take a moment and check out this more recent video: InDro inspected a large solar farm from more than 500 kilometres away:


InDro’s Take


Precision agriculture requires high-end hardware, software – and expertise. It’s not something the average farmer can simply jump into.

Yet a single flight can provide a wealth of data surrounding moisture, crop health, nutrient levels and more. That data allows farmers to save costs through the precise applications of fertiliser, water, herbicides and insecticides only where they are needed.

Clients have told us they previously shied away from precision agriculture using drones due to cost and complexity. Our “Drone-in-a-Box” is a cost-effective solution that produces results.

If you’re interested in precision agriculture, solar inspections – or any other area where a remotely piloted drone flight can capture meaningful data, get in touch. We’ll ship you a drone, we’ll fly the mission – and you’ll receive the data you need.

Let InDro Robotics pilot your next inspection mission – remotely

Let InDro Robotics pilot your next inspection mission – remotely

Picture this: You run a solar farm. And it’s time for a routine inspection to detect faulty or damaged solar cells.

Traditionally, you’ve inspected using a handheld thermal sensor – hoping to identify any anomalies on your solar panels. It does the job, but it’s time-consuming. You’re aware that drones are capable of carrying out this task much more rapidly, but that’s not a simple solution either. The time and expense of training an in-house pilot to meet the regulatory bar, along with the cost of a drone with a thermal sensor, add up.

What options do you have? Well, you could hire someone from outside on a contract basis. That gets pricey as well, since the fee generally includes travel time and other expenses for the operator. Like most solar farms, your facility is located in a rural area far from the nearest major city.

InDro Robotics is pleased to offer a solution: We ship you a fully-charged drone with thermal sensor, and we fly the mission remotely.

And how does that work? Well, just like this:

Inspections without the hassle


Let’s back up a bit.

InDro created this solution in response to a need. Solar and other industries told us they understood the value proposition of drone inspections but couldn’t justify the cost of purchasing a drone with the appropriate sensor for their needs. Many also said they didn’t need a drone pilot on staff.

And so we started thinking of options that would work within the current regulatory framework. In Canada, as long as the pilot is in contact with a visual observer monitoring the flight, these missions can be carried out without additional permissions beyond notifying NAVCAN of the flight.

“It’s a straightforward solution for solar farms or other clients requiring any form of aerial inspection,” explains Peter King, InDro’s Head of Robotic Solutions. “A qualified pilot instructs the client how to turn on the drone and monitor airspace. A pilot from InDro Robotics takes care of the rest, capturing and delivering meaningful data to the client – and at a significantly lower price point than having a contractor travel to the client’s location.”

And when the drone lands? The client simply powers it off, puts it back in the box, and ships it to the nearest InDro Robotics location (there are five in Canada).


Wait – there’s more!

Remotely Operated Drones

Secure, remotely operated flights


If you follow our news, you’ll be aware we have created our own, proprietary platform for low-latency operations with high data bandwidth. We call the system InDro Pilot, and you can take a deeper dive here.

This system, which includes a special hardware module we’ve developed, is capable of exceedingly low-latency over 5G connections. It can also be operated over 4G as well. So regardless of where you need an inspection, we can carry it out as long as there’s a cellular connection. If that connection is 5G, we have the capability to upload your data in real-time to the cloud for processing – meaning you’ll receive meaningful and actionable data as soon as possible following the flight.

What’s more, the InDro Pilot system also informs traditional aircraft in the vicinity that a drone operation is underway at your location. This “Hear and be Heard” function, using a Software Defined Radio, reduces the likelihood of any conflict with low-flying aircraft.

If you check out the photo below, the black module on our WayFinder contains an Edge processor, high-speed modem, the Software Defined Radio – and much more. This is an integral ingredient in the secret sauce of InDro Pilot.

Canada Drones

InDro’s Take


Not surprisingly, we’re keen on this solution.

But that’s not just because we created it. We truly believe this fills a niche in the marketplace, offering value to those who require top quality data collection and analysis but infrequent flights. For companies requiring up to four annual inspections, missions carried out remotely by InDro Robotics specialists are a cost-effective solution. We simply ship you the drone, ready to fly out of the box. All you have to do is watch the sky and keep in touch with our pilot during the flight – and the data will be your way in no time. And, by the way, InDro Robotics was the first company in North America to carry out a remote inspection in this way.

We are currently offering this solution in Canada. US operations are slightly more complex due to the FAA’s differing regulations, but not impossible.

To learn more of receive a quote for remote data acquisition, contact us here.

Volkswagen reveals passenger-carrying eVTOL

Volkswagen reveals passenger-carrying eVTOL

Volkswagen is entering the Urban Air Mobility world.

The company’s China division has unveiled it has been working on a passenger-carrying e-VTOL – and says it plans to commercialise it down the road. The prototype is called V.MO and is part of Volkswagen China’s Vertical Mobility project.

“Through this pilot project, we are bringing Volkswagen’s long tradition of precision engineering, design, and innovation to the next level, by developing a premium product that will serve the vertical mobility needs of our future tech savvy Chinese customers,” said Dr. Stephan Wöllenstein, CEO of Volkswagen Group China.

“This is a pioneering project which our young team of Chinese experts started from scratch – they are working with new design concepts and materials while developing new safety standards, disrupting and innovating every step of the way. Our long-term aim is to industrialize this concept and, like a ‘Flying Tiger’, break new ground in this emerging and fast-evolving new mobility market.”

The ‘Flying Tiger’ nickname refers to the prototype’s gold and black livery – which you’ll see in the photo below. We’ve added a second image with people for scale.


Volkswagen eVTOL
Volkswagen eVTOL
As you can see, lift comes from eight motors, four on each of the twin booms. Forward thrust comes from two motors. Length of the prototype is 11.2m with a span of 10.6m, so you won’t be landing this in your driveway. Presumably, the commercial version will take off and land from something like a heliport, offering passengers the option to quickly cross a congested city or head to a nearby destination.

“In its final future iteration, the fully electric and automated eVTOL could eventually carry four passengers plus luggage over a distance of up to 200km,” states a Volkswagen news release on the project.

This first prototype appears to be built for unmanned testing and validation. The company says several test flights of V.MO will take place later this year, with plans for an improved prototype to be flying in the summer of 2023.

And what might it look like? Well, probably something like this animation:

Though Volkswagen has plenty of engineering expertise on the ground, making something that flies isn’t really in its wheelhouse. That’s why the company has partnered with Hunan Sunward Technology, a manufacturer of light aircraft and drones.

The press release announcing the prototype made it clear that Volkswagen sees vast potential in Urban Air Mobility and products like these.

“Urban air mobility is a fast-emerging market which aims to utilize air space for short- and medium-distance connections, especially above and between large cities,” it states. “In China, it is set to play a significant role in the future of urban and intercity transportation in its congested megacities. In the first phase of its commercial use, V.MO is likely to be pitched as a premium product for high-net worth tech savvy Chinese customers, for example for VIP air shuttle services. eVTOL air vehicles will be able to transport passengers more quickly and efficiently than current conventional means of terrestrial transport and with greater flexibility. As the Vertical Mobility project develops, Volkswagen Group China will work with the relevant Chinese authorities to achieve certification.”

With the announcement, Volkswagen becomes the latest automotive player to stake a claim in this sector. Honda, Toyota, Aston Martin and others have announced they’re entering the space and have displayed concepts, prototypes or renders of their plans. Hyundai unveiled this Uber Air taxi concept a couple of years back:

Still some hurdles


Will we be seeing these vehicles – in real life – in the years to come?

The answer is yes, but there are still challenges that must be overcome. Urban Air Mobility envisions a future where eVTOLs will transit congested urban centres, whisking passengers who will likely summon these aircraft using mobile apps to nearby take-off and landing sites. UAM will also bring the option of convenient flight traffic between nearby cities where one or both do not have the infrastructure or demand to support traditional fixed-wing aircraft. Plus, the ability to deliver people or goods to central locations in a large city offers a convenience that eludes most traditional airports.

But getting there will take some time. These eVTOLs will face rigid certification, and require a robust Unmanned Traffic Management (UTM) system/network to ensure there’s no conflict with drones or other forms of aviation. Work on those fronts is underway. In fact, the White House even held a special summit on the topic August 3. The goal of that gathering was to explore “the future of aviation in America and the regulatory strategy towards responsible and equitable adoption of these technologies.”

It’s clearly firmly on the radar of regulators.

Multiple designs, including single-person eVTOLs


There are many different companies vying for a piece of this territory. Perhaps the one with the greatest advantage is China’s eHang, which produces one- and two-passenger autonomous vehicles that have carried out a growing number of autonomous flights carrying people. The company is also apparently at work on a two-passenger, fixed-wing eVTOL for longer-range flights.

The company has already carried out autonomous tourism flights and appears to have a spotless safety record.

Personal eVTOLs


In the Urban Air Mobility world, there are greater efficiencies with aircraft capable of carrying multiple passengers (or heavier cargo loads). But some manufacturers are targeting the single-occupant market. Specifically, they’re building products for people who would like to not only pilot these aircraft, but own them.

The leader on this front appears to be Swedish company Jetson, which manufactures a single-person eVTOL that is flown by the pilot. The Jetson One costs $92,000 US and is in production. It’s unclear how many the company will produce annually, but it has received enough orders that Jetson is completely sold out for 2022 and now taking orders to be shipped in 2023.

We can’t resist dropping in another video, because this actually does look like fun.


And finally…a Canadian connection


We’d be remiss if we didn’t point out another very unique company in this space. It’s called Opener, and its vehicle is the BlackFly. It’s a very intriguing design that was the brainchild of a retired Canadian engineer with a fancy for flight. That engineer is Marcus Leng.

He first developed the concept for the amphibious vehicle (yes, it can land on and take-off from water) in 2009. In 2011, he flew the first proof-of-concept prototype from his front yard in Warkworth, Ontario.

Since then? Well, the company has carried out more than 4,300 flights, covering more than 56,000 kilometres. It has flown manned demo flights at the big airshow in Oshkosh, and is about to release the product for sale.

The cost? There’s not a definitive figure yet, but the company promises it will be about the cost of an SUV. It qualifies in the ultralight category, meaning owners won’t require a private pilot’s license.

And yes, we’re pretty intrigued by this. Kudos, Marcus Leng. Oh – and this video? It’s from back in 2018, so we can only imagine what refinements have been made since then.

InDro’s Take


As we know from our extensive work in the aerial and ground robotics worlds, technology continues to rapidly advance. That translates into better components, flight controllers, battery efficiency, simulations – and, ultimately, reliability and safety.

There is still a ways to go, as mentioned, on the certification and UTM front for many of the multi-passenger vehicles under development. But we do see such aircraft taking hold in the future – offering new and more sustainable options for the delivery of goods and people over short distances.

If you’re interested in this field, we highly recommend you check out the Canadian Advanced Air Mobility Consortium. The organization already has some 70 members (including InDro Robotics) who are working collaboratively to help shape the future and work with regulators. Advanced Air Mobility/Urban Air Mobility promises a future of exciting possibilities that will benefit both passengers and communities, particularly since many of these aircraft can be used to deliver critical goods and supplies on-demand and autonomously.

It’s a future we look forward to – and it’s definitely on the horizon.