Freefly gets on Blue sUAS, shows off hybrid drone @AUVSI XPONENTIAL

Freefly gets on Blue sUAS, shows off hybrid drone @AUVSI XPONENTIAL

Freefly systems has news – and cause to celebrate.

The company’s Alta X drone platform has been elevated to a very desirable status.

“Our Alta X was approved for the Defense Innovation Unit’s Blue sUAS list, which is huge for us,” says Freefly Chief Technical Officer Max Tubman. The ‘list’ is a small collection of drones that have been vetted for cybersecurity and components to ensure it meets the standards of the federal National Defense Authorization Act. It’s also seen as kind of an approved list of drones for purchase by the Department of Defense and many federal agencies using federal dollars for their spend.

“Going through the DIU process, basically has a third party validate all of your claims,” says Tubman. “They look at your supply chain, build material, operations, make sure your drones are secure from a cybersecurity standpoint. It allows federal agencies and private companies to know they’re buying an approved drone. And certain government agencies require that.”

Tubman says the company has already seen a significant boost in sales. What’s more, the company’s Astro drone is in the queue for the next round of potential approvals.

“It’s a big boon, yes. There are certain federal agencies that have just been waiting to replace fleets of aircraft so it will unlock at lot for them.”

That’s Tubman below, looking justifiably happy beside the Astro.


Hybrid en route


While the Blue sUAS news is big for Freefly, there’s some other big news in the wings. A new drone was on the floor, and it’s a marked departure from previous Freefly offerings. It’s a hybrid drone, using a gas-powered engine to generate power. And that’s a big deal.

“It has a four kilowatt, fuel-injected engine which allows you to fly for much longer time. We’re looking at LiDar payloads in the 10-12 pound range and flight times of 2-1/2 hours while remaining under 55 pounds.”

That’s something. Here’s a look at the Hybrid Hawk, which will likely be on the market by the end of the year.



The hybrid advantage


If you follow drones, you’ll know that the flight time for that kind of payload is pretty awesome. But what’s the secret sauce? The answer is that while lithium polymer batteries are great – they’re no match for the energy-to-weight ratio of gasoline (and this is actually a multi-fuel machine). It’s even better and more easy to deploy, says Tubman, than hydrogen fuel cell machines.

“It’s much easier and accessible than a hydrogen fuel cell,” says Tubman. “Hydrogen has a high energy density but a low power density, whereas gasoline has both a high energy density and high power density compared to a fuel cell.”


A Canadian Connection


While Freefly is a US company, there was a collaboration with a Canadian company to get this machine made. The motor/generator combo was designed and fabricated by Pegasus Aeronautics, a company based in Waterloo, Ontario. Two of the Pegasus guys are in the photo above, with one holding the engine. Here’s a closer look at that powerplant.




Obviously, this kind of range has its advantages for inspection, surveillance and more. But it’s also hugely advantageous in remote regions where operators might not have access to power. What’s more convenient? Packing in thousands of dollars worth of charged batteries for a major job, or taking in a jerry can of gasoline?

“Having to haul batteries out into the field is basically a non-starter for a lot of these applications,” says Pegasus CEO and founder Matt McRoberts. “The ability to refuel a UAV and put it in the air and have it do useful work is important.”

And, for the geeks among us, here’s more about the advantage.

“The intention is that we take gasoline and use that as an energy storage method, which we can then transform to electricity,” he says. “As a consequence of gasoline having 40-50 times the gravimetric energy density as LiPo batteries, these types of systems can stay in the air much longer, up to eight to 12 times as long, depending on the application.” 

Cool. So why aren’t we seeing tons of drones using gasoline to create electricity and extend flight times? Well, there are others – but not that many. And the answer, quite simply, is that extracting that efficiency to its fullest potential is no easy task.

“The process of turning gasoline into useful energy is very challenging across the board,” says McRoberts. “We had to develop in-house fuel injection systems, power management systems that work in concert with one another in order to make a system that is well-optimised, efficient and – most important – easy to use.”

What’s more, the Hybrid Hawk has software designed for BVLOS flight, including continuous monitoring of telemetry, motor health, power output and more. You can even start the engine remotely.

The motor’s spec sheet reveals that it’s a two-stroke, liquid-cooled cylinder. Other specs include:

  • Four kilowatt power output
  • Operational voltage from 24 thru 50V
  • CAN, Serial, redundant PWM signals interface protocols
  • Automatic throttle control
  • Operation times before overhaul: 200 hours
  • Ingress Protection: Up to IP67

There’s more there, too, if you read the fine print. Kudos to the engineers at Pegasus for pulling this together. It’s certainly no small task to build something like this.


InDro’s Take


We can certainly envision the use-case scenarios for a UAS like this. The range and payload capacities open up a very wide door, particularly in remote and harsh environments where charging is not available, or the job is a big one. There’s a lot more efficiency in sending a drone up once for a large photogrammetry/data acquisition project, rather than doing it in bits and pieces. We also see great potential for deliveries beyond the range of most LiPo powered drones. And even on a very long delivery, it’s a simple task for people at the other end to refuel with standard gasoline (mixed with oil, of course), rather than ensuring charged batteries are awaiting for the return trip.

We look forward to seeing this drone get out of the gate, into production, and into real-world applications.

Steerable drone/cargo chutes from AVSS gain interest @AUVSI’s XPONENTIAL

Steerable drone/cargo chutes from AVSS gain interest @AUVSI’s XPONENTIAL

A Canadian company, well-known for its drone parachute systems, has a new and innovative product. It’s a steerable parachute that can drop cargo – or even a drone with a technical malfunction – where you want it to go.

The company is called AVSS (Aerial Vehicle Safety Solutions) and it was founded in 2017.

“AVSS is a parachute recovery system. We build parachutes for DJI products as well as special integrations. We are a spring-based product, we don’t use a pyrotechnic solution,” explains Mariah Murray, VP of Operations with AVSS.

The pod-like systems are built to integrate with more expensive DJI drones, as well as some other custom integrations. You can see a pod integrated on the top of this DJI industrial drone.

Steerable Drone

How does it work?


Well, there’s a fair bit of technology packed into the standard, non-steerable chutes (we’ll get to steerable in a moment). Each one is custom-tuned to know when something has gone wrong with a specific drone.

According to AVSS CEO Josh Ogden, the chutes deploy if a drone “breaches certain thresholds of the drone’s regular flight parameters.” For example, if the drone suddenly rolls or pitches at angles exceeding what the drone is capable of in normal flight, algorithms trigger the system to deploy. A minute time-delay is built-in to ensure it’s a genuine problem and not a brief anomaly.

“Some time delays to prevent false deployment,” says Ogden, adding that AVSS generally works in concert with drone manufacturers in order to “know what failure looks like.”

The systems are not inexpensive – but nor are the drones they’re designed for. For DJI’s M300, a system is $3600 and $1900 for the Mavic 3 (though there are lower price points.) But, wow, at the moment you need it you’ll be happy the system is there.

“As a parachute company, we’re there to exist, but no one needs to know we exist,” says Ogden. “It’s like an airbag in your car – you only know when your drone has failed.”


Mavic Pro

Steerable chutes


AVSS also recently launched its latest product, a steerable chute that can be used for cargo or the salvation of an errant drone. It’s called the Parachute Precision Guidance System, or PPGS.

With cargo, you pre-program the GPS coordinates where you want the package to land. You drop it as close to the desired landing location as possible, and servos adjust the chute’s control lines during descent.

“We have servos pulling the lines, so it’s like a paraglider,” says Ogden. The software is thinking “this is home point, I need to get there. It’s trying to navigate.”

And navigate it does. AVSS says the guided drops will consistently land within a few metres of the target. Here’s a look at that steerable chute package, along with a remote with a giant red button if you need to manually deploy.

Ogden says it’s intended for urgent missions.

“This is military re-supply, I’ve got to get ammo to a front line, or blood to someone who is about to die. Critical missions.”


Ontario trials


The system has also been tested in northern Ontario, and there’s an InDro Robotics angle. We supplied a Wayfinder heavy-lift drone to drop cargo with a steerable chute to a First Nations community in Ear Falls.

“Looking at using drones to deliver critial supplies to the First Nations community,” says Ogden. “This is opening up another critical medial delivery to those communities. Some existing drone delivery companies require really expensive infrastructure. That’s not affordable. This basically enables life-saving, mission critical items.”

Steerable Drones

Real world testing


These chute systems go through an arduous testing phase before they’re released to the public. AVSS parachutes meet the rigid ASTM F3322 standards, and the company is close to having integrations for 10 different drones completed. It tests at the UAS NUAIR testing site. And yes, they have to do a lot of deployments.

“We have to crash the drone at NUAIR over 45 times,” says Ogden. “There’s a new standard coming, and then I think we have to crash 65 times. “

Some 100 units of the steerable chute have been purchased by the Canadian Armed Forces. And AVSS is already working plans for using steerable chutes for drones – with programming to avoid landing, for example, on a busy highway.

“We envision, our future of drone parachutes, is guided parachutes that can land the drone in a safe spot,” says Ogden. “When my drone fails, I want to ensure that it doesn’t drift into traffic. Guided parachutes are the future of drone parachutes, especially for drone delivery and urban missions.”

FYI that’s Josh on the left, Mariah on the right.


Steerable Drone

InDro’s Take


We’re big fans of AVSS. The company identified a gap in the marketplace and developed a well-engineered solution. The steerable chutes are already finding a market, and will ensure that critical goods get where they’re needed, when they’re needed, minimizing the risk of drift or entanglement with trees or other structures. Smart. We also really like the concept of a steerable chute that will ensure a drone will land somewhere safe.

We look forward to seeing where AVSS goes from here.


Indro Robotics at AUVSI’s XPONENTIAL show

Indro Robotics at AUVSI’s XPONENTIAL show

Welcome to the Greatest Show on Earth, or at least the biggest when it comes to drones and robots.

The Association for Uncrewed Vehicles Systems International (AUVSI) is back with a full-scale, in-person XPONENTIAL show for the first time since the global pandemic. With members in more than 60 countries – and an ever-increasing number of companies offering products – this is considered the event to attend. The trade floor, when it opens April 26, will showcase products from the world’s largest manufacturers…right through to some of the smallest.

Only exhibitors were allowed in today, setting up their displays. You can get a tiny glimpse of the floor in the background in the following shot. And that woman with the yellow tie? She means business. No one on the floor without an exhibitor’s pass. Don’t even ask.


As usual, there were some smaller educational seminars and panels on a day when a lot of people were still registering. To give you a sense of scale, check out how large the registration area is. Given that it takes only about a minute to get your pass, maximum, this is massive.




We took in a few sessions today, just to get warmed up for the main event. A couple of them had some pretty interesting little nuggets.

For example, there was a panel called “When does a vehicle become the driver?” which raised some intriguing points we hadn’t considered. For example, disability activists are keen to have a voice at the table for autonomous vehicles due to the obvious advantages they will provide for those unable to drive a regular car. Wiley Deck, the VP of Government Affairs and Public Policy with the autonomous trucking firm Plus, said he’s heard many with disabilities say “‘We want to be in at the front door, and we think we deserve that’.”

Makes sense. And, arguably, autonomous vehicles might be a boon for elderly people whose decision-making skills and reaction times have diminished with age. But when it comes to legislation, that raises another question.

“Fewer and fewer people will be human drivers,” said Kelly Bartlett, a Connected and Automated Vehicle Specialist with the Michigan Department of Transport (and a guy who thinks about laws a lot).

 “We’ve got to decide, who is that person? Maybe it’s a Level 4 or Level 5 (autonomous vehicle). Who is that person? Do they have to know traffic laws, for example?”

Interesting question, and one Barlett said will have to be tackled by legislators at some point in the future.


Autonomous trucking will take time


One of the other striking things from the panel, considering the capabilities of vehicles like those from Tesla, is that the world of autonomous long-haul trucking isn’t coming anytime soon.

If the route were a simple A-B, things would be easier. But the reality, said panelists, is that most of the millions of trucks hitting the road daily in the US have complex routes. They need to stop for fuel or, in the future, for charging. They need to cross states that have different laws. And, just as there are concerns with drones conflicting with traditional aviation, regulators and the public will need to be satisfied these vehicles are truly safer – and in all scenarios.

For example: What would happen if a front steering tire of an autonomous truck blew out at highway speeds? We don’t actually know yet, though at some point such tests will be carried out on tracks. Think of how many scenarios might be involved – how does an autonomous vehicle react to an oil slick? When being towed?

Lots to think about. Speaking of which, when do you predict autonomous trucks will be ubiquitous? Five years? Ten?

According to the panel, you’d be premature.

“It’s decades away,” said Wiley Deck. “If you’re entering the industry now, you’ll be able to retire as a trucker.”

There was also an amazing story about one of the first autonomous vehicle demonstrations, way back in 1925. Too long to go into here, but there’s a fascinating read here, if you’re inclined. It even involves Houdini.


Blue sUAS


You may have heard of Blue sUAS. It’s a list of drones that have been vetted by a Department of Defense branch called the Defense Innovation Unit to comply with the National Defense Authorization Act in the United States. You might think of them as an “approved” list of non-weaponised drones for use by the military, or those using federal funds. Drones using major components manufactured in China are excluded, including DJI. There are also fairly rigid cybersecurity hurdles the drones must pass.

But that has led to some confusion – and concern among organizations that cannot afford the vetted drones. Shelby Ochs, seen in the next photo, is the Program Manager, Autonomy, with the Defense Innovation Unit. They’re the folks that vetted the first list of Blue sUAS drones. At the moment, that list contains eight drones, listed here.



Problem is, when the Defense Innovation Unit first came out with its initial list of Blue sUAS, many people in government, law enforcement, and – albeit rarely – some commercial companies, believed these were the only drones they could purchase.

“People thought this was a prescriptive list,” says Ochs. “So there were a lot of agencies in the federal government who said: ‘If they’re good enough for the Department of Defense, they’re good enough for us, too.'”

That, in his opinion, was a mistake. And he emphasized the following point multiple times during his presentation. In fact, he said it at least three times:

“Any company can sell any drone to any organization, so long as it meets their administrative requirements.”

So that cleared things up. Also of note, Ochs says the Defense Innovation Unit has been looking at adding more drones to the list – and another 15 US-made drones are currently under consideration. He also predicts that average prices of US-made, Blue sUAS products will come down over time.

That’s it for now. Check in later, as we’ll be posting lots of cool content from XPONENTIAL.


Draganfly sells, donates drones for use in Ukraine

Draganfly sells, donates drones for use in Ukraine

By Scott Simmie

The use of non-military drones in Ukraine has jumped significantly since the Russian invasion began. Consumer products, particularly DJI drones, have been widely used by both sides in the war for situational awareness and identifying combatant positions. They’ve also been used extensively by journalists to help convey the scale of the devastation, particularly the destruction of civilian targets.

Now, North American drone manufacturer Draganfly has announced it will be sending 10 drones for use by Ukrainian forces. The drones – five Medical Response drones and five for Search and Rescue – have been purchased by a third party as a donation to the non-profit relief agency Revived Soldiers Ukraine. They are part of an initial order (subject to conditions) of up to 200 units destined for the conflict zone.

We wanted to learn more about the drones and how they’ll be used, so we sat down virtually with the CEO of Draganfly, Cameron Chell.

Before there was DJI in Shenzhen, there was Draganfly in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan (Canada). Initially founded by Zenon and Christine Dragan in 1998, the company released its first commercialized quadrotor the following year. In 2001, it released the first multi-rotor UAV with an integrated camera system.

It wasn’t long before some early adopters in law enforcement started embracing the utility of drones, using them to help document and clear accident scenes and for Search and Rescue operations.

In fact, in 2013 a FLIR-equipped Draganfly drone helped locate someone who had sustained a head injury in an auto accident and wandered away in freezing temperatures, suffering severe hypothermia. It’s credited as the first drone rescue to save a human life. In fact, that drone now resides in the Smithsonian National Air and Space museum. The case was written about here.


Cameron Chell

In July of 2015, Draganfly was acquired by a US technology firm, which is how Chell came into the picture. He says the company’s connection with First Responders has only grown – and is very much part of Draganfly’s identity.

“Draganfly has sold more than 9000 drones or drone systems to public safety,” he says. “We have a strong history of being of service, or trying to be of service, to the First Responder community. That’s a big piece of culture in the organization.”

And that’s why, he says, the shipment of drones to Ukraine is a good fit.


Drones for Ukraine


The drones were actually purchased by channel partner Coldchain Delivery Systems which specializes in packaging for temperature-sensitive products with an emphasis on medical supplies. Coldchain also has a $750,000 contract with Draganfly for a multi-phase project that could ultimately bring 9-1-1 dispatched drone medical deliveries to the entire state of Texas.

Cold Chain wanted these drones purchased for Revived Soldiers Ukraine, a non-profit agency playing a significant role in assisting during the conflict. (In March alone, RSU provided goods ranging from ambulances and portable X-Ray machines through to bullet-proof vests and helmets for medical personnel and civilians totalling more than $2.75M dollars.)

A total of 10 drones were purchased by Coldchain Delivery Systems for the initial order. Draganfly is selling the drones at cost, and is donating an additional three drones free of charge. Chell says the drones had to be modified to make them suitable for use in Ukraine.

“We had to change all the comms systems out,” he explains. “It’s a different LTE system, there’s a bunch of interference.”

The first drones will ship mid-April.


The Medical Response drone


Here’s a look at the medical drone, which uses Coldchain’s proprietary system to keep medical supplies at required temperatures.



The Medical Response drone has a temperature regulated payload of 35 pounds. It’s intended for shuttling critical supplies, including blood, pharmaceuticals, insulin/medicines, vaccines, water, and wound care kits.

You’ll note in the photo above that the payload is shown on top of the drone. This machine is also capable of carrying the payload beneath, with a quick-release mechanism. Dropping the cargo close to the ground and quickly resuming flight removes potential risk for those receiving the cargo (they won’t be getting close to the drone). It also extends battery life, since the drone won’t have to fully land, shut down, then re-start. Flight time is 25 minutes, with an estimated range of three+ kilometres with a 20-pound payload. Lighter payloads – and it’s anticipated some will be lighter – will have a greater range.

We’re providing drones that are very specific for exactly what they need,” says Chell. “Some others might have an airframe, but they don’t have a temperature-managed payload – so this is very specifically built, this is mission-critical.”

Range on the first shipment will be limited to RF communication over two kilometres. But a second batch, modified for Ukraine, will utilize LTE and have solid communication over a 20-kilometre range.

And the Search and Rescue drones? They’re smaller, faster, and equipped with a thermal sensor – which could prove useful in detecting people trapped in rubble or bombed buildings. Revived Soldiers Ukraine has experienced drone operators; Draganfly will be providing virtual training for these specific drones, and is examining potentially sending trainers to Poland and even Ukraine if more drones are sent in future. (Assuming the first 10 are effective in the field, the potential is here for up to 200 drones being purchased.)



In addition to the these first drones, Chell says several shareholders contacted the company and offered to purchase drones to be donated to the cause. Seven drones have been purchased for this purpose. Chell says the interest has been so great the company now has a page up for people interested in directly purchasing drones for donation. The company says it will provide ongoing mission statistics for those donated humanitarian drones, and possibly even video of some missions.


As you can see by the price tags and builds, these are not consumer drones. The open-source, North American-made Draganfly products are purpose-built for specific tasks, and feature secure data handling.

Perhaps more important in a war zone, they cannot be tracked with an Aeroscope the way DJI products can. The Aeroscope device is capable of tracking not only DJI drones but also the location of the pilot, which – in a war zone – carries significant risks. (It’s believed that Russia has deployed Aeroscope units.)

“We don’t have system where someone else can track the pilot and track the drone,” says Chell. “These things can’t be tracked.”

(Just FYI, other drone companies have recently announced donations on the Ukraine front. We’ve seen recent announcements from Skydio and Volatus.


A personal connection


While Draganfly has a corporate tradition of working closely with First Responders, Chell reveals that a personal experience has made this mission resonate even more.

“I was at the base of the towers at 9-11 when the first plane hit,” he says.

“Not that I wasn’t a First Responder fan before that, but that weighs very prominently into my ethos or direction in wanting to give back to that community…and in humanitarian situations.”

InDro’s Take


Though we haven’t deployed to a war zone, we have flown disaster response missions. In addition, InDro Robotics has considerable experience with drone delivery. We shuttled COVID test kits from a remote, island-based community on a regular basis during the peak of the pandemic. We’ve also been involved in multiple trials and projects, delivering everything from prescription medications and simulated blood products through to Automated External Defibrillators.

We know, from that work, that even with deliberate planning there can be unexpected obstacles, such as gaps in cellular connectivity, interference, abrupt weather changes, etc. Draganfly has already anticipated some of these challenges, including RF interference, cellular dropouts, and the different LTE system.

Successful deliveries, especially when the cargo is critical, require getting the right product in the right hands at the right time. This is even more urgent and difficult in a hostile environment. Revived Soldiers Ukraine has been on the ground since day one of the conflict, and will have a good handle on both the challenges – and the needs.

We wish Draganfly and Revived Soldiers Ukraine the very best in this endeavour – and look forward to an update in the future.

A Q&A with Volatus Aerospace CEO Glen Lynch

A Q&A with Volatus Aerospace CEO Glen Lynch

By Scott Simmie, InDro Robotics

If you’re in Canada, odds are you’ve heard of Volatus Aerospace by now.

And that’s not surprising. The company has grown, and quickly, through a number of strategic mergers and acquisitions. As a result, it’s now offering a wide variety of drone services across multiple sectors – and in several countries.

That growth, and the selection of companies, have been highly strategic.

The companies Volatus has acquired are now part of The Volatus Aerospace Group. Collectively, they offer a broad swath of specialized drone services, ranging from industrial inspections, digital twins and heavy-lift capacity through to sales and one-off aerial photography and videography services. Plus, parent company Volatus is also in the game. It will soon be operating a manufacturing facility at the Lake Simcoe Regional Airport, producing two different UAVs. And it has ambitious plans in the heavy-lift drone cargo sector.

The company’s CEO is Glen Lynch, who enjoyed a long and successful career in the traditional aerospace world prior to entering the UAV space. Here’s a look at the firm’s overall offerings, taken from its website:

Drone Services

That’s a pretty ambitious palette. But Volatus has been very targeted in its acquisitions. It has focused on companies that were already specialists in their own respective niches. Pull them together under a single umbrella and you’ve got the makings of synergy – where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

You’ve also got the groundwork for “One-stop shopping” when it comes to drone service provision, and even the purchase of certain drones. It’s the only company in Canada we’re aware of that has taken this approach at scale. As a result, Volatus has quickly become a household name, at least in those Canadian households familiar with the UAV scene.

Before we get to our interview with Volatus CEO Glen Lynch, let’s find out more.

Drone Training

What’s under the hood?


Here’s a brief look at the companies within the Volatus portfolio.

Canadian UAV Services. The Ontario-based company has been in business for seven years (as of early 2022) and offers a number of services. They include: Inspection, surveys, GIS, aggregate mining data capture and more.

Connexicore. The Philadephia-based company offers a wide range of professional drone services. Connexicore operates somewhat like a hub, connecting jobs with its North American network of 1,000 freelance pilots. Those pilots fly with certification under the FAA’s Part 107.

M3 Drone Services. Based in Manitoba, M3 provides UAV services across a broad number of sectors, as well as training. The company offers its services Canada-wide.

OmniView Tech. This firm is the largest drone repair centre in Canada. The company distributes DJI products to retailers and sells them directly, as well as other drones and specialized sensors.

Skygate Videography. Located in Prince Edward Island, Skygate offers training, drone videography and inspection services.

UAViation Aerial Solutions. With offices in Vancouver and Edmonton, UAViation provides a range of aerial services, including photography, photogrammetry, LiDAR etc. Founded in 2015, its website says the firm has carried out some 4,000 flights, logging 1000+ flying hours in more than 500 locations.

MVT Geo-Solutions Inc. Volatus has announced an agreement to acquire the Quebec-based firm. According to a news release, its “services include data collection, processing, and analysis to a variety of industries including civil engineering, transport, hydrography, natural resource management, forestry, and public safety.”

And, finally…

Partner Jet/Volatus Aviation. This charter passenger jet and aircraft management firm is located at Pearson International Airport. It was the initial starting point for what has become the Volatus Aerospace Group. The company will also play a role in future Volatus plans, such as heavy lift cargo drones, some of which would require aircraft runways. The company owns and operates the Citation X jet seen below.


Glen Lynch, CEO

With all of that background, we’ll now hop into our Q&A with Glen Lynch, Volatus CEO.

Q: What’s the elevator pitch for Volatus?

A: To understand the company, you need to understand where we came from. It’s a company that kind of grew from the aviation industry. When we looked at the drone market, we realized there was an exploding opportunity – basically an industry that was rocketing out of a nascent phase – but there were no operators of any real scale. It was basically an industry that was being served by small businesses, with the exception of companies like InDro. Very capable small business, but small business nonetheless. That’s what we saw as being the opportunity.

So what we did was, basically accumulated a number of businesses through M&A (merger and acquisition) activities that had two characteristics: A strategic location and a complementary capability. And then we consolidated them using a roll-up strategy to create what’s now one of the larger fully-integrated drone services and drone technology companies. And that’s basically who we are. We cover now all of Canada, all of the United States, and we’re starting to have some penetration now in Latin America – we have an office in Bogota, an office in Lima Peru, and business activities as far south as Chile.

Q: The Volatus Aerospace Group holds a number of companies that are all specialists in specific areas. Could you provide more details about how you selected these companies?

A: Once you identify the first company – the principle of that company usually has other companies they’re interested in. So it becomes somewhat of a referral, because the relationships already exist. And the one thing that’s particularly core: When you have an M&A strategy that’s as active as ours, we need to be able to acquire companies and retain the leadership. One of the things I’m most proud of with Volatus is that we’ve retained 100 per cent of our leadership through the acquisitions – and that allows us to scale more rapidly. Well, to be able to retain leadership there has to be a cultural fit. Oftentimes, favourable referrals from people who are already fitting with the group almost becomes a natural screening process…

At the end of the day, we’re looking for good fits. And we’ve been really fortunate to find some really talented individuals that have built some really great companies and have shared the vision of Volatus and we’ve been able to entice them to join us.


Q: A little over a year ago, Volatus wasn’t exactly a household name. Now, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone in the drone world who hasn’t heard of you. How did you scale so quickly?

A: I would say that probably it’s something I’d love to take credit for. But the reality is, we have some really talented people, people like Rob Walker, who’s a well-educated, award-winning marketing professional. And we created an umbrella branding strategy, so at the end we’re pushing a common brand. We’re very careful not to lose the brand equity in our subordinate brands but we push out a single brand proposition, I would say, throughout the marketplace. And, again, it’s really driven by the people that become part of Volatus: They become proud of the brand, they become associated with the brand, and the brand naturally grows. On top of that we’ve hired a very large business development and sales team that work right now across Canada and the United States. And actually our office in Lima Peru has three business development people in that office as well. So we’re out there. We participate in a lot of trade shows. We spend a fair amount of money in marketing, but we try to be very, very balanced in our approach to investment and general brand awareness. And we really target places that we can generate revenues today. So we keep an eye on the blue sky, we prepare for the blue sky, but we very much focus on the places that we can actually achieve revenue activities in the near term.

 Q: You and your VP both have an extensive background in traditional aviation. What advantage does that give you in the drone world?

A: Luc Massé, who’s executive Vice-President, he was one of the driving forces in what is now one of largest aircraft companies in Canada. Funny enough, he was one of my competitors for many years in that space. But there are a few things, I guess. It helps us have a very comfortable awareness of the realities of operating in a regulated environment.

When we’re collecting data, that’s one type of service. When you’re carrying something that belongs to somebody else?  That becomes a cargo service. By definition that’s a commercial air service. So there’s a whole new range of requirements there, for example economic authority as well as just operating authority. As you know, InDro was one of the first companies to do this, they have a Canadian Transportation Agency Cargo License. And right now, to the best of my knowledge – I may be missing somebody – there are only three companies in Canada that actually hold that economic authority: (InDro), Drone Delivery Canada and ourselves at Volatus Aviation, which was formerly Partner Jet. So it really helps us position for the future, having that understanding of aviation, because largely on the cargo side, we kind of know where the industry is headed. There’s a convergence there, between manned and unmanned aircraft.


Q: Volatus is pretty diversified in the drone world. Is there a particular area you’re involved with that you’re most excited about for the future?

A: I would say our major areas of interest in 2022, other than continuing to scale our existing terms of new growth areas it would perhaps be drone cargo activities. And drone cargo for Volatus means ship-to-shore, shore-to-ship, ship-to-ship, remote communities, inter-island type activities: Things that we can do either because they’re eligible under the current regulatory framewok, or actually they can build a risk profile that will allow us to get authorization to operate under special circumstances. So that’s a big area of focus for us this year, we’re putting a lot of investment – as you’ll see in the near future – in that space.

And the other one is in public safety. Drones as First Responders is becoming. a major thing; there’s literally tens of thousands of law enforcement agencies, let alone other public safety agencies like the emergency health response units,  firefighting, Search & Rescue, all of those sorts of things. So those are two big areas of focus for us in 2022.

Note: Soon after our interview, Volatus announced its intention to purchase a planned Natilus N3.8T Large Remotely Piloted Cargo Drone. The twin-engine turboprop blended-wing aircraft has a maximum gross takeoff weight of 8,618 kilograms (about 19,000 pounds) and is capable of carrying 3,855 kilograms of cargo (8,500 pounds). This machine, slated to be delivered in 2025, will obviously require traditional airport infrastructure and significant advances in Unmanned Traffic Management. There will also be some fairly high regulatory hurdles to be cleared in order to operate a vehicle of this scale.

“The recent amalgamation with Partner Jet Inc. gives us the commercial infrastructure to operate drone cargo services, and the addition of Natilus aircraft establishes the long-term direction for our aviation division,” said Lynch in this post announcing the news. Here’s the Natilus promotional video, which offers a CGI version of the planned craft:

Q: You were listed recently on the TSX (VOL). What does this listing mean for the Volatus group?

A: Getting to the public listing was one journey, but now the heavy lifting begins. If we handle ourselves correctly, it’s an opportunity to demonstrate good governance and a serious, solid, well-run corporation. So that’s up to us to deliver on that. But the second thing that it does, it gives us access to capital markets, which allows us to – especially as the company grows in value – allows us to access capital that will continue to allow us to grow through acquisitions or fund organic growth internally through ramp-up of inventory and those sorts of things. So that’s the primary objective is really to give us the mechanism to scale.

InDro’s take


Volatus has emerged quickly and appears to have significant momentum. In addition to its other operations, the company is currently setting up a large manufacturing facility at the Lake Simcoe Airport, where it will be producing two UAVS. Glen Lynch, as CEO, has both the business and traditional aviation background to guide the company as the industry moves toward the world of Advanced Air Mobility (AAM), where new types of short-range aircraft will be sharing the skies with drones. We wish the Volatus team well.

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.