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:
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:
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.