Drone startup company makes award-winning UAS for responders

DV8 Tech won $50,000 for creating a drone that carried a mini-cell tower to allow responders to communicate in a disaster, such as a forest fire or flood


By Jean Kozubowski
The Salina Journal

SALINA, Kan. — One thing Toby Tracy, a remote systems specialist, really likes about working with DV8 Tech, is the start-up life. It has ups and down, but he gets to come in every day and solve problems.

One of the problems he helped solve can save lives and, incidentally, earned the company, which will celebrate its first anniversary in October, an international prize of $50,000.

DV8 Tech won $50,000 for creating a drone that carried a mini-cell tower to allow responders to communicate in a disaster, such as a forest fire or flood. (Photo/DV8 Tech)
DV8 Tech won $50,000 for creating a drone that carried a mini-cell tower to allow responders to communicate in a disaster, such as a forest fire or flood. (Photo/DV8 Tech)

The team worked fast to do it, while carrying on business as usual as DV8.

Ryan Zoller, founder and president, started DV8 because he had an offer from a Fortune 500 he couldn't pass up.

DV8 offers a full range of drone services to businesses, Zoller said. They will help a business find the best drone for the purpose, train employees to use the drones, or operate it for the company.

All of the employees are from the UAS program at Kansas State University Polytechnic Campus except Michael Siebert, director of safety and management, who went to K-State in Manhattan.

On Jan. 20, the team found an unmanned aerial system and payload contest the National Institute of Standards and Technology was conducting. They had to submit their concept paper by Jan. 29, Tracy said.

"We were shocked we were accepted," Tracy said.

Lightweight but strong

The challenge, he said, was to build a drone that could carry 20 pounds and stay in the air for an extended period of time.

According to the Federal Aviation Administration, drones must weigh less than a total of 55 pounds. And most drones have a flight time of 20 to 30 minutes. Adding anything that increases the weight takes away from flight time.

The DV8 team built a 35-pound drone that runs off a hybrid gasoline-powered motor, with a battery backup, said James Slater, one of the team members.

It carried a device that acts as mini-cell tower to allow first responders to communicate in a disaster, such as a forest fire or flood, when the regular cell tower is out of commission.

"The goal is to make a standalone network specifically for first responders," Tracy said.

Started with 9/11

The problem stemmed from when the Twin Towers were destroyed in 9/11, he said.

"Everyone was calling people they knew who worked in the Twin Towers and the phones lines were jammed."

Emergency people couldn't get through. It was the same in Hurricane Katrina and just recently in Puerto Rico.

The 10 teams accepted were given $20,000 for parts. They got the parts in the middle of March and built a drone with four rotor motors, Tracy said. The frame is their own design.

The Friday before they flew to Virginia for the competition, they decided four rotors wasn't enough and got permission by email to add four more.

Then they found out the airline wouldn't allow the battery on the plane, so two members loaded the drone into a vehicle and drove 1,234 miles to Virginia, he said.

Only three of the 10 teams made it to the competition, and theirs was the only one to score enough points, 308, to win the $50,000 prize.

"It went from a concept in my brain to on the table in three or four months," Tracy said.

Safety built in

"This drone has a lot of safety factors," Tracy said. "It can lose four rotor motors and still fly. It has triple GPS redundancy."

They're not done tinkering with it. They are about 35 percent on the way to develop a new lightweight generator that should let the drone fly three-plus hours, said Jonathon Weeks, director of operations.

Siebert said they will try to market the design to first responders, to offer more solutions that are affordable.

"It has massive potential for everything," he said. "Perseverance goes a long way."

"If we can help save one life, it's totally work it," said Weeks.

Like the internet

Drones are in about the same place the internet was shortly after it started, said James Slater, who works with DV8 Tech.

"The timeline of drones is almost identical to that of the internet," he said.

When the internet first came out, everyone thought it was cool, he said, but there weren't a lot of applications. Then people started to learn how to use the applications and it exploded, he said.

Safety applications

First responders are already learning the advantages of using drones. Salina Fire Chief Kevin Royse said his department bought one about a month ago.

It's a more-ordinary drone, but it can carry an infrared and thermal-sensing camera to search at night and to help find missing people and people in buildings.

It can also be fitted with a tracking device, said Capt. Chad Leister. For example, it can track boats used in rescue missions, hovering right above the boat and showing what's ahead.

The fire department's drone can carry as much as 3 pounds, he said, so it could drop a life jacket to someone in the water.

The camera can be live-streamed, with an eight-second delay, he said, that can be fed into the commander at the scene, with notes where the hydrants are, the exits in a building, and building about what hazardous chemicals are on the premises.

Drones would have been useful when a pipe on a roof at Tony's Pizza sprang a leak in March 2017, Royce said.

A drone could have shown where the leak was before sending up the hazardous materials team.

Tracy said air-sampling devices on drones can measure the size of a plume, like the ammonia leak, more accurately and send back a 3D image.

The real value of drones is in planning, Leister said. They can be used for mapping. There's a lot of buildings going up in Salina, he said, and the city offices remaps the city only every five years.

Drones can fly over the city, taking photos of new structures, which can be sent to the city's mapping service.

They'll be invaluable, Leister said, for utility and water departments, inspecting water towers, for instance.

Royse said the fire department is in the third phase of making the drone usable. The first phase was two members earning their FAA pilot's license.

The second phase was buying the drone, which cost about $1,800, he said. And the third is writing standard operating guidelines.

When that's done, the drone will be off and flying.

Copyright 2018 The Salina Journal

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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