Drone technology, with deep roots in Northern Nevada, primed for the future
RENO, Nev. — At the opening ceremonies of the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics on Feb. 9, South Korea showed off its stunning technology, including a swarm of drones synchronized to form the Olympic rings while hovering above.
Those who work with drones — more formally known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) — in Northern Nevada consider the feat a cool display of the capability of drones.
Moreover, they emphasize the technology can be used for so much more than entertainment and taking pictures.
“It’s a fun display of technology,” said Matthew Sweeny, CEO and co-founder of Flirtey, a Reno-based company that uses its drones to deliver fun things like food and beverages, and is in the approval process to begin delivering life-saving automated external defibrillators (AEDs).
Another Reno-based company, AboveGeo, uses its drones in scientific pursuits.
“(Drone swarms) and pretty pictures are nice to look at, but they don’t help anybody,” said Kirk Ellern, chief marketing officer and cofounder of AboveGeo. “What we do is more in an industrial capacity.”
AboveGeo is working with Desert Research Institute; University of Nevada, Reno; Bureau of Land Management; and other science organizations in research and development of drone mapping technology to provide data for a number of industries.
AboveGeo’s mapping and photography programs can produce images as high resolution as one centimeter per pixel, and maps can show fine details in an area of 40 square miles.
Plenty of practical uses
Practical uses include 3D drone mapping so construction companies can determine the size of a pile of earth or debris, known as volumetrics. Currently, volumetrics contracts provide much of the non-grant income for AboveGeo, but the owners are ready to show how much more they can do.
In agriculture, the imaging process can identify areas in a field or orchard where plant growth is hindered by disease, lack of water, or other conditions.
On BLM land, it can improve data to develop better policies for sage grouse habitat protection. And, mining companies can use drones for underground GPS mapping.
AboveGeo also is currently working with the Department of Defense to identify unexploded ordnance at Hawthorne Army Depot, using hyperspectral imaging.
“We’re waiting for a grant for R and D (research and development),” Ellern said. “Nobody has really used drones for these kinds of things.”
Although AboveGeo’s founders are confident in the company’s technology, they have to prove it to potential customers. Working with science organization, education institutions and military offices, helps them demonstrate their capabilities.
“If we can get in front of people, we can show them (what we can do),” Ellern said.
‘On the verge of entering a new age’
Flirtey, meanwhile, has used well-publicized demonstrations to show what it can do in the delivery realm.
“Flirtey’s mission is to save lives and change lifestyles by making delivery instant for everyone,” Sweeny told the NNBW.
The drone company has partnered with 7-Eleven and Dominoes to begin delivering food packages, and other retail items.
Partnering with REMSA, Flirtey is waiting on a green light from the FAA to begin the AED delivery service. In October, they demonstrated how that would work with a test delivery through the sky over Reno.
Once approval is received, Flirtey would be integrated with 9-1-1. Drones with AEDs will be stationed at key positions around the city beginning in downtown.
“With drones, we can get an AED to someone faster than on an ambulance,” he said.
“When someone calls 9-1-1 and the call gets routed to REMSA, if the caller uses key words or phrases like ‘shortness of breath,’ Flirtey would be notified,” he said. “If we have a drone in the vicinity, it would be dispatched.”
All moving through the approval process can take time, Sweeny is confidant that drone deliveries will start soon.
“A couple years from now, seeing a Flirtey (drone) in the air delivering an AED will be as common as seeing an ambulance on the road,” Sweeny told the NNBW. “Drone delivery of food will be as common as delivery trucks.
“We’re on the verge of entering a new age.”