Drones, UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles), droids, flying robots – no matter what you call them, they are fast becoming the latest must-have technology. Need to check the high country farm to assess the grass or see what the sheep are up to? Want to film aerials of land blocks or make a blockbuster movie? Then drones might well be the answer.

Across the world, companies are adapting UAV technology for a variety of applications in the race to be part of an industry that is estimated to have a $10 billion market in the next 10 years.

Here in New Zealand, Aeronavics has designed and produced a series of UAVs to service a wide range of industries, including film and television, search and rescue, farming and forestry and various industrial applications in mining and civil engineering.

Founding director Linda Bulk met Rob Brouwer in 2004 near Byron Bay, Australia. From there, they started to develop their company, moving to New Zealand in 2011.

The problem

Aeronavics was Linda and Rob’s response to a problem they had when they wanted to add an aerial perspective to the 360° virtual environments and walk-throughs they created within their company at the time. They started by looking for model helicopters, eventually buying a second-hand one from a small shop in Lismore, Australia.

Every idea starts with a problem. Linda and I were doing commercial photography and dreamed about getting an image from the sky without the cost of a helicopter.

Rob Brouwer

“One day in May 2008, we went back for a catch-up,” Linda says, “and he came with this weird looking rotor thing with four motors – we hadn’t seen anything like it.”

Rob, a trained pilot, had always been taken by the idea of a vertical take-off, forward flight vehicle and saw potential in the little machine. The duo were instantly hooked and began to follow the development of this particular multi-rotor technology, now one of the primary technologies that underpins the current UAV or drone industry. At this stage, it was mainly model aircraft enthusiasts who were driving the development of these UAVs as part of their hobby.

Linda and Rob began to experiment with frame designs, knowing that stability was the most important aspect of UAVs. A good frame prevents vibration, which means the electronics perform better and images captured by attached cameras are clear. Vibrations cause the camera to shake, which would result in blurry pictures – like when you move while taking a photo. They also needed a light frame so that the additional weight of a camera could be added and flight times could be increased.

Eventually, they came up with a design that worked. They knew they wanted to use carbon fibre so that the frame would be strong but light. They went back to their contact at the small hobby shop and asked him to produce carbon-fibre parts for the craft. He didn’t have time but suggested they give it a go themselves, Linda said, “so he gave us some cloth and resin and a little bit of guidance, and we started making our own parts in the shed.”

The demand

Within 8 months, Linda and Rob had developed a structure that took crystal clear images from the air every time. They posted footage from their prototype on just one website, and within a short period of time, they received several requests from people wanting to buy one.

As everything was handmade, they turned down requests to produce UAVs for sale. However, after a few months and increasing demand, they realised there was a strong opportunity and that, if they didn’t develop it, someone else would.

Their new company, Droidworx, was launched in Australia in 2010, and within a week, email requests came pouring in via the website. Linda and Rob would design craft, contract out the manufacturing of parts and then assemble self-build kits for customers.

Within 3 months, the company had 60 distributors around the world, and within 6 months, they had to stop selling directly to individuals because they couldn’t keep up with demand.

Aeronavics moves to New Zealand

In 2011, the company name changed to Aeronavics Ltd, and Rob and Linda moved to New Zealand. They already had contacts in New Zealand, and both had always been attracted by the lifestyle and people.

Over the course of 2 years, the company had to move four times in order to have more space for the expanding business that now employed six additional full-time staff.

The company was now providing craft to the media industry, with craft being used on the set of Twilight, BBC’s Earthflight documentary series and MasterChef, among other programmes.

Then, in 2013, Aeronavics entered the inaugural Fieldays Innovation Den competition and won first place. The prize included marketing expertise from SODA – a Waikato business incubator. The increased publicity led to a new focus on UAVs and agricultural applications, which range from using a camera to ‘check the back of the farm’ to being able to load weedkiller on board to enable precision spraying of hard-to-get-to weeds like blackberry or gorse.

Agricultural applications

To develop agricultural applications, Aeronavics has worked to increase flight times for the UAVs. They’ve gone from an initial 3 minutes to 40 minutes and are achieving over an hour in their research and development work. They also continuously work to increase the lift capacity in order to increase the payload. Their biggest production model can lift 7.5 kilograms, but they’re aiming to increase this to 20 kilograms.

The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) maintains regulations for operating the equipment. This ensures safety for people and property as well as promoting a seamless integration with other airspace users. Present regulations require a visual line of sight to be maintained with the craft at all times. However, the CAA introduced a new rule in August 2015 that gives users the option to apply for exemption to the standard rules to allow for a wider application range of the technology. Aeronavics is in close communication with the CAA and other industry groups around these matters.

The future

The demand for Aeronavics UAVs continues. In order to remain focused, the company has defined four goal markets – farming and agriculture, industrial inspection work, media and broadcasting, and public services such as fire brigades, search and rescue and coast guards.

Callaghan Innovation has also supported the innovative work of Linda and Rob and the wider industry. This support resulted in a project fund in 2012 and also a relationship with the marketing exchange programme run out of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a world-famous research and engineering university in the United States. An exchange programme allowed three MBA graduates to research their market and compile a marketing report.

In 2015, Aeronavics raised funds through the crowdfunding platform Snowball Effect to further drive their development. They set a new record, raising $1.5 million from investors in 6 days.

The investment will go towards growth-related expenses such as manufacturing tooling, equipment, facilities and employment, marketing and research and development.

For Aeronavics, the sky’s the limit!

Nature of Science

Scientific research often underpins the development of new technologies, and these technologies can have impacts on people and the environment, depending on when, where, how and why they are used. What are some of the potential ways in which UAVs or drones could be misused?

Useful links

Latest developments at Aeronavics as the company looks to expand.
www.stuff.co.nz/business/industries/77920770/raglanbased-drone-company-aeronavics-to-raise-5-million

Visit Linda Bulk and Rob Brouwer’s official Aeronavics website.
www.aeronavics.com

Learn about how Callaghan Innovation is working to support UAV technology in New Zealand.
www.callaghaninnovation.wordpress.com/2015/06/24/taking-off-together

    Published 10 September 2015, Updated 22 March 2016