Alaska has been at the forefront of developing rules and technologies for getting drones in the air and now the leaders of an Anchorage startup believe they have the secret to getting them back on the ground safely.
The fundamental technology is basic and nearly obvious: a parachute.
However, the seemingly simple solution comes with a daunting hurdle.
It can’t ever fail.
Indemnis CEO Amber McDonald said the idea for a new breed of unmanned aircraft parachute spawned out of her team’s work in TV and film. McDonald and Indemnis Chief Technology Officer Alan Erickson were first partners in a video production company in 2015.
“We were flying for Animal Planet, Discovery Channel, all the reality shows that came up with the film (tax credit) incentive that was going on,” she recalled in an interview. “We were flying drones as a result of that and found that technology failed and they were falling out of the sky.”
The biggest challenge in solving the problem is developing a fail-proof solution — or something at least as infallible as any human technology can be.
Indemnis is Latin for “without harm.”
McDonald noted the Federal Aviation Administration currently doesn’t allow small (less than 55 pounds) commercial unmanned aircraft flights over people for fear the craft could injure or kill someone if it fails without a safety net of its own.
There are three paths to commercial drone flights over people, the same avenues the FAA offers for most safety issues that arise. In this case they are: build an unmanned aircraft with provable reliability on-par with a Boeing airliner; build one from light, soft or frangible materials that will break apart or otherwise not harm on impact; or add a risk mitigation system that meets the requirements another way.
From there they went through every parachute and recovery system on the market in search of a fix. The unpredictability of how the quad-rotor drones would fall meant the lines fixed to the frame of the small crafts would reliably entangle.
If the lines made it out as intended then the parachute was likely to snag on the control surface; it was hopeless if the drone was in a spin, which is almost an inevitability of physics.
Then Erickson saw a Bond film in which Pierce Brosnan’s ski jacket unfolds into a rigid bubble that protects him from an avalanche. He thought he could use a rigid parachute to overcome the challenges a falling drone presents, McDonald said.
“There’s a very, very large untapped market; you’re talking about probably $10 to $20 billion in safety systems that somebody has to develop and whoever’s first to market is going to be king of that category — not just first to market but first to market with a product that actually works,” she said.
The concept of a rigid parachute evolved into Indemnis’ Nexus small unmanned aircraft recovery system, which uses an inflated fabric deployment tube to move the parachute line attachment point out of harm’s way.
“We looked at that problem and kind of just ran with it. We knew that we had a technology problem that we needed to overcome and we knew that we had a regulatory problem that we needed to overcome and those are really the two things that Indemnis focuses on — making regulated commercial flight over people possible,” McDonald said.
It helped that a successful film or TV show needs a host of behind-the-scenes technical experts to pull it together; it meant McDonald didn’t have to go far to find talent for her new company.
“It all happened very, very fast. We spent a lot of time together as we do working in the same industry and ultimately it formulated that six of us came together — we had the materials person; we had the software embedded systems person. I did all of the business stuff. Alan’s our tech guy. He’s our current CTO and then we had a web guy and a machinist, Mitch, who is a state-of-the-art machinist. He has parts on the Hubble telescope,” she added.
Indemnis has a total team of 18, making it far from a normal startup, McDonald noted. The wealth of knowledge and ability that comes with such a large group has enabled Indemnis to succeed so far.
The key to the Nexus is the Dyneema polyethylene fabric the deployment tube is made of. It is a product of DSM Co., a Netherlands-based scientific product development firm. And the key to the Dyneema is its remarkable strength.
“Upon deployment (the Dyneema tube) will inflate, throw that parachute — guard the parachute lines as it rises up — and throw that parachute at 90 miles per hour in 30 milliseconds away from drone and all potential control surfaces or areas of entanglement and it stays inflated, like a piece of steel, to 30 psi, like the same as your car tire,” McDonald described.
Dyneema is more commonly used for large ship anchor lines and medical supplies but it’s most widespread application is for ballistic armor, according to McDonald, as it is twice as strong as Kevlar and 15 times stronger than steel.
The biggest challenge the Dyneema presents is its low melting point, which makes bonding it problematic. Ultrasonic and high heat welding will destroy the fibers of the material.
However, the Indemnis team developed a radio frequency welding process — now patented — that allows the fabric to be joined to itself and form the inflatable tube without sacrificing strength.
“If we tried to inflate nylon to 30 psi instantaneously it would blow to shreds. There’s no other material on the planet that you can dump that much energy into that will stay together,” McDonald proclaimed.
The Nexus parachute is also made of Dyneema, but more for its light weight than its remarkable strength; it’s about half the weight of the lightest comparable nylon, she said.
The tube is currently inflated via Indemnis’ own 10,000-psi micro air tank that is easily refilled for testing but would be difficult to manufacture consistently. The company is in the final stages of testing a gold gas generator inflation system for the marketable product.
And while the ability to consistently deploy the parachute was a major breakthrough, it was just the start. The parachute must also reliably deploy at a moment’s notice, either at the behest of the drone pilot, or on its own.
Another in-house development, the Nexus contains a sensor fusion chip that combines “gyroscopes, accelerometers, barometers, filters, a bunch of different sensors” that will detect a multitude of trigger points to automatically activate the parachute, McDonald explained.
It’s easily attached to a drone with a quick compression clamp and a single cord.
“It’s a completely isolated system, so if something happens to the drone — it decides to go wonky and fly away or your GPS goes crazy — you can also manually deploy it because it doesn’t connect with the avionics in any way. It pulls power from the drone in the very beginning when you turn it on but aside from that it’s an isolated system,” she said.
The system is scalable to all sizes of small unmanned aircraft systems, which for FAA purposes are those less than 55 pounds. The Nexus that Indemnis has focused its work on is about 18 ounces, according to McDonald.
The company spent its first two years in the dark without much of a website, developing and testing its product until unveiling the Nexus to those in the industry in May 2017.
“Basically, it was a blank site that said if you knew what we were up to you’d know we were about to change the world,” McDonald said with a smirk. “That was our tagline.”
That time allowed Indemnis to compile what the company believes is the largest set of unmanned aircraft crash dynamics available. The Indemnis crew is flying drones and testing its product every day the weather allows.
When FAA officials became familiar with the Nexus they asked Indemnis to allow them to use some of the company’s internal testing standards to help write risk mitigation regulation.
The also invited Indemnis to be part of an American Society for Testing and Materials, or ASTM, committee along with Amazon (and its plans for automated package delivery) and other major unmanned aircraft industry players to help draft the minimum standards by which a parachute system can be used in small commercial drone operations.
“We have logs, engineering data and said, ‘Here’s the failures we overcame to get here. Here’s how we defined the problem,’” McDonald said of her company’s collaboration with the FAA.
Those standards were published Sept. 1 after roughly 18 months of work.
“There is now an ASTM standard, consensus, standard, and we’re pretty excited about that — that we were the technical leads on that,” she added.
Alaska has helped lead development of the U.S. unmanned aircraft industry largely because of its vast open areas where tests can be flown without risk to people or other aircraft. ConocoPhillips and BP were the first companies to get special FAA approval for commercial flights over water and land for Arctic offshore and North Slope surveying missions in 2013 and 2014, respectively.
The University of Alaska Fairbanks is also one of six FAA unmanned aircraft test sites across the country through its Alaska Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration.
The activity has also spawned other drone technology-focused startups in the state as well.
FAA officials did not respond to questions about the agency’s work with Indemnis in time for this story, but a Sept. 19 ASTM news release quoting Erickson states that ASTM standard F3322 lays out the design, fabrication and test requirements for an installable parachute recovery system, or PRS. The standard applies to single-rotor, multi-rotor, hybrid or fixed-wing small, unmanned aircraft, according to ASTM.
“The standard includes a rigorous design and testing matrix due to the simple fact that a PRS may be the only failsafe in a critical system failure,” Erickson said in the ASTM release. “When applied correctly, a PRS will enable industry growth in a way that provides civil aviation authorities and civilian populations with a high level of confidence in (small unmanned aircraft systems).”
Indemnis is now trying to secure its market while further refining its product with the major regulatory hurdle largely overcome. McDonald said during an early October interview that Indemnis would soon be sending a crew to Ohio State University to test the Nexus system on cadavers.
She acknowledged that the Nexus is not for every drone hobbyist out there. A single unit is likely to cost between $5,000 and $12,000 when it hits the market.
“The reality is people are not buying the technical product; they’re buying the ability to fly over people safely,” she said. “You’re buying it because you want to be able to safely operate your business. It’s a business tool.”
Indemnis leaders have multiple manufacturers lined up to make other parts for the Nexus and hope to be able to start selling it in the next six months. Current plans are for the first 15,000 units to be produced out of the company’s small South Anchorage shop. After that, the company will reevaluate its position with hopes to stay in Alaska, according to McDonald.
Until then, Indemnis will have to rely on investor funding for a little while longer.
The roughly $4 million the company has raised mostly from individual Alaskans is one of the aspects of the journey that she is most proud of, McDonald said.
She described Indemnis’ investors as coming primarily from the oil and gas industry — engineers and others “who understand the basic physics problem that we’re solving” and people the Indemnis crew is incredibly grateful for.
Indemnis is also wrapping up an investment campaign through the crowdfunding site Republic at the end of October.
“We’re always looking for high net-worth individuals. We’re always looking for credible investors to join us on this journey,” she said with a smile.
Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]