Xconomist of the Week: Helen Greiner’s CyPhy Works Unveils Drones

After roughly three years in development and some $3 million in venture investment, iRobot co-founder Helen Greiner is showing off her newest robotic creations.

But don’t be fooled by the cool things this new pair of aerial drones can do—the real advancement is the cable that connects them to the ground.

Greiner’s robotics startup, CyPhy Works, says its super-thin “microfilament” cable sets the company’s two new prototypes apart because it delivers a continuous power supply and stronger, more secure communications connections to operators on the ground.

“It really does differentiate the UAVs we’re building here,” Greiner says.

Aerial drone designs that use onboard batteries and wireless communications systems often face a tradeoff, she says, giving up flight time for features—a kind of “downward spiral” that CyPhy says it can avoid by connecting its robots to a terrestrial command station.

“You add something, and then it makes another factor get worse,” Greiner says. “This is paradigm-breaking, because it actually solves those issues.”

The cable design also provides more secure communciations, with CyPhy saying the connection is “unjammable” because it doesn’t rely on radio frequencies.

One thing the microfilament cable is not, Greiner adds, is a “tether.” In the flying robot world, apparently, saying something is tethered conjures up a restrictive connection that keeps a drone from moving freely.

CyPhy’s more advanced prototype robot, known as the Extreme Access System for Entry or EASE, is designed to be highly maneuverable inside buildings or around standing outdoor structures like bridges.

It’s designed to fly up to 300 feet high, and 1000 feet from its control center, by spooling its power and communications cable out from the robot itself. CyPhy says that, since the spool isn’t on the ground, there isn’t tension on the line or worries about the cable getting tangled.

The EASE robot is intended for surveillance and inspection situations—sending a remote camera through the halls and stairways of a building to inspect a bomb, for instance, or hovering along the length of a bridge for a safety inspection. CyPhy won a $2.4 million federal grant in 2009 to study ways of using unmanned aerial vehicles to inspect civil infrastructure.

Indoor uses in particular benefit from the cable connection, Greiner says, because wireless communications can be easily lost once deep inside a building. “You go around the corner or up the stairs, and you no longer have communication,” she says.

CyPhy Works' EASE

The startup’s second model is known as the Persistent Aerial Reconnaisance and Communications, or PARC. It’s a quad-rotor design, but more stationary than its cousin—the PARC is meant to hover in place for long periods of time without interruption, allowing users to set up surveillance for long periods of time. It also can be fitted with communications relay equipment, giving a boost to signals of teams in the field.

CyPhy Works' PARC

Greiner says the PARC actually was created in response to requests from potential customers, which wanted the leave-in-place, persistent features. That decision came about halfway throught the development process and led to CyPhy staying in stealth mode a little longer than hoped for, Greiner says.

That doesn’t mean the secretive ways are totally finished for Danvers, MA-based CyPhy. Greiner wouldn’t say how many people the startup employs, and demurred when I asked where the robots were being produced, and whether any partner companies were involved. So there’s more to stay tuned for—including any news that shows interest in CyPhy’s idea from crictical government customers.

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