August 22, 2018

CyPhy Works: A Local Pioneer in the Drone Space

CyPhy Works was founded in 2008 by Helen Greiner, who had previously co-founded iRobot. Greiner’s decision to leave one company to start another originated from when iRobot transitioned away from the defense business to focus on consumer oriented robots like the vacuum cleaners, mops, and outdoor maintenance appliances they’re known for today.

“Helen had a passion for robotics to keep the warfighter safe. In the iRobot days, she was the driver behind PackBot, which addressed IED threats. Helen’s philosophy was that ground robots have inherent issues, having to climb around things, navigate over things—if you could fly a robot to the problem, that would be so much easier. And when she decided to start CyPhy, she made the decision that she was going to work on what she called aerial robots.” CEO Lance Vanden Brook said, who joined the company in 2016. Vanden Brook previously served as SVP of Pilot Thomas Logistics’ Energy and Industrial Group, and he also helped lead the growth of Kiva Systems as VP of Worldwide Sales and Solutions from 2010-2012, which was acquired by Amazon.

CyPhy Works CEO Lance Vanden Brook.

Vanden Brook said soldiers were having to go door-to-door as they were clearing the streets. As soldiers breached buildings, if they didn’t know what was behind a given door, soldiers could sometimes get injured and killed.

“We wanted to build something that could fly through a window and see what was on the other side of the door. And in addition, ould have a drone that could fly overhead that the other units could use, we wouldn’t have to have other groups—Air Force and Navy—providing air assets. If we had something the small Army units could use, that would be great as well.”

Greiner, with her company, got to work on solving the problem. Because this was back in 2008, the drone business didn’t exist in the same way it does today. In 2008, the technology available was limited to RC cars, planes and helicopters, which had limited station time and frequently lost communications. The solution was to develop a persistent power and secured communications source that could allow soldiers to complete their missions without the reliance on battery time.

This focus on building drones with effective power conversion would prove to be the backbone of CyPhy Works. “All of our IP is really around power conversion and our tether, and really how we convert power into high voltage and power our drones for really long periods of time.”

Now that they had a mission statement for the company, they got to work. Again, as the space was new, they had to build everything themselves, from the boards to the flight stacks. As the CEO explained, Greiner had to go to hobby stores in order to find the components she needed to build prototype drones for the army.

They were in this R&D phase for the first six years of CyPhy Works, doing projects for the Department of Defense and three-letter agencies, and it wasn’t until right around the start of 2015 that they team focused on bringing a product to market.

That product, named PARC Persistent Aerial Reconnaissance and Communications) is an aerial robot about 4 feet in diameter. It’s payload-agnostic, so the company flies everything from cameras, radios, radar payloads, and sensors.

For the US Army, it has ISR (intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance) capabilities, and is deployed to a number of locations. It can spot threats or even provide a communications bubble for soldiers in remote areas. And with PARC’s tether-based technology, they managed to make a drone that would last in the air for days—not minutes.

Their next product, expected to launch in the first part of 2019, is called Pocket Flyer drone, which has more of a commercial focus than a defense one. It’s a pocket-sized drone on a tether that can go into hazardous areas and collect the data without the need for human intervention. A core purpose of this one, Vanden Brook said, is to solve a large issue plaguing certain business sectors for years.

“We are solving a large issue in the US but also a large issue globally. In the US we have large facilities like refineries, petrochemical plants, power plants, wastewater treatment plants. And there are regulatory requirements where employees have to inspect certain parts of those refineries or petrochemical plants where they’re getting gowned up with respirators, air tanks, hazmat suits, and really having to go into these really hazardous environments to do inspections.”

He explained that there were 135 fatalities from these inspections in 2016.

“The idea is to stop putting people in harm’s way. The CEOs of a number of oil and gas companies have come out and tasked their organizations with removing humans from these inspections by 2020. There are some really progressive organizations—Environmental, Health, & Safety teams along with senior leadership have said, hey look, there are too many good technology organizations in the market—go work with them and figure out a solution for this problem. And we were approached by one of these large organizations who said, hey, come help us solve it. We looked at the data, as well as the requirements, and said this would be a fun project to tackle and we can build a business around this, which is what we’re doing.”

In addition to the success they’re seeing with the military and safety-based applications of their technology, the company has also used their drones for everything from the NBA All-Star Game to the Fourth of July mission for Boston, which was an 18-hour day. In addition, CyPhy Works drones were flown during the Tokyo Marathon in 2016 as well as the Boston Marathons in 2017 and 2018.

“If you remember this last Boston marathon, it rained all day. All of the State Police air assets were grounded because the clouds were so low, it didn’t make sense to put air assets up. The only air assets they used for the Boston Marathon were our drones. So through all that rain and all that wind, the drones were up nonstop.”

The company currently has approximately 50 employees, and on the hiring front, Vanden Brook says that the company is always on the lookout for high-quality engineering and sales talent. The company has raised $37M to date, and intends to raise another $5-10M over the next six months.

Drones represent one of the most exciting new spaces in tech right now, and the story of CyPhy Works shows us that if an industry doesn’t exist and you want it to, all you have to do is create it yourself.

Alexander Culafi is a Staff Writer at VentureFizz. He also edits and produces The VentureFizz Podcast. Follow him on Twitter: @culafia.