June 19, 2015
Two Fargo-based companies, Botlink and Packet Digital, announced that they are joining forces to create a drone platform which will not only allow pilots to track their drone flights in real-time, but to fly their drones using solar energy for up to four hours – 4x as long as today’s average flight time.
They are launching the joint venture as a new company, Botlink LLC, and intend to raise $15 million to launch their platform by July. Already, they have raised $5 million.
Botlink, a product of Aerobotic Innovations LLC, is a drone control and safety application that enables pilots to track their drone in real-time, view any other manned and unmanned aircraft in the surrounding airspace, and communicate with other pilots via cellular network. It’s a 1-year-old product being developed by a team of drone military pilots and both software and mechanical engineers.
Packet Digital is a 13-year-old company that develops autonomous system-level power management with a focus on power savings. Recently, they partnered with the Department of Defense to create a solar powered endless endurance drone. What they developed through solar panels on the wings and maximum power point tracking (MPPT), is the ability for a drone to fly for up to 4 hours, whereas currently average flight cycles for drones are 20-90 minutes.
“It’s a perfect merge,” Muehler said. “We [Aerobotic Innovations] are doing all the cellular technology and the software, and then Packet Digital is doing all the internal electronic efficiencies in the drone.”
With this platform, Muehler said, drones move from being a toy to an actual viable product.
Botlink is targeting the commercial market, Zimmerman said, where a high-endurance drone could benefit work like media broadcasting, weather monitoring, or search and rescue, for example. Their technology will also prevent drone crash landings, (such as the recent one from Google), by having power sensors that enable the drone to land upright, Zimmerman said.
“I think we will really enable the industry,” she said.
Botlink, LLC, will first combine efforts and technologies on their cellular drone communications device that allows real-time distribution of data the drone is collecting (sent back to the user’s device or computer), as well as facilitating beyond line of site drone control – all through existing cellular networks. They are also hiring, looking for about nine software developers.
“It just made sense.”
It took a trip to a drone conference in Atlanta, Georgia, for the two Fargo companies to get talking. Muehler and Zimmerman both traveled to check out the top notch drone tech at the AUVSI (Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International) conference in early May. But what they saw was a scramble, gold-rush style, to build more of the same.
“It was a mess,” Muehler said. “Everybody’s trying to build different versions of a mousetrap… Nobody’s actually working on a complete platform that enables every drone to do anything.”
On day one, Muehler and Zimmerman met to discuss what they were seeing. They had not even ordered their lunch when they realized the potential in combining their expertise in hardware and software.
“It just made sense,” Zimmerman said.
“It was like a light bulb moment of, why are we not doing this together? Because we can completely take the entire industry by storm if we can put this into one package,” Muehler added. “It’s been a rocket ship ever since.”
In a little under three weeks, Botlink and Packet Digital had formed their joint venture and are now planning to get their platform to market by the end of June, Zimmerman said. Already, they have spoken with potential customers and investors and are receiving responses that are “very positive,” she said.
“Everyone from DOD guys, to commercialists, to hobbyists – they’re all really excited,” Muehler said.
Building out of Fargo
The partnership of Botlink and Packet Digital is a testimony to Fargo’s style, Zimmerman and Muehler agreed. If they hadn’t met at a Chamber of Commerce dinner here, they might not have talked in Atlanta, Zimmerman said. Moreover, the collaborative environment allowed for a smooth, positive transition combining the two companies.
“People genuinely want other people to do well,” Zimmerman said. “I sense that among companies and entrepreneurs here in Fargo. When Shawn and I started talking about where the industry was going, and what we needed to do as a company, there wasn’t a guardedness of ‘what will you take of mine’, or ‘what’s better for me’, it was ‘what’s better in general.’ There was immediate trust of what could we build together, that would be better than what we could build separate.”
What they can build together, according to the two teams, is something quite remarkable.
“You’re taking two incredibly advanced products into one platform,” Muehler said. “There wasn’t any question about it, this was really the only way forward.”
“I haven’t questioned it since,” Zimmerman added. “I don’t think anybody will be as far along as we are.”
Story photos courtesy of Marisa Jackels.
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