Information about vegetation and other conditions at the tops of utility poles can be crucial in helping energy companies to prevent power outages, but gathering it can be a challenge. Thanks to a new $50,000 grant from PlanetM, Detroit-based Aerotronic is working on a new autonomous drone that does that gathering on its own.
In August, Aerotronic was one of six recipients of a PlanetM Mobility Grant. The state grants support companies to develop mobility technologies in Michigan. Aerotronic CEO Chris Chance says he and his staff were "super excited" about the grant, viewing it as "a continuation of the wonderful support" they've gotten since moving from Indiana to the PlanetM Landing Zone.
"There are so many resources in the state that people are willing to share and we are grateful for that," he says. "To be given funding reinforces that we are in a community that is willing to help growing companies like ours develop their futures."
Aerotronic launched in 2015 in Indiana. Over the past few years, the startup, which utilizes drones, helicopters, and artificial intelligence to provide information to energy companies about their systems, has been making steady progress.
Chance and his team are planning to invest the $50,000 grant into the next stages of Aerotronic's development.
For the last year, the company has been working with DTE Energy to develop and test technology that will help improve the reliability of DTE's power grids and reduce outages. Aerotronic is currently developing a remote sensing technology solution that can provide data on the tops of poles and the surrounding vegetation. That helps clients maintain the electrical components atop their poles and ensure that trees aren't growing into their lines.
Aerotronic is also planning to make collection of that data a completely autonomous operation by integrating an upgraded sensor package with Aerotronic's Dauntless drone. Chance says the grant funds will directly support those efforts.
"The funding will be helpful towards funding software and hardware development – from better sensors to sophisticated machine learning-enabled data pipelines," he says.
Chance explains that the improved sensors and processing technology funded by the PlanetM grant will be instrumental in Aerotronic being able to collect and analyze multiple types of data more quickly and more accurately than ever before.
Overall, Aerotronic's continuing goal is to develop technology that will give power companies unprecedented access to information that they can use to maintain an aging power grid.
"The power grid has problems everywhere, and we want to help solve these reliability issues and help prevent potential disasters that can come from poor power line maintenance," Chance says.
The next step for Aerotronic is to measure how well its product will meet potential customers' needs. Then the company will roll out its product offerings to more potential clients.
Aerotronic is currently speaking with a number of potential clients. However, Chance says the company is still focused on proof of concepts and iterating solutions. While the company hasn't had any major contracts yet, the Aerotronic team is fully confident in success.
According to Chance, the PlanetM grant will bring Aerotronic much closer to commercial viability and help the company get new products ready for market.
"We are in the process of taking lessons from explorations and smaller tests and turning what we have learned into a really robust product that we know will make a difference to people," he says.