Cosmic Tech

WiBotic unveils a pad that can manage drones on its own

Seattle-based WiBotic has made a name for itself with battery charging stations for drones as well as for ground-based robots, and now its best-known charger is getting smarter.

WiBotic’s PowerPad Pro can bring in any type of drone for autonomous charging — without needing a human operator to guide it in — and also download a drone’s high-resolution data for transmission to a remote mission control center.

“We’ve really solved the power and data piece for this,” Ben Waters, Wibotic’s co-founder and CEO, told me.

WiBotic’s system beams power wirelessly over short distances from a transmitter to an antenna on the device that needs to be charged. Previous generations of PowerPads, which are about the size of a coffee table, were capable of sending snippets of control data — but the upgraded pad has a separate high-speed data transmission system.

That makes it theoretically possible for drones — which are also known as unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs — to be stationed in the field permanently, to be activated by a remote operator whenever the need for an inspection arises.

“When a customer deploys a drone to do a remote inspection, most of those key assets that these businesses want to inspect — whether it’s a power line or a cell tower, a solar farm or an agricultural site — are very remote,” Waters explained. “That’s what’s driving them to want to do the inspection autonomously, because it’s difficult for a person to get out there and manually fly a drone to inspect something.”

Transmitting the imagery typically poses another challenge. “When you’re out there, the drone’s going to capture all these great images and video, but it’s going to have maybe one bar of cellular connection to try to send that data back,” Waters said. “Trying to do 10 gigabytes worth of data that a drone might collect in a single mission is going to be problematic. It’s not going to work. So with PowerPad Pro, the drone lands and we charge it, but while the charging’s taking place, we offload the data that the drones collected and store it locally on the pad.”

The data can then be sent back in real time via a cellular link or a long-range radio transmission system that’s plugged into the pad.

Any type of drone can be equipped with WiBotic’s antenna to link up with PowerPad Pro. But one of the company’s partners, Virginia-based BlueHalo, will be offering its Intense Eye V2 and E900 drones with built-in support for WiBotic’s system.

“BlueHalo provides UAVs to both the commercial and defense sectors, with extensive experience in applications ranging from inspection and monitoring to intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions,” Mary Clum, sector president and corporate executive vice president of BlueHalo, said today in a news release. “There is a growing demand for permanently deployed and remotely controlled UAVs. PowerPad Pro has given us a single, reliable tool to integrate autonomous charging and data offload capabilities into our UAV platforms, allowing us to offer new solutions and better support critical customer missions.”

WiBotic’s upgraded system is already being used by Nebraska-based Valmont Industries, which manufactures and maintains infrastructure for power grids, transportation, irrigation and other applications.

“For the first time, PowerPad Pro provides a charging platform that works with any of the different UAVs we use,” said Angi Chamberlain, vice president of UAS technology solutions at Valmont. “Remote flight plan uploads and automated sensor data downloads also allow us to perform inspections on a moment’s notice at any location where the platform is deployed.”

Waters said the weatherized pad can work as a stand-alone installation, or be deployed as part of a larger platform such as a trailer, shed, hangar or truck bed.

WiBotic isn’t providing details on its pricing — but Matt Carlson, the company’s vice president of business development, said he expects PowerPad Pro to be an attractive option for drone operators.

“We’ve seen that most of the people in the market are offering a $50,000 to $100,000 solution today, and it’s also locked into one proprietary drone,” he said. “Ours is probably going to be somewhere in the range of a third of the price of the competitors, and it’s fully universal.”

WiBotic has come a long way since its founding in 2015 at the University of Washington. A $5.7 million Series A funding round, announced in 2020, brought total investment to nearly $9 million. WiBotic’s clientele includes commercial and government customers, some of whom haven’t yet been publicly disclosed.

Over the course of the past three years, the WiBotic team has grown from 12 full-time employees (plus a few part-timers) to a staff of about 30 people, Waters said. “Our mission is to continue to expand the markets that we address,” he said.

That includes managing drones as well as ground-based robots that can be controlled through a new application known as Autonomous Sort and Retrieval Systems, or ASRS. “These are typically track-mounted robots that are moving through a large structure of totes and boxes that store items in a warehouse,” Waters said.

And then there’s the outer-space angle: Over the past couple of years, WiBotic has been working with Astrobotic, Bosch and the University of Washington on a $5.8 million project to develop charging systems for lunar robots. Such systems could come in handy for future robots including Astrobotic’s CubeRover and NASA’s ISRU Pilot Excavator, which is designed to mine water ice and other lunar resources.

Could WiBotic’s wireless technology take charge of NASA’s moon rovers? “Not yet, but someday,” Waters said.

By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributor to GeekWire and Universe Today, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," past president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: