Beware semi-retirement. Just when you think you’re about to downshift into a second career, something as comfortable as your weekend jeans, that’s when you meet a guy who flies drones equipped with remote sensors, collects data with them, has a business plan and a $50,000 bankroll to help, um, get it off the ground. And you’re hooked.
“Boy, that’s the thing I want to do next,” recalled Loren Anderson about that day in 2015 when he met Tim Haynie and his flying machines. “We’ve been working together since.”
Retirement will have to wait, because now, their Colorado Springs company, Spectrabotics LLC, is a contender for a global prize that could gain them an audience in front of investors with seriously deep pockets. And then, who knows what might happen?
But first, about those drones. Haynie, himself retired from a military career of engineering and space operations, was attaching sensors to them, then flying them over farm fields to gather all kinds of near-infrared data about the crops — plant temperature, moisture and the like — and plotting the data out on a map.
“That was the genesis,” said Anderson, now Spectrabotics’ chief operating officer. “Drones with multiple spectral sensors for agriculture.”
That idea — “precision agriculture,” the company called it — was enough to earn Spectrabotics a $50,000 Advanced Industry Accelerator grant in 2015 from the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade. Haynie and Anderson matched it with $100,000 of their own.
It’s not exactly a new idea to gather ground data from above. For years, aircraft and satellites have been mapping, measuring and cataloging land and sea. But there are gaps. A satellite can map out a forest; it takes a sensor-equipped drone, however, to reveal which of the trees in that forest are in the early, mid and late stages of infestation of the emerald ash borer, as Spectrabotics has been doing in Denver.
Commercial vineyards already are bristling with ground sensors capturing data on soil moisture, air density, rainfall and other measures. It takes a lot of computing horsepower to blend those data with the grape-specific information harvested by the drones, and then to make sense of that mashup.
It’s one thing to watch the weather forecast and deploy snowplows into the path of a storm; it’s another to put location-specific weather conditions together with individual crash data to figure out how to design safer streets.
Data points are piling up everywhere. To close the gaps between them, the Spectrabotics idea is to apply machine learning to the sensor-generated data, then create visualizations that are easily understood and can be automated, creating a real-time “dashboard” of the insights you want to get from all that data. It’s not about the temperature of the grape; it’s about the type of nutrient that should be applied, right now, to the soil under the grape.
“It’s not about drones as much as it is about the data,” Anderson said. “Bringing diverse types of data together to analyze has been something that is very hard to accomplish. That’s been our focus.”
Nor is it all about agriculture. The partners see applications in mining, oil and gas drilling, city planning, water management, and emergency response.
The data science at the heart of Spectrabotics may be difficult to explain, but its business plan is straightforward: Get In Front Of People. At this stage, networking is as important as the technology. The company is a client of Innosphere, a Colorado tech incubator, and that connection along with the Advanced Industry Accelerator grant led to a meeting with the water manager for a Front Range municipality that Anderson is not at liberty to disclose.
The utility is swimming in sensor data — weather, water consumption, aquifer flows, reservoirs, pump stations, and more. What it needs is a way to read that information so it can predict customer demand and get a few days’ jump on moving water through its network of pumps, pipes and tanks to where it will be needed.
Enter machine learning; no drones necessary.
Projects like that, as with the ash-borer exercise in Denver, are meant to sharpen Spectrabotics’ toolkit, prove the concept, build credibility, and pull in a trickle of revenue while the company searches for a deeper pool of seed capital. Toward that end, last year it participated in NASA’s iTech competition, which showcases “independent innovation” to potential collaborators and investors, and ended up as one of three national finalists.
The iTech experience led Anderson and Haynie to join F6S, a network of startup founders. It was through those connections that, about a month ago, they got word of the AcceliCITY competition, run by Leading Cities, a nonprofit skunkworks for “smart city solutions.” With only a few days to prepare, they tossed their municipal water project into the mix, and voilá: Out of 500 applications, Spectrabotics is among the pool of 50 semifinalists.
“It wasn’t so much that we accomplished these things in water,” Anderson said, “but the process in which we’re doing this type of analysis resonates with people who understand it is a complex situation and that it happens to apply to water.”
The next month or so will involve weekly refinement of the pitch for AcceliCITY judges. There is some prize money at stake, but the real payoff is the potential to become one of 10 finalists, who will go to Boston for an intensive round of coaching for a final presentation to a panel representing serious investor money.
“It’s a long shot,” Anderson said. But even if they don’t make it to the final round, he said, the credibility gained through the exposure is plenty valuable.
“We think there’s more success out there to come if we keep at it.”
Jeff Thomas was a reporter and editor at The Gazette from 1988-2011. Currently he’s an editor for a nonprofit that supports Christians around the world who live under threat. Reach him via DM at @JTattheG, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.