When Infinium Robotics trialed unmanned aerial drones to deliver orders to customers at Timbre @ Substation, a live music restaurant and bar in February this year, it was yet another feather in the cap for the nascent drone industry.
Dubbed the Infinium-Serve, the drones are quadcopters that are the “only fully autonomous and smart flying robotic servers in restaurants and F&B outlets.”
While continuing work on the Infinium-Serve the past six months, the Singapore startup is also looking to extend its core technology — multiple drone coordination — to the outdoors where in some countries, greater regulations restrict the use of drones.
Drone technology to meet needs of an on-demand economy
Beyond the confines of walls, Infinium Robotics has been anticipating a proliferation of drones amongst the masses and the likes of Google and Amazon have been looking to employ drones to deliver goods to customers.
“The on-demand economy is getting quite popular right now. Amazon wants to deliver goods within thirty minutes of the purchase, so the best way to navigate heavy (road) traffic is to send a drone to deliver packages. But you can imagine the skies are going to be quite congested when Amazon starts to deploy, say 20,000 drones and Google is also deploying maybe twice the number,” explained Woon Junyang, the CEO of Infinium Robotics. The startup is into its second year of operations.
The potential of drones is not just limited to delivery services, but includes industrial applications such as inspection of pipelines and power lines, and industries like advertising, mining, and surveying, said Woon.
The 32-year-old added, “It (the drones industry) will bring a lot of value to the world economy by moving things fast and freeing up congestion on the road networks.”
Google and Amazon in recent talks with drone thought leaders
Preparing for the predicted flourishing of drones, NASA’s Ames Research Center and the Silicon Valley Chapter Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) co-hosted a conference* in the US last month.
The conference brought together an array of players within the Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) ecosystem — including academics, governmental and corporate organisations from the US and the world — to discuss ways to develop an Unmanned Aerial Systems Traffic Management (UTM). The purpose of this software would be to prevent drone collisions. (Unmanned Aerial Systems comprise UAVs, drones, and the communications infrastructure that would govern the operations of UAVs and drones.)
Woon was invited to represent Infinium Robotics as a speaker on one of the panels during the three-day conference, where Google and Amazon were also in attendence.
The Stanford University alumnus with a Masters of Science degree in Management Science and Engineering said, “We wanted to participate in this conversation and collaboration even though we are thousands of miles away from the US because we know that it (the UAS industry) is going to affect the world.
“(With potentially) tens of thousands of drones flying in the sky at any one time in a small city, this poses a problem because they might just collide in the air and pose a safety hazard to those people on the ground. So we are interested in setting up an UTM for civilian and industrial users of this space.”
On the cusp of a new era of personal and commercial drones
The former naval officer and Singapore Armed Forces Overseas Scholarship recipient enthused over the industry. He commented, “It is a blue ocean market. One hundred years ago, when the Wright brothers started manned aviation by being the first to fly using an airplane, people didn’t know what kind of a manned aviation market to expect. Today, it’s brought trillions of dollars of value to the economy.
“I think we are at the juncture of the next era for unmanned aviation, where it is relatively cost effective to send drones to the sky. When that happens, you will see that consumers can also do that. And we believe that sooner or later, everyone will own a personal drone.”
Painting a picture of what such a world might be like, Woon said, “For example, a lady can whip out a personal drone from her handbag, throw it to the sky, then see if there’s any traffic jam ahead while driving. At home, you can have a drone to do surveillance of your own compound.”
Allaying fears that such a technology (slated to be developed in four phases ending with a demonstration in March 2019) could spell undesired uses that lead to an invasion of privacy, Woon explained that the proposed UTM would necessitate the approval of flight plans before the drones can fly, somewhat similar to the protocol for manned aircrafts.
“If you apply for your house to be a no-fly zone, then no drones can fly over your house. So privacy issues can be mitigated because no one can plan their flight routes over your house,” said Woon. “If drones are not on this system, then they are rogue drones. They would represent security threats that we are trying to resolve.”
The race to patent drone navigational technology
Working towards this vision with Woon is a team of 15 people. On the Infinium-Serve, they have in the last few months decreased its cost by 50 per cent through product iteration.
Besides making it look sleeker and increasing its ability to bear more weight, they have changed the way the quadcopter navigates and avoids collision – either with man or another machine.
“Instead of using any external and expensive structure (providing the drones with positioning signals akin to GPS, which is negligible in an indoor environment), we use onboard cameras. Just need to put the camera on the drone itself, so it’s like a smart drone with the image-based processing onboard allowing it to navigate indoors,” described Woon, who declined to reveal the name of the technology as the company is in the process of patenting it.
Borrowing from LKY’s maxim
What the father of two did reveal, as he spoke to e27 from his office located out of a warehouse in an industrial area in western Singapore, was his global outlook for his business.
In a nod to the city-state’s first Prime Minister, Woon reproduced a maxim made famous by the late Lee Kuan Yew. He said, “Think and act globally.”
With between 30 and 40 parties from 18 countries around the world interested in purchasing or leasing the Infinium-Serve system, Woon has lived up to that mantra.
Currently raising their Series A round of S$7.02 million (US$5 million), Woon plans to use it to double the size of the team so they can accelerate development on their UTM concept, which he hopes would help Infinium Robotics gain a headstart on their competitors and ultimately dominate the market.
“If maybe 80 per cent of drones that fly in the sky are in our system, then it would be hard for any competitor to come into the market space. The more drones there are that are plugged in our network, the more valuable it would be,” concluded Woon.
One imagines how the world will change, not so much if, but when the idea takes off.
*The Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) Traffic Management Convention 2015: The Next Era of Aviation
Image credit: Woon Junyang/Infinium Robotics