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SOURCE:  IEEE

A six-propeller drone in November carried a 3-kilogram load from a heliport to a large cargo ship anchored 5 kilometers off the Port of Singapore, becoming the first drone in the world to do a nighttime offshore delivery. F-drones, the Singapore-based startup behind the milestone, is now building drones designed to autonomously deliver 100-kg payloads over a distance of 100km to ships and offshore platforms.

“I could’ve developed drones that fly over land, but Singapore being such a busy port had a bigger problem in the maritime industry,” says Yeshwanth Reddy, company cofounder and CTO. The startup is filling a crucial need for offshore deliveries, he says.

Cargo ships often are like small islands, anchored a few kilometers from port as they wait for space at the harbor to load or unload, with the crew living on board for days. Small launch boats and helicopters bring food, medical supplies, postal deliveries, and spare parts to the vessels. But the deliveries cost significant time and money. F-drones is building vehicles that can deliver crucial items in minutes, anytime they are needed, to crews on the ships as well as those stationed at offshore energy and research platforms.

“Small package deliveries to vessels or oil rigs make up a significant portion of maritime logistics,” Reddy says. “And it takes 50kg of carbon dioxide emissions to deliver just 1kg of any item to a vessel in port.” He says

F-drones was awarded an IEEE Entrepreneurship Star at Slingshot 2020, one of the largest startup events in the Asia Pacific region. The program recognizes young companies that have the potential to commercialize engineering-driven innovations in IEEE’s fields of interest. Recipients also get a free year of IEEE membership.

HIGHER-IMPACT PROJECTS
F-drones is not Reddy’s first startup. In 2013 he helped create Aarav Unmanned Systems—one of India’s first commercial drone startups—after earning a bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay. The company makes drones for aerial surveying and mapping.

After helping the company grow to more than 60 employees and capturing about 60 percent of India’s drone surveying market, Reddy decided in 2019 that it was time to move on.

“I wanted to build more challenging technology that can have a higher impact on the way we do things and improve our way of life,” he says.

He set his eyes on transportation. “Existing modes of transportation—road, air, and water—are unsustainable and inefficient,” he says. He wanted to “champion the cause of mass urban aerial mobility,” he says, moving cargo and people using small, autonomous electric aircraft that would be efficient and emissions-friendly.

Reddy relocated to Singapore in 2019 and joined the Entrepreneur First accelerator program. There he met Nicolas Ang, who had worked at Singapore’s Economic Development Board, facilitating investments in the nation’s maritime and offshore industry. Ang, who has an aeronautical engineering degree from the National University of Singapore, also had an interest in developing drone technology.

The Port of Singapore is one of the busiest in the world, and Ang and Reddy soon learned about the unmet need for maritime drone deliveries. Drones already have proven to be valuable for last-mile deliveries to homes and for medical deliveries in remote areas. Offshore they are primarily used for ship inspections, search-and-rescue missions, and surveillance.

At the accelerator program, the duo met a former captain of a commercial vessel, who mentioned the difficulty of shore-to-ship deliveries—which they then confirmed with shipping company representatives.

“Getting an item, no matter how small it is, takes hundreds of dollars and days of logistical planning,” Reddy says.

Ang and Reddy launched F-drones in March 2019 to fill a need for autonomous deliveries over water in the maritime industry.

The endeavor brings a set of technical challenges: “The requirement is for the drones to be able to carry as heavy and large a payload as possible, and travel as far as possible,” Reddy says.

Other drones on the market or being developed for such offshore deliveries are either too big, have limited flight range, or run on fossil fuels, he says. Plus, he adds, none are smart enough to land on a moving vessel.

“Even anchored vessels are rocking and moving,” he explains.

F-drones’ proprietary Hyperlaunch technology addresses those challenges. Its drones are compact and lightweight, and their battery can last for 30minutes. The drones are also rugged, able to withstand high wind speeds over water as well as the corrosive, salty air.

Land-based drones can be controlled using 4G networks, but those networks fade out 2to 3km from land, Reddy says, “so you have to be creative.” F-drones crafts navigate using GPS, and they land on vessels using state-of-the-art computer-vision software.

“We get live GPS positions of all the ships,” he says. “We use that as an initial target location for our drones, which also use GPS navigation. Once the drone reaches the location, the computer-vision system takes over and guides the drone to land at the right safe spot.”

The company is now working on using computer vision to augment the GPS system during the entire flight. F-drones developed its computer-vision algorithms with researchers at the ETH Zurich university.

The startup also has forged research and development partnerships with KH Unmanned, in Wales. KH, which designs, builds, and operates drones for customers, helped to develop the F-drones autopilot system. AbsoluteComposites of Bengaluru, India, specializes in making the drone’s airframes.

To make sure the company’s drones are reliable, engineers built in redundancies for all the major hardware systems. “It has three autopilots, three GPS sensors, and three air-speed sensors,” Reddy says. Eight rotors propel the drone, he says, so it can complete its mission even if a couple fail.

The company confronts hurdles beyond the technical ones. “Another challenge is that the drone industry is highly regulated,” Reddy says. “We face maritime and aviation regulations as well as international-border regulations since we are almost crossing borders sometimes.”

To prove its concept, F-drones started by building small drones and gaining customers and operational permits. The strategy has been successful. With pre-seed funding secured in 2019, it built a half-scale version with a 2.3-meter wingspan that made a successful autonomous test flight that December, leading the company to secure approval for flying beyond a drone operator’s line of sight.

The half-scale prototype has completed more than 100flights, and it is expected to start commercial deliveries later this year. A full-scale drone—with a 5.4-m wingspan that will be able to carry 100kg—should be available for deliveries next year, Reddy says.

In February the startup closed a seed-funding round from major shipping companies. Reddy says the company’s eight-member team recently moved into larger offices, and it is looking to double its number of full-time employees.