Start-up Profile: CyPhy Works Builds Tethered Drones for Soldiers, First Responders

The company’s drone-on-a-string provides an extra pair of eyes in tight spots

Combat and emergency response involves split-second decisions. The decisions could be better informed if soldiers or first responders could get a look inside buildings or over ridges before venturing forward. To give them that capability, start-up CyPhy Works is making tethered aerial drones that can fly for hours and stream high-quality video.

Based in Danvers, Mass., the company wants to put its drones in the hands of every soldier, police officer, and emergency responder. “Our systems are about saving lives,” says Matt England, CyPhy Works’ vice president of military systems.

Drones typically have their own batteries and computers and use radio communication. CyPhy Works’ drones rely instead on a microfilament that tethers the flying robot to a computer and small battery pack carried by the user. The hairlike filament includes a fiber-optic cable, and it unspools from a small bobbin on the robot, so it doesn’t restrict the drone, England says. And unlike a radio frequency link, the cable connection can’t be jammed or monitored by an enemy.

The drones can send back a high-definition video feed and communicate with users even when they’re deep inside a building, says founder and CEO Helen Greiner. Greiner is the cofounder and past chair of iRobot, which brought robotics into the mainstream with its Roomba vacuum. She approached England in 2008 with her idea for a tethered aerial robot. England was about to retire after a 30-year military career, during which he was instrumental in deploying unmanned systems for the U.S. Army. He identified the combat problems the robots could solve and joined the company. CyPhy Works publicly unveiled its two aircraft in 2012.

The first is a 140-centimeter-long quadrotor vehicle designed to hover in place up to 150 meters high. In addition to providing live video, it can be set up as a wireless communication relay for soldiers spread out in the field. These robots would be ideal for use at remote combat outposts in the mountains of Iraq and Afghanistan, England says. As of press time, CyPhy Works planned to deliver test units to the U.S. Army by the end of January of this year.

The other craft is an 18-centimeter-wide, 80-gram hexacopter that soldiers can easily slip into their pockets or packs. Unlike most UAVs, the pocket flyer is designed for enclosed spaces, because fighting increasingly takes place in urban environments, England says. It is also ideal for rescue workers inspecting confined spaces. In September 2014, the U.S. Air Force awarded CyPhy Works a contract for the pocket flyers for search-and-rescue missions in collapsed buildings.

“The best robot is the one you have with you,” Greiner says in an oft-repeated sentiment. “That’s exactly what this robot will be. It’ll be what you have when you’re in a dangerous situation.”

After initially focusing on the military market, Greiner plans to tackle the bigger, civilian market. She says the larger aerial reconnaissance robots could act like personal satellites for monitoring and security at fuel refineries and industrial plants, as well as bridges and other infrastructure.

Bilal Zuberi, a partner at Lux Capital, which has invested over $5 million in CyPhy Works, says the company’s tethered approach is needed because batteries will not evolve anytime soon. But technology factored second in Zuberi’s investment decision. “It’s team first,” he says. “Helen’s work and successes show she is a real engineering entrepreneur who has lived in and out of the robotics world.” The market for CyPhy Works’ drones could be huge, he adds. “It [just] doesn’t exist yet.”

This article originally appeared in print as “Profile: CyPhy Works.”

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