Forward Fest event highlights drones, entrepreneurship

A group of enthusiastic kids got the chance try out industry-level drones as part of Madison’s Forward Fest.

They also heard about new and interesting ways drones are being used in a variety of commercial applications, as well as by the U.S. Army and casual hobbyists.

The event was held yesterday at University Research Park by the Wisconsin chapter of Bunker Labs, a national nonprofit which supports veteran-owned and operated businesses. A few drone-centric startups were there to show off their tech and give short presentations on how they and others are leveraging drone capabilities to bring value to diverse industries.

Chris Johnson, founder of Pilot Training System and instructor for a drone-flying course offered by UW-Madison, says the idea of aerial vehicles collecting useful data is nothing new. It’s been done by U.S. military planes in every conflict since WWI.

“Over time, the aircraft have become more and more capable and more and more autonomous, to the point where we’ve got these military-grade drones that still conduct surveillance and data collection missions,” he said. “But just recently, drones have made it from a military context to a civilian context.”

And that recent transition into the hands of everyday civilians has been accompanied by greater interest in drones’ use in the business world.

“The venture capital in this space has grown exponentially, and 2017 is projected to be greater than 2016, so you’ve got that hockey stick growth in a very short period of time,” he said. “That’s why drones are such a craze now; it’s been the most popular christmas gift the last two years running.”

Peter Menet, a military veteran and president and CEO of Milwaukee-based Menet Aero, spoke about some drone projects his company is currently working on.

“We’re primarily focused in geospatial and industrial inspection applications,” he said. “We’re very partnership-focused; we work with a lot of companies to sort of help them leverage air power to do their business differently.”

Menet Aero has been performing thermal substation inspections in Green Bay, working with video production companies to capture high-speed action scenes, and partnering with the Milwaukee Fire Department on safety training programs. Much of the company’s business comes from the construction industry, he added.

Johnson cited a report from Goldman Sachs which predicted the construction industry would be the biggest for drones — almost double the second biggest: agriculture.

“Agriculture right now is one of the most mature industries, because these drones are flying out in cornfields away from people,” Johnson said. He added that for other industries, such as insurance, there’s much greater concerns about safety and regulations, but that’s not holding any of the big companies back from looking into drones.

“In fact, I helped build American Family Insurance Company’s drone program, and you can see a lot of the major insurance companies are going after this technology,” he said, pointing to examples like State Farm, AIG and others.

Johnson said commercial drones are being used to check for crop health in vineyards and farms; inspecting miles of pipeline for leaks and other urgent problems; accurately scanning engineering projects and other construction developments; and even capturing data on natural disasters for insurance purposes.

Rapid Imaging Software, which is diving into augmented reality applications of drones, was also represented at the event. The company had an active video monitor playing which showed how information such as roads, landmarks, vehicles, people and more can be overlaid onto live video from a bird’s-eye view.

All these applications and more are being aggressively pursued by some of the most well-recognized companies in the world: Monsanto, Facebook, AT&T, Exxon, Verizon, Google, ESPN and many more.

Amazon has been working toward delivery of products through drones, but isn’t quite there yet — mostly because regulation by the Federal Aviation Administration is getting in the way, Johnson said. But he expects that to change at some point, adding that even more significant drone applications are currently being explored all over the world.

“In the future we’ll see them delivering packages, and eventually, hopefully if the manufacturers have their way, carrying people,” he said.

Johnson also referenced a unique military drone from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Industry which is much different from the visually obvious ones most often used in industry.

“This drone here, designed by DARPA, actually disappears,” he said. “So this drone flies around at night, it lands and it actually evaporates when the sun comes up. So, the data is transmitted in real time, and it’s sort of a spy drone — they call it the ‘vampire drone.’”

–By Alex Moe