An undergrad, a drone and a dream: New FAA rules have a UNLV student smelling opportunity

Some people are just born to build stuff.

In his sixth-grade yearbook, Greg Friesmuth answered the question of what he wanted to be when he grew up by saying he wanted to build robots for the military. For Christmas that year, he got a couple Lego Mindstorms robot kits, which he combined into one and used to make his own creations.

Lately, though, Friesmuth has transferred that energy to drones. A couple years ago, he built one in his garage with a couple hundred dollars in mail-order parts. Last year, he built another, bigger one as part of a capstone project at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Today, that project has evolved into a working prototype of a industrial-grade quadcopter — and Friesmuth is trying make drones his career. Working out of a lab in the engineering building at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, he has created a company, called Skyworks Aerial Systems, to help turn his prototype into a product.

To call the company early-stage would be an overstatement — it wasn’t even incorporated as of this week — but there’s reason for optimism.

Building a team in a testbed state

For starters, Friesmuth isn’t going at it entirely alone. He convinced fellow student Jinger Zeng to join Skyworks as employee No. 2 and chief operating officer (another student is also helping out part-time as a software engineer). Zeng, who will be earning her master’s degree in mechanical engineering in May, has some experience in managing complex projects. She was second-in-command for the UNLV Solar Decathlon team that recently finished in second place in the Department of Energy’s biannual global competition.

Zeng and Friesmuth in the lab at UNLV.

Zeng and Friesmuth in the lab at UNLV.

In addition, Nevada was recently designated as one of six states approved as testing ground for commercial drone projects. If Skyworks is able to get off the ground (no pun intended), being a local company actually selling drones and one of the (presumably) few with expertise in building them could prove to be a lucrative position.

Friesmuth thinks his company has a chance to excel in the commercial drone era because its quadcopter is designed with commercial applications in mind. It cost about $2,000 in parts to build (although much of Friesmuth’s work on it has been funded by grants) and is not, as he described some commercially available drones, “a toy” that can’t fly against the wind. It’s powered by an ARM Cortex M4 processor that can process multiple computations simultaneously (e.g., stabilization and GPS positioning) and has another, smaller ARM processor on board just in case the first one fails. It can support a large battery capable of flying for 30 minutes without a charge.

And while he estimates it can easily fly a couple thousand feet in the air (FAA regulations have heretofore limited operation to several hundred feet), Skyworks’ unit is designed to be optimal in indoor situations. The rotors are plastic so they won’t do serious damage to humans or walls, and they’re covered to prevent any real damage from horizontal collisions. Apart from doing filming with an attached camera, Friesmuth said his drone could potentially be used for anything from indoor mapping to search and rescue. He already has received grant money to research drones’ applicability for radiation detection.


You might have heard of the competition — and they have money

The Aibotix Aibot x6

The Aibotix Aibot x6

Of course, the Skyworks prototype is still just that, and it looks like it when compared with some similar commercial designs, such as the Aibotix X6 Hexakopter, and others from 3D Robotics and DJI. In order to help the Skyworks design stand apart, Friesmuth wants to make his product modular, so users could pretty easily add rotors or swap out standard types of batteries, cameras and other attachments. He’s also considering making it available as a developer edition first so researchers and other early adopters — particularly in testbed states — can experiment and figure out their own uses without being tethered to specific applications.

“The technology is so versatile … that we’re kind of putting ourselves out there and seeing who’s interested in it for what,” he said. And until people really start taking advantage of the test sites, “The outdoor world is kind of an unknown,” he added.

Friesmuth's drone up close, carrying a package from Walls360.

Friesmuth’s drone up close, carrying a package from Walls360.

But the development from prototype to something that people will actually buy (and Skyworks could build at scale, if need be) is going to take capital, which is harder to come by than ideas. The business side of things is a little trickier for someone like Friesmuth, who’s trying to commercialize his technology independent of the university in a city without any real institutional knowledge in launching successful startups. It’s conceivable Skyworks could raise money locally — Tony Hsieh’s Vegas Tech Fund is now building a portfolio of hardware companies and UNLV has a fledgling a venture capital fund of it own — but for now the company needs to focus on just producing a business plan.

Even if Skyworks never materializes into a real business, or if it takes longer than expected, Friesmuth said he’s not giving up on drones. There’s always the option of continuing his research as an academician, he noted, and it’s conceivable he could go to work for one of more-established companies, making valuable connections and learning the business of unmanned aircraft in process. (It’s probably worth noting the latter idea was mine, not Friesmuth’s.)

Because, well, building drones is fun — especially to a guy who has likely owned thousands of dollars worth of Legos in his lifetime. And, as he said, “This is all adult Legos to me.”