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Posted on Mon, Mar 4, 2013 : 5:58 a.m.

Ann Arbor startup plans to build autonomous flying robots

By Kody Klein


SkySpecs chief engineer Pat Senatore operates a CNC mill as CEO Danny Ellis looks on as they work cut out a mold for a prototype in the Wilson Student Team Project Center at the University of Michigan on Friday, Feb. 22, 2013.

Melanie Maxwell I

Danny Ellis started the University of Michigan’s Autonomous Aerial Vehicles Team in 2009 with one objective: to build a robot light enough to fly, smart enough to do it independently, and competitive enough to take first place at the International Aerial Robotics Competition.

This past August, the U-M team met that objective when its design outperformed robots from 20 other universities from around the world.

It was the third year participants attempted to conquer the competition's sixth mission wherein competing robots had to fly into a building through an open window, navigate the course to retrieve a target flash drive, leave a decoy in place of the drive, and exit the building.

No robot fulfilled the mission objectives completely. In fact, some self-terminated inside the course, per the competition's rules.

On their best run, the U-M team didn't bother programming its robot to pick up the flash drive, due to retrieval malfunctions it had suffered on previous runs.

"In the last attempt, we just wanted to prove that we could be at first place," Ellis said.

That prudence paid off -- their robot stole the show when it autonomously navigated the entire course in under five minutes without bumping into anything.

Inspired by their success, Ellis and his peers aimed their sights higher. They started a company to commercialize autonomous aerial robot technology for industrial applications.

The company, SkySpecs, took the $50,000 first place prize at the fifth annual Michigan Clean Energy Venture Challenge Feb. 15 at the Ross School of Business.

"It’s really not about the prize money, it’s just a small incentive," Ellis said.

SkySpecs was one of 20 teams from 10 Michigan universities that made it to the challenge's semi-finals.


A prototype system the Michigan Autonomous Aerial Vehicles developed.

Melanie Maxwell |

"It’s a real business that can be in the marketplace soon and that fits our criteria of renewable energy and energy saving," said Norm Rapino, the challenge's co-director. "They had a cohesive group of people who worked together well and were multidisciplinary. I believe the judges thought this was a venture that was poised for success."

Although only recently founded, the company has raised $100,000 from private investors and business competitions like the clean energy challenge.

Ellis said production hasn't started yet and will be small-scale for the first few years.

"We have to prove there is a market segment, paying customers, and a solution that fits their problems," he said. "...Our target is to be selling 600 units a year by 2017."

The robot the company is developing will be significantly different from the one the U-M team designed.

"The student team's vehicle was built for a very particular application," he said. "We are designing for commercial and industrial applications."

Ellis estimated the production model will weigh around 11 pounds and cost about $50,000, due largely to its various expensive sensors.

"The vehicle is incorporated with cameras, ultrasonic sensors, thermal sensors," he said.

While the U-M team's robot used a laser sensor to scan 40,000 points per second as it navigated an environment, SkySpecs' production model will rely on sophisticated cameras instead.

"We’re really focusing on the visual side, basically using the cameras the way a human does," Ellis said.

The robot's modular design features a circular center platform from which four rotor-bearing arms extend. A number of specialized cameras or sensors can be installed interchangeably on top of the platform.

"Our biggest goal is anyone can take it out of the box and fly it, just completely untrained," he said.

The robot will not require any programming by users. Instead, they will interact with it via a touch-screen tablet.

"This will have high level commands and the ability to place way-points in the environment that the vehicle will follow," he said.

The high-level commands will vary with market and application, but may include take off, land, return to home, hold position, explore environment and more.

"The learning curve to operate our vehicle will be minimal," he said.

Ellis said "no tools are necessary." In fact, he said an engineer or soldier could remove the arms or exchange the sensors without even taking her or his gloves off.

"It can go in a harsh environment, be waterproof, run into things and bounce off and be fine," he said.

Though a production model hasn't been built yet, Ellis said the molds are ready and the airframe will be done this week.

SkySpecs plans to market its robots to civil engineers first. Ellis said there are currently many situations where engineers expend large amounts of time in hazardous environments inspecting structures and equipment.

"It’s expensive, time consuming and dangerous," he said. "We want to remove that need."

The robot, though unable to fix anything, would autonomously fly to whatever destination an engineer sent it to and use its sensors to gather large amounts of data that the engineer could analyze later.

Ellis said this would enable engineers to analyze the integrity of bridges, large wind turbines and other structures without putting themselves in danger.

"We thought early on that there might be some resistance in the market, because we’re removing people’s jobs," Ellis said. "But they don’t want to be hanging from those structures either…We’re not necessarily removing a job. We’re just giving them a different tool to complete their job."

But Ellis said civil engineering is only the beginning.

"There are so many applications with the same exact platform," he said.

For example, Ellis said snowboarders could use them to take aerial photos and video for personal or promotional use.

A more conventional application the group is considering is military reconnaissance. Ellis said SkySpecs would have a strong competitive edge in that market because their design doesn't require user control, making it very attractive to soldiers.

"If they have to take the gun out of their hands to use a controller, then they don’t want to do it," he said. "So they want it to be autonomous--just click a button to deploy and let it do its thing while they can continue on their mission. "

SkySpecs currently has four founders and two employees. Ellis said for the time being, the company's base of operation is his house.

Though the SkySpecs crew will no longer participate on the U-M student team, Ellis said the team is still running and the company may offer employment to future students.

"As we grow and as we can employ more, it’s a great feeding ground for us to go to," he said.

Kody Klein can be reached at



Wed, Mar 6, 2013 : 6:49 p.m.

i know this is only a related story, but the use of drones by the govt is not getting the play it deserves this is happening today -- I remain stunned that more people are not concerned with this issue and it takes a freshmen rep. in the house to voice his disapproval. Politics aside, it should bother EVERYONE that our govt wants to target US citizens w.o cause and or us to trust them. How many Americans will die before people care enough to criticize this president on this position????


Thu, Mar 7, 2013 : 3:15 a.m.

It isn't fair to comment like that on this article. These students are not building drones. They are building very small (and slow) vehicles that will be used to inspect structures to enable more effective identification of unsafe structures while keeping building inspection engineers safer. The current fear of over the top governmental baby sitting is out of control. I have an idea: Live well, live within the law, be nice, and respect people and these "issues" that people bitch about with the government will not affect you. Personally, I couldn't care less if they are spying on me, I have nothing to hide!!!


Mon, Mar 4, 2013 : 7:14 p.m.

Man, you folks are quite silly. Like it, love it, or hate it, automation is a way of life in 2013. If you can't embrace it I hope you are near the end of your life because the "issue" for you is only going to get worse. You do realize in damn near 100% of modern automobiles almost every system is drive by wire computer controlled? We rely on software to do everything. Planes, yea they are fly by wire these days. Oh yea, minimally invasive robotic surgery is by wire. Everything is automated these days and relies on a control system to keep it safe. This autonomous vehicle is as good as its logic, hardware, and calibration, just like every other by wire system we rely on in 2013. Get with the times or be quiet. If you have concerns the logical thing to do is to question the redundant safety logic that *should* be on this device when it is in production.


Wed, Mar 6, 2013 : 6:51 p.m.

its not the technology we are afraid of, its the uses and mis-uses of said technology that is a concern IE - the US attorney general actually stated he thinks its ok to target a US citzien for a drobe kill with out any due process - clearly a violation of several amendments


Mon, Mar 4, 2013 : 6:53 p.m.

Holy Moley, prepare to DUCK!!!!!


Mon, Mar 4, 2013 : 5:31 p.m.

I know what my next startup is going to be - a company that makes devices for detecting and disabling these kinds of drones when they fly over my property.


Tue, Mar 5, 2013 : 1:44 p.m.

And what do you propose for Google Earth and it's "street view", satellites, helicopters, security cameras etc.? They are watching you now!

Kyle Mattson

Mon, Mar 4, 2013 : 4:41 p.m.

Here's a story I heard lastweek on this topic and the FAA's plans to set up six drone test sites around the country. While listening to it I instantly started to wonder if SE Michigan, particularly Washtenaw County is in the running.

Laurie Longo

Mon, Mar 4, 2013 : 4:21 p.m.

Where is Sarah Connor when you need her????


Mon, Mar 4, 2013 : 3:31 p.m.

I ber the AAPD just can't wait to get one of these.


Mon, Mar 4, 2013 : 3:32 p.m.

Opps, that's "I bet..."


Mon, Mar 4, 2013 : 2:39 p.m.

I have built, and currently fly several of these remotely operated multirotor UAV's (much larger than whats shown in the photo above). Their biggest "downfall" is no collision avoidance systems available at the moment. To go mainstream commercial they will need this as a minimum requirement. The FAA Reauthorization Act, which President Obama has signed, orders the Federal Aviation Administration to develop regulations for the testing and licensing of commercial drones by 2015. This will be a multi billion dollar industry, and it's just waiting to "take off"!


Mon, Mar 4, 2013 : 1:49 p.m.

Wonderful idea! I can think of hundreds of inspection tasks that these guys could do, shorting a number of tasks in my industry significantly.


Mon, Mar 4, 2013 : 2:40 p.m.

I'm up and running now, what do you need inspected?


Mon, Mar 4, 2013 : 1:06 p.m.

Cool! If there is one thing I always say it's that there are not enough software-controlled things with whirling blades flying above my head. What could possibly go wrong with that?


Mon, Mar 4, 2013 : 6:17 p.m.

You sound like someone that doesn't use much software. Because as we know, it all works perfectly every time.


Mon, Mar 4, 2013 : 4:54 p.m.

Sounds like you could use some Old Glory Robot Insurance. Old Glory covers anyone over the age of 50 against robot attack, regardless of current health. Robots are everywhere, and they eat old people's medicine for fuel. You need to feel safe. And that's harder and harder to do nowadays, because robots may strike at any time. And when they grab you with those metal claws, you can't break free...because they're made of metal, and robots are strong. In fact, I'd recommend Old Glory for all you commenters who are afraid of any of these shiny metal outfits what's made of them computers. Don't cower under your afghan any longer.


Mon, Mar 4, 2013 : 1:04 p.m.

Maybe they should change the name to Skynet? This technology is kinda cool for sure but it is starting to get up there on the creepy side.

G. Orwell

Mon, Mar 4, 2013 : 12:57 p.m.

It should be illegal to arm these killing machines.