Raglan's droid enjoying worldwide exposure

NARELLE HENSON
Last updated 13:34 28/01/2014

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They are tipped to change the world in the same way computers did. Droids, little flying robots capable of almost anything. Attach a camera to them, and you can inspect bridges, powerlines, or disaster-damaged buildings without risk to life, get sweeping aerial shots impossible to achieve with a helicopter, check every animal and paddock in a hill country farm in an hour, and have the images live-streamed to your computer. That is why American aerospace and defence market research company Teal Group estimates this to become a 10 billion dollar market in the next 10 years. And the first company in the world to start selling them for professional use is based in Raglan.

Although Aeronavics didn't start in New Zealand. Dutch founding director Linda Bulk met husband Rob Brouwer in Australia.

It was there, hidden in the hills of Byron's Bay that the pair first stumbled across the technology that would change their lives. In 2008 they were looking for model helicopters to get aerial shots for their 3-D imaging website. They made a contact nearby who eventually sold them one second-hand.

"We went back to that shop on the day we got married," laughs Bulk, "he came with this weird looking rotor thing with these motors, and we were like, ‘oh, we've never seen anything like that before.'

"We were fascinated, because we were like, ‘this technology, it's going to become something'."

Bulk's husband, a trained pilot, had always been taken by the idea of a vertical take-off, forward flight vehicle, and saw potential in the little machine instantly.

The pair began to follow the development of the droids-driven mostly at that stage by model aircraft fans.

"There wasn't any company yet, it was all just hobby, just people playing with and enjoying the technology," says Bulk.

Bulk and Brouwer began to play with frame designs, knowing that stability was the most important aspect of the droids. A good frame prevents vibration, which means the electronics perform better and images captured by attached cameras are clear.

"We just loved the science of it, we loved to find out about materials, so we were on the hunt all the time," says Bulk.

Eventually, they came up with a design that worked, and went back to their contact asking him to produce carbon-fibre parts for the craft.

"He said, ‘I'm really busy why don't you do it yourselves?' So he gave us some cloth and he gave us some resin and he gave us a little bit of guidance and we started making our own parts in the shed."

Within two years the couple had a product that performed well. By that stage a German company was producing high quality "brains" for the machines. The couple produced a droid for their photography business, and a friend put up some pictures of it online.

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"People started asking him [about it] and he referred them to us.

"They were like ‘what's that copter? We want that frame, that's a great frame'."

Bulk says everything was handmade at that stage, so making droids to order wasn't feasible.

"For a long time we actually said no to requests coming through."

But they were growing in quantity, and within six months the couple had received about 25 requests for droids.

"There was obviously a demand, people wanted it.

"We could see this technology was going somewhere, there was no question about that, and if we didn't do it somebody else would jump in, so we decided to take the leap of faith."

Droidworx launched in Australia in 2010, and within a week emails were pouring in via the website.

Within three months the couple had 60 distributors around the world and within six months Bulk and Brouwer had to stop selling directly to individuals because they couldn't keep up with demand.

Funnelling sales through distributors became their modus operandi. The model aircraft scene was already big; as fast as distributors added droids to their shelves they sold.

By this stage, Bulk and Brouwer had added another person to their team. They would design craft, contract out the manufacturing of parts, and then assemble self-build kits for customers.

Then came news that the house they were renting had sold, and the couple decided to make the move to New Zealand.

They already had contacts there with whom they worked, and both had always been attracted by the lifestyle and people, says Bulk.

That was January of 2011, and by the start of 2012 they had moved four times, each time to find a bigger house as the company outgrew them. The final move brought them to Raglan, again for lifestyle choices, and by that stage the company had added another four employees to the payroll.

More remarkable is that for the entire duration of its life, Droidworx was in a legal wrangle with LucasArts, the production company behind Star Wars, over use of the word "droid." It won the battle in New Zealand, apparently the only country in which "droid" was not trademarked. But it lost the battle in Australia, and so Bulk and Brouwer decided to change the company's name to Aeronavics for consistency.

The company was now providing craft to the media industry. It's craft were used on the set of Twilight, BBC's Earthflight documentary, and MasterChef, amongst other things.

Then in 2013 the company's warehouse manager decided to enter Aeronavics into the inaugural Fieldays Innovation Den competition.

"We were actually too late," says Bulk, "but they saw the entry and they were like, ‘oh yeah, we want that'."

Aeronavics won first place, and along with it a package that included marketing expertise from SODA, a Waikato business incubator.

"That's launched all of this publicity around the company as well," says Bulk.

"We saw that agriculture was going to be an area where there was so much application."

The company worked on increasing flight times from an initial three minutes, to 10, to 25 and will soon be able to offer craft that fly for an hour.

Lift capacity increased too, and the biggest craft now manage a payload of 5kg. Work is underway on a droid capable of lifting 20kg - enabling precision spraying of weeds or gorse on farms. The fastest craft can fly at 80kmh, and will even follow the contours of the landscape at a pre-programmed height.

The problem was getting approval from the Civil Aviation Authority to fly the craft on farms.

Regulations require a line of sight be maintained from flying craft at all times.

"But if you're in the hill country the whole idea of this is for you to push a button and for it to take on a route for a couple of kilometres, check out the whole parameters of your property and then come back," says Bulk.

The pair are working with the CAA now to develop safety regulations suitable for the droids.

And demand for the product is still pouring in. In fact, Bulk says trying to stay focussed is one of the major problems the company faces.

"We've defined essentially five goal markets," says Bulk, "and one of them is agriculture, and one is still obviously media because it's still a growth market . . . and then there's industry, inspections of mines and building sites and road works and things like that . . . there's public safety . . . and Government Research Institutes."

On top of that, each stage of the droid production could, according to Bulk, be a viable business in itself.

To narrow its focus, the company is beginning to develop a network of contractors all over the country each tasked with growth and innovation in their part of the production.

Aeronavics will remain a hub, from which "full turnkey solutions" will be offered says Bulk.

"You can give people a tool but if they don't know how to use that tool within their environment and they're not really supported then it gets shelved."

With a price tag of between $10-$35,000, Aeronavics has copped accusations of unfair mark-ups.

"The money side of things, it's just not been one of those motivators for us," says Bulk.

"A lot of these people . . . they take considerable pay cuts and they give a lot of their own time and passion because they see the the potential of what this could become.

"They can see what the technology could contribute to the world."

That vision has been given a helping hand by Callaghan Innovation, a Government organisation tasked with helping companies innovate.

It most recently put them in touch with a marketing exchange programme run out of Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the US, a world famous research and engineering university.

"The leader of the programme emailed and she said there were quite a few teams that put us in the number one position, and wanted to come to New Zealand," says Bulk.

"I didn't even realise to be honest that this is quite a big deal. I didn't realise that they were like, real, mature business people."

Despite another late application from the company, they were accepted and are currently hosting a team of three students until the end of January, tasked with market research.

The goal is to have a package ready for investors to look at by mid-March.

On top of that, the company has limited its global distribution hubs to eight. The largest markets are Europe and the USA.

But even so, Aeronavics is still getting expressions of interest from all over the world.

"The United Nations is about to visit Hamilton, even on that level we get requests. Even from the US military, but that's just not our forte, it's not what we do," says Bulk.

"From all around the world, from all different areas there is potential, but you gotta focus."

- Waikato

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