Shawn Muehler can point to the specific moment he had the idea for his company.
“I was flying a combat mission,” he says, “And I just happened to be watching the news afterward and saw that a drone had almost hit an airliner in La Guardia (N.Y.) airspace. I was like, ‘Okay. There’s an issue here.’”
Fast forward almost two years, and Muehler is the chief operating officer of Botlink, a Fargo startup that designs drone software and power electronics and is at the forefront of the rapidly expanding unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) industry.
Muehler’s a native of Fargo and a pilot by trade, going all the way back to his days as a fourth grader flying remote controlled aircraft. After getting his pilot’s license in high school at the Fargo Jet Center, he joined the Air Force after college and did his flight training in Columbus, Miss., flying T-6 Texans and T-1 Jayhawks.
Eventually, he made his way back to Fargo and began flying MQ-1 Predator drones, which is where he was introduced to the UAV universe.
“As a pilot, I knew there were regulations, there was already stuff out there that prevented manned aircraft from hitting each other,” Muehler says. “So I thought to myself, why can’t we take that technology, build software around it and push it out to the drone space?
“To give operators the situational awareness – or SA, as we call it in the military – as to what’s going on around them. Really building that picture of what’s around them airspace-wise, manned aircraft-wise, other unmanned aircraft. And really, just to make sure they know when they take off, they understand what’s around them and they know what they can and cannot do.”
In spring of 2014, Muehler went to Alex Kube, who’s now the chief software architect at Botlink and has an extensive background in Predator drone sensor operation, and asked him if the idea was even feasible.
“I said, ‘Hey, Alex, you’re a software guy. Is this a doable product? Can we build this?’” Muehler says. “And Alex said, ‘Yeah, we can totally do it.’”
So they hit the ground running, pitching at 1 Million Cups Fargo and attracting interest from five or six different local investors within a couple weeks. They accepted an offer for half a million dollars in December 2014, but little did they know, their path was about to cross with another Fargo startup – located just across the Downtown Fargo skyway – that was going to take Botlink to the next level.
What are the odds?
The CEO of Fargo-based power electronics company Packet Digital, Terri Zimmerman, remembers a day back in fall 2013 when North Dakota Lieutenant Governor Drew Wrigley visited Packet’s Fargo office to talk drones.
“He and (North Dakota Governor) Jack (Dalrymple) were very passionate about creating new industry in North Dakota in unmanned areas,” says Zimmerman, whose extensive resume includes a stint as CFO and VP of operations at Great Plains Software. “And Drew said, ‘With your expertise in power electronics, you should really do something in unmanned aircraft.’
“So he and Jack invited me to a few events where there were a number of leading companies in the unmanned space there. And we have about $10 million in government contracts at Packet Digital, so when I was in DC meeting with some of our DoD (Department of Defense) people, they asked me what I wanted to work on in a new project, and I said I was interested in maybe doing a project in unmanned aircraft.”
It was winter 2015 – a few months after Packet had started work on their first project developing power electronics for unmanned aircraft – that Zimmerman arrived “fashionably Terri late” to a small FMWF Chamber of Commerce dinner for local entrepreneurs. There was only seat left, and it was next to, you guessed it, Shawn Muehler.
“We started talking about what we were doing and realized we could really help each other,” Zimmerman says. “Us on the electronics side and him on the software side. With the capabilities we had and the capabilities he was developing, we felt together we could develop something quicker and faster and get to market before anyone else did. And by May 15, we had signed a memorandum of understanding and by June 1 started a company.”
An Industry Foundation
“Think of us as being the Microsoft for drones,” Muehler says. “You have Dell and HP that use Microsoft for their platform. So there’s companies out there such as AgEagle, xCraft and a couple other major players that we’re partnering with shortly. So what they do is they build the hardware behind it and they say, ‘Hey, Botlink, can you power our drones for us?’ They use us as the software that enables the entire industry.”
The software provides data processing and delivery, automated drone control, airspace awareness, manned aircraft locations, weather overlays, and radio and cellular connections. And if that all seems a little abstract, Muehler says to just take a look at a couple of real-life industries in which drones are already making a significant impact.
“Right now, what a farmer does is, when he enters the field, most farmers blanket spray their crops with fertilizer and water. Think of the huge cost associated with that. But with a drone, what we can do is we can fly that aircraft out in front of the tractor, we can capture aerial data, process it and send it back to the tractor, so the tractor can make real-life adjustments as to where to put fertilizer and where not to put fertilizer. So it can make those real-time adjustments. And the farmer is doing it in real-time. So instead of blanket spraying an entire crop, he can now pin point down to 2.5 centimeters, the actual amount of chemical or water that needs to go there or doesn’t need to go there.
“So in the long run, think of all the cost savings – just from a farmer’s perspective – that it’s saving. Not to mention, now that’s going to trickle down to the marketplace and everybody’s going to see their food costs go down.”
“What we can do with an aircraft is, every day, that drone can fly over the job site, capture aerial data, and let the foreman and general contractors on site know what has changed, what has not changed, if everything is where it needs to be, if there’s equipment there that should not be there or if there’s equipment that needs to be there for the next day’s work. And so, really, what it is, is a general contractor is now using a drone as its job site management tool.”
The possibilities are endless, say Muehler and Zimmerman, from safer cell phone tower and pipeline inspections to aerial advertising to civil service.
“You could have a drone fly out immediately after a person dials 911,” Muehler says. “So by the time the ambulance, law enforcement or fire officials arrive on scene, that drone’s been on scene for 10 minutes already collecting data and sizing up the scene for them. So when (responders) get on scene, they already know exactly what to do.”
Where It’s Headed
Currently, the majority of drones are flown by a person and so necessarily send data and safety information back to the operator, but the future of UAVs, Muehler says, is in artificial intelligence.
“Right now, we give alerts to the pilots, so the pilot makes the decisions,” he says, “But where we really want to take this is within the machine learning aspect, to where the drone knows what’s around it, it knows what to do, what not to do, and it bases its decisions on human life. So when it’s out there flying and it sees another manned aircraft or it knows it’s in controlled airspace, it can make the decision itself and say, okay, I’m going to go home. And we’ve created the foundation layer to be able to do that.
Despite launching its first official product in January 2016, Botlink already has partnerships lined up with two of the largest general contractors in the United States, as well as an upstart software company you may have heard of: Microsoft. And if the UAV industry projections are correct – $8 billion by 2019 – it might just be a matter of time before we can’t leave home without our drones.
Wide Open Spaces (and Minds)
Muehler and Botlink were featured prominently in a front-page New York Timesarticle in December 2015. The piece centered around both how the commitment from state lawmakers has greatly contributed to the industry’s rapid growth in North Dakota, as well as why the state is an ideal hub for UAV companies and enthusiasts alike.
“I think North Dakota and Fargo are great places to have a business,” Zimmerman says. “There’s access to capital, research, talent. We’ve been able to collaborate with the North Dakota test site, and we’ve been able to leverage relationships there. We’re looking forward to working with the new unmanned aerial vehicle school they’re starting in Grand Forks.
“And the reason we’re staying here is because of that, because North Dakota wants the industry to be here. They’re incentivizing it for us to stay here. We could go to Silicon Valley or wherever else, but we can fly anywhere here.”
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