This Launch series has given me the opportunity to learn about some amazing things going on in the Grand Valley, and throughout western Colorado. Stay tuned for more great innovators.
The Sky’s the Limit
DragonflyAI, a Division of HRL Compliance Solutions, Inc.
By Cecily Whiteside
DragonflyAI is disrupting the oil and gas industry, and now stands poised to do the same in industries across the board. By melding drones and survey techniques, Joshua Lloyd, Chris Putnam and Carey Wheeler have created something new, something unique, something that may change the way we see the world.
Joshua Lloyd has always been an entrepreneur; from the age of ten when he sold worms to bait shops in Colbran. After growing up ranching, he ended up in the oil fields, first fracing, then drilling, and finally in oil field services. Chris Putnam, who met Joshua when Chris was a pipeline environmental inspector (EI), is a proponent of perpetual optimization, constantly looking for ways to increase efficiency. Both are outside-of-the-box thinkers who have shaken up the oil and gas surveying industry with their vision.
“We had this idea of doing inspections virtually,” Chris says. “As an oil field EI, I would go out into arduous terrain, marking data points to find the right place to put a well pad or an access road. If they changed their mind about where the road was going to go, they’d have to send someone out again and again. I thought ‘there has to be a way to do this better, cheaper and faster.’”
That was the question that drove Joshua and Chris together in 2014 to form DragonflyAI: How can we do this better? How can we increase efficiency? They scraped together all their resources to fund the start-up, creating a company that does what no one has done before. Using drones to survey and image large swaths of land, they bypass the standard method of feet-on-the-ground surveyors to generate a science-fiction-level solution in a real-world industry. But it’s their manipulation of that information that is truly unique.
“With traditional survey techniques,” Joshua explains, “you can end up with about a hundred data points for a certain area.” He demonstrates with an image of a quarter-of-an-acre plot in Palisade where a building is being planned. “When we fly over it, we create a data point cloud.” Over ten million points of data create a virtual map of the area. “It’s not a photo,” he is quick to point out. “It’s data points. Because of this we are able to manipulate the data for whatever application the customer needs.”
“They are geospatial coordinates tied to survey points,” Chris adds. “There are sensors on the drone rather than a camera. We can create a 3-D visual model using our proprietary software to manipulate the information. We do one flight, then we can adjust and readjust to find the best building site or hone in on the best route for an access road. We save [our customers] months in the planning stages of a project. We create simple solutions to complex problems.”
But that was only the beginning for DragonflyAI. In 2015, they brought Carey Wheeler on board. Carey’s background in the army as a geospatial intelligence imagery analyst gave him specialized skills for which there are few industry applications. “We replace estimation with calculation,” Carey says. “The client has a request, but they may not even be sure of what they need. We fly with the drone to collect the data, and then use propriety methods to exploit that data.”
When aerial photos are taken, the image is flat. While this can be useful for determining location of items on the ground, there is limited application, particularly in remote areas or when the client needs a 3-D map. Data point clouds are three dimensional maps of an area which can give vital information such as grade aspect and line of sight without having to send people into the field. “A pixel is worth a thousand surveyors,” Chris says.
“Other drone companies can capture an orthomosaic image, which is a series of photos stitched together to a make a high resolution picture,” Joshua says. “They can also create a data point cloud. But we go further to exploit and utilize the information contained in that data.” It’s the way that they manipulate their data with the proprietary algorithms that gives them a unique position in the developing field of unmanned aerial systems (UAS).
The sensors on the drone know not only GPS coordinates and height during a flight, but pitch, speed and other factors that create an incredibly accurate measurement of the terrain being surveyed. “When you look at a location on Google maps,” Chris says, “the resolution is typically about one and a half meters. Our orthomosaic image is accurate to three centimeters. It’s a measurable picture. Then click on any point to apply a 3-D value.”
One application has been in grade mapping. Like contour lines on a geological survey map, the accuracy of the grade measurement can help determine things like erosion control costs, construction costs and answers the question “Can we send people and/or vehicles here?” Grade aspect is also key during revegetation. Seed mixtures may be different for north-facing slopes versus south-facing slopes, and elevation or run-off patterns can impact which plants will grow in a certain area.
A growth area for DragonflyAI is in this area of revegetation. “Vegetation analysis and precision agriculture use near-IR, or multispectral sensors,” Chris says. “They are hyper-spectral, or beyond the visible. It’s still being pioneered, but can be used to isolate plant species in a certain area. Right now, the standard practice is to go out into an area with a hula hoop. You throw the hula hoop, and wherever it lands, you count the number of each plant inside it. Using that information, you estimate the total number of plants for the entire area. Then you walk a bit and do it again. Our sensors can create bands of interest. Using the wavelengths that certain plants give off, we can create an accurate map of native plants versus noxious weeds. We can determine what the preexisting species in an area were.” This process demonstrates Carey’s statement: “We replace estimation with calculation.”
Another key component for using this data point cloud is determining line of sight. The map looks like a cutting edge video game. “We could make Call of Duty, Palisade,” Chris quips. The digital surface model, however, has some beneficial real world applications. By knowing what can be seen from which points, companies can reduce the impact their construction will have on nearby land owners. High walls may make for good neighbors, but building to remain invisible to the neighbors is even better.
Their sensors can also determine thermal data varying from 450 degrees to negative 40 Fahrenheit, with .2 degree accuracy. For an underground mine fire, a drone flying over, measuring hot spots to find where it’s venting, is a vastly safer and more efficient method than sending people out into the field with thermometers.
The applications are as unlimited as the imagination of the DragonflyAI team. And their clients. “Every job is custom to that client,” says Joshua. “They ask ‘what are you going to give us?’ and our reply is ‘What do you want?’” Chris adds, “We don’t have standardized products. We customize according to what the client wants. It’s your world, how do you want to see it?”
Just a year and a half after founding the start-up, Joshua sat down with local consulting firm HRL Compliance Solutions, Inc.. He and Chris knew their product was sound. It was go-to-market time. He got a face-to-face with HRL and set out to convince them that DragonflyAI could bring value to their organization. What he thought was a pitch to consult on projects soon became something completely different. A few minutes into their first meeting, HRL president Herman Lucero interrupted. “We don’t want to hire you, we want to acquire you.” Within three months, papers were signed, and DragonflyAI became an autonomous division of HRL.
“It came at a great time,” says Joshua. “At the same time that we were working on this purchase, our other jobs were laying people off. Chris was working out of town for years, now he can come home.” “I get to sleep in my own bed every night,” Chris agrees. “I can go to my kids’ baseball games and football games.”
While HRL Compliance Solutions, Inc. works largely in the oil and gas industry, they are excited for DragonflyAI to expand into new and untapped applications. “This acquisition was due to the uniqueness of DragonflyAI’s hardware and software applications,” says Maurice Foye, Executive Vice President of HRL Compliance Solutions, Inc.. “Having them [as a division of HRL] has allowed us to procure government contracts that others can’t even bid on because they don’t have the ability to do the work.” DragonflyAI has become a valuable resource to the company, while maintaining its distinct personality of pushing the limits in a field that did not exist just a few years ago.
“As we get established in oil and gas and mining, we hope to shift focus to other projects,” says Joshua. One that he finds intriguing is the area of historic preservation. “I want to map the Oregon Trail,” he says. “The trail is disappearing; time and erosion. But we could preserve it digitally forever.” Another area is foliage penetration sensors. Seeing under dense canopies like the Pacific Northwest to the terrain below has multiple industry applications. It can also have justice department applications for crime scenes and cold cases, among other things.
“We work with the companies who are developing these new sensors, drones, software; these new technologies,” says Carey, “we test them and give them feedback.” “It’s a symbiotic relationship,” adds Chris. “We have valuable information to give back to these producers so we simultaneously move forward.” Joshua finishes: “They recognize our unique capabilities. They want to harness us as much as we want to harness them.” The excitement is palpable as they talk about their forward momentum.
As DragonflyAI grows and develops, they provide opportunities for the Grand Valley as well. Because what they do is such an innovative concept, there are few places for civilians to train. Joshua says, “We want to employ veterans who trained in the army in geospatial analysis. We need people with that skill set. It’s a perfect fit for us, although it’s hard to find a niche for their skills in other industries.”
They also look for computer science interns, and hope to partner with CMU to find young people with the pioneering spirit that defines DragonflyAI. “We’d like to see an advanced tech department, maybe an advanced degree at the college,” Joshua says.
For such a young company, their achievements to date are impressive. The possibilities for the future? Quite literally, the sky’s the limit.