Patrick Thevoz, CEO and co-founder of Switzerland-based Flyability, talks about the creation of collision-tolerant drone Gimball and the hard work that resulted in winning the UAE Drones for Good Award 2014


Where did the idea for the Flyability drone come from?
The project originated from research at a Swiss university. It was a Ph.D. thesis aiming at finding ways for robots to fly in complex environments, indoors and all geared towards search and rescue. That was the original motivation because flying indoors and close to obstacles is one of the most difficult challenges in flying robotics nowadays. It started with a lot of research on how insects were able to fly indoors and avoid collisions, then basically the project split in two: trying to find how to avoid collisions and at the same time how to resist collisions, because in addition to avoiding collisions insects tend to resist them.

How do you implement that idea?
The idea of the robot is to be able to tolerate collisions, so if the robot touches a wall, an obstacle or a person it just continues flying undisturbed. It doesn’t feel the collision, it doesn’t lose stability, that is the biggest innovation of the robot. It’s built with carbon fibre and a lot of very advanced materials that we needed in order to be very lightweight. To fly you need to be very light and at the same time very resistant because there are a lot of forces involved in a collision. That’s the big challenge of this project, finding the right material that is robust and lightweight at the same time.

How did you fund the idea?
The original fundamental research on the project was performed within the university, so it was funded by various research funds. When we decided to start a company we invested our own personal money and grants from the government aimed at developing new companies. We raised money from external investors and, for a big part the UAE Drones for Good Award has allowed us to continue working and move forward. We now have a team of 14 engineers working on the project full time; they’re much needed in a market that moves so fast.

How is development progressing?
We have invested a lot of money in development. That allowed us to deliver the first robots to our customers last week. We are talking about prototypes. This is not a completely finished product that we are ready to sell to the market, but to partners who are giving us some feedback on how it works and helping us fine-tune the details, before we launch the commercial product. This is our greatest milestone of the last months and it has been made possible by winning the UAE Drones for Good Award.

When will you launch the final product?
We would like to announce the launch of the product by the end of this year. In terms of vertical or industry we are very much focused, for our very first customers, on industrial inspection because it is typically a place where people have a lot of costly issues to solve and where the robot can help. Other areas are search and rescue and security. Those are the three main target markets for the beginning, with inspection being the largest one. In terms of sectors, we are looking mostly at energy and transportation - for example, for the inspection of bridges and tunnels, and energy for the inspection of power plants, boats, ships and vessels.