Interview with tech-savvy Jan Leyssens (Airobot)
Airobot was founded in March 2015. Their first product was based on their anti-collision drone-technology which allowed for safer inspections.
“Drone-inspections of tall structures are very difficult with the naked eye”, Leyssens explains. “It’s hard to fly close enough to a building or an industrial installation to perform a valid inspection without the risk of crashing into something. It’s also difficult to trust the autofocus on a camera when inspecting large mono-colored surfaces. A fixed and close distance is essential to perform reliable inspections.”
He continues: “There are many technological solutions for collision detection available on the market.
They all work, but not on the same level of excellence, and professionals can’t afford to have anything less. A drone crash is far too costly, so measure should be taken to avoid the risk.”
Time for a new challenge in the drone industry
We are talking to Jan Leyssens, who wasn’t at Airobot during the initial start-up phase. He met Roy and Kristof when working at Septentrio, where he was working on different types of unmanned technology. It is safe to say that Jan was present at the dawn of the drone-industry and is now experiencing first-hand the fast growth the industry is undergoing, and the hype that goes with it.
“Drones couldn’t, and still can’t, offer everything that traditional industries are asking them to do”, says Leyssens. “This is quite normal in an industry that is brand new and constantly evolving.”
Jan was intrigued by Airobot’s technologies, so when Roy Jeunen left the company in the summer of 2016, Jan saw an opportunity to launch himself into the drone-industry. He is now a partner in Airobot and fulltime business developer, while Kristof Beenders oversees the technological department.
“We actually complement each other very well – I am an electronics engineer, so I am very much aware of the latest developments, but Kristof is really the expert and the source of our technological innovations. Because I am good at seeing and developing opportunities, this tech baggage gives me an edge when dealing with potential customers and partners.”
“Only the agile start-ups will survive.”
Jan Leyssens – Airobot
Trust is everything
“You know, over the years, a lot of people have set foot in the drone-industry with barely any business or relevant tech knowledge. This created a sense of distrust with partners from the traditional industries. That’s why there’s a need for several ‘Proofs of Concepts’ to be established together with large enterprises. They will help to clearly establish the difference between a drone that is fit for professional use and one that is not, and can be used as examples to create more trust. It’s a big challenge for Airobot and everyone else in the drone industry to work on these trust issues and I believe this is also a role that a federation such as EUKA can assume in Belgium.”
Airobot decided to contribute in their own way. They were already a supplier of products to drone-builders and integrators and then added a service level to their portfolio, helping large companies such as DEME integrate drones into their operations. “These companies need to have state-of-the-art security hardware and software on their drones to avoid PR-nightmares after accidents”, is what Jan Leyssens tells us.
Drones can help to do a better job
“People are convinced that drones have an added value”, he says. “You can inspect more assets in less time and more reliably. It’s simple economics: do more, much better, in less time. The gain is obvious. For instance, imagine having to inspect offshore wind turbines – every minute that the turbine is taken out of service is lost revenue. Also, a drone delivers more objective data because you eliminate the human factor, and you get more data than you would with a human inspector. The goal is however not to replace human climbers, but to allow them to focus on more value-added work such as repair work.”
“Drones couldn’t, and still can’t, offer everything that traditional industries are asking them to do. Although this is quite normal in an industry that is brand new and constantly evolving, it generates frustration with those trying drones for the first time.”
Jan Leyssens – Airobot
More automated drones
So, why doesn’t every company use as many drones as possible? “Drones should be able to fly more safely and much more precisely”, Leyssens replies. “Many of the tasks undertaken by drones should be automated. I am not talking about autonomous flying, the market isn’t ready for that yet; no, I am talking about automated systems incorporated into a drone. You could compare it to an automatic pilot in a plane – you still need a ‘pilot’ to be responsible for the flight and to be able to intervene when something unforeseen occurs or when adjustments via manual flying are required. The role of the pilot then shifts from ‘driver’ to ‘security manager’, if you will.”
And this is where Airobot steps in. The name of the company reveals a lot: “With our technology we try to make drones into real flying and ‘thinking’ robots that fly without crashing and can perform other routine tasks.
Airobot is not planning on building their own drones: “We prefer to partner with drone-builders and help them build a safer, more reliable drone with our hardware and software. That is our focus, and I believe we have to maintain it to become successful in this global market”, Leyssens says. “It’s a widespread problem in this new industry that there isn’t enough focus. Focus is the only way for companies to stand out, but still you see lots of startups aim and shoot at every target. That’s not the way to go.”
Drones are like cars… or planes
“I predict that the drone industry will evolve much like the automotive industry”, Leyssens says. “Drone builders will shift operations more and more into assembly and building a sales network. They will buy the parts and tech from specialized 1st tier companies and they will integrate this into their drones.”
“Also, the European drone industry will have to focus on cooperation to be able to compete with overseas giants such as DJI”, Leyssens continues. “They have a great deal of cash and innovate quickly. The only way European companies can compete with them is by working together.”
Europe is facing new drone legislation due in 2019-2020. “When discussing these new rules, legislators should not forget to include the drone industry itself. Only then can a set of laws that allow normal economic growth to be established. The industry itself also needs to undergo professionalization.”
“You can inspect more assets in less time and more reliably. It’s simple economics: do more, much better, in less time. The gain is obvious.”
Jan Leyssens – Airobot
“You know, it’s not so much the legislation itself that is the problem for companies. It’s more the lengthy procedures for obtaining flight permission that hinder our normal operations in restricted airspace. If they must wait weeks to get an approval for a commercial flight, industry clients will often resort to traditional techniques that do not use drones, or worse, fly illegally. With 24-hour approvals, for example, these practices would occur less frequently”, Leyssens says with certainty.
“If I could change any of the current rules, it would be the BVLOS-rule (Beyond Visual Line of Sight) and the maximum flight-height. Some inspection jobs (power lines, wind turbine parks, etc.) require drones to fly higher than the imposed limit to reach the top of the structure to inspect it.”
DronePort, an incubator at the heart of Europe
In 2018 Airobot will move to DronePort, a unique incubator for drone companies and an interesting ecosystem for starting drone-companies. “This is a perfect location for us to realize our ambition: to be a worldwide reference when it comes to drone safety, precision and automation”, Jan Leyssens testifies. “Today, we face some steep competition from Silicon Valley companies. They mainly have a software focus and they can round up tens of millions of dollars of funding. We, on the other hand, are both software and hardware focused. This is an advantage but also a disadvantage. Hardware investors are hard to find and the European investment scene is much more conservative than the American one. But our hardware competences are part of our USP and a perfect buy-in.”
Leyssens predicts that “Only the agile start-ups will survive. Those who realize that cooperation is the way forward and can adapt quickly to a fast-evolving landscape will grow and thrive. In about two years, we will be looking at a completely different industry.”
“It’s a widespread problem in this new industry that there isn’t enough focus. Focus is the only way for companies to stand out, but still you see lots of startups aim and shoot at every target. That’s not the way to go.”
Jan Leyssens – Airobot