Kyla Coburn and Andy Trench are the husband and wife team at the head of Xact Maps, a Providence startup doing big things in developing unmanned aerial vehicle and unmanned aerial systems technology.
Coburn and Trench spoke with Providence Business News about their company and the future of UAVs.
PBN: Many people associate the word “drone” with military UAVs and their controversial use in the Middle East. What should the average person know about drones that most might not?
COBURN and TRENCH: We understand why the word “drone” is scary too, but Unmanned Aerial Systems, in fact, are not. They will deliver medicines across washed out roads, they will help farmers use less pesticide and water, they will serve as emergency cellular towers after disasters, they will carry thermal cameras over fires and save lives, they will monitor coastal erosion and help humans carry out jobs more safely and efficiently. While it is true that drones have delivered destructive payloads in the military arena, reducing them to this is like suggesting all land vehicles are tanks.
PBN: What kinds of applications or services will your UAV imaging systems support, and how does Xact Maps’ LIDAR octocopter distinguish itself from other UAVs?
COBURN and TRENCH: Many aspects of the UAV world are brand new. While most of the systems out there are still various levels of toys, the potential for commercial use is undeniable. Many people with many very different needs are coming to the trade shows to explore how our systems could be integrated into their workflows and businesses. We hope to work with these people to answer that question.
There are now a few other companies developing LIDAR integrated copters, but Xactmaps has broken boundaries in the UAV space by a number of firsts – first UAV to have successfully integrated and flown its LIDAR scanner, first to mount this on a stabilized gimbal to ensure the most accurate results, and first to stitch data gathered through a UAV without the use of GPS, IMU or other sensors. There is no doubt that developing in this arena is a race but each innovation comes from ahead of the curve experience. We just integrated multiple sensors into our most recent craft and debuted the heaviest lifting octocopter at the Association of Unmanned Systems International show this May.
PBN: How did you become involved in developing next-generation UAV technology, and how did Xact Maps come into being as a company?
COBURN and TRENCH: Andy is an incurable inventor and problem solver. His need to improve everything combined with love of flight brought Xact Maps into being. At one point we agreed that there would be no more duct-taping iPhones to gliders and we would give this passion some of the time and money it deserved. We are creative people and while photography was a beautiful pursuit, it soon led to filmmaking. Developing the abilities to carry heavier, longer and more stable cameras lead to the possibilities of carrying other sensors which brought us a tremendous amount of interest from some very cool industries. Now our interests are bringing the company into environmental, communication, safety inspection and surveying realms.
PBN: How far along is the Xact Maps technology? Are your UAVs currently in prototype stage, or are you already looking at potential markets for commercialization?
COBURN and TRENCH: We have passed the prototype stage and have quite a few fully functioning models developed for various specific uses but we have not yet chosen a specific model to focus on for sales or locked into a partner industry. Most of the flood of interest so far is from people looking to have us custom integrate our systems into their workflow. We are developing the relationships which have grown out of industry trade shows we have attended, and are about to begin seeking investment. Both of these along with some of the more exciting and beautiful project opportunities coming to the table will help determine the next trajectory for the company.
PBN: What do you see as the future of commercial drones in the United States? Will they become as much a part of our lives as the smartphone and the PC are today?
COBURN and TRENCH: Absolutely. Unmanned systems of all kinds will be a part of our lives in major ways and more than you might guess already are. Concerns about safety naturally give birth to solutions and laws, and issues of privacy should be tempered by exposure to the facts of the accuracy of already existing, non-UAV data collection – including our own computers and cell phones!
Technological advancement will happen because humans are driven to innovate. Laws should be made in reaction to advancements to help guide use, they should not be made preemptively to hinder it or we will find ourselves left behind the countries who have a clearer view of the inevitable future. Someday soon, our cars will avoid accidents and as much as this may threaten the spirit of the American driver, it also may save their teenage child’s life. These types of struggles with progress are as old as progress itself.