Nico Nijenhuis is CEO of a late-stage startup called Clear Flight Solutions. Based at in Enschede, this team is one of many successful ideas born at the University of Twente. In conversation with StartupDelta’s Jonathan Marks, Nico explains why they got into the business of building robotic birds of prey and what they've done just recently to scale-up the company. Alfred Hitchcock would have been proud!.
Birds are clever – but also present a danger
“Birds are beautiful creatures,” says Nico Nijenhuis. “However, if you work in aviation, waste management or agriculture, you will be aware that birds can be a very tough problem to deal with. Birds are not only a nuisance, they can also be a serious threat to safety in aviation, especially in regions around airports. There are all kinds of techniques being used at the moment to scare birds away – often involving sound or light. They work, but unfortunately only for a short period of time. There is no real reason for the birds to change their behaviour and avoid the area altogether.”
“Birds are much better at remembering and avoiding a predator. If they spot a bird of prey, they immediately change their patterns of feeding and sleeping. So our company has come up with a solution to warn birds to avoid a particular area because predators are active. You need a natural predator to chase away a natural prey.”
Research project leads to a startup business
“The company began as a hobby. Actually, it's quite hard to mechanically mimic the motions of a bird. I came on board as a result of a research project at the University of Twente in Enschede which studied how flapping-wing flight works. The design is based on the peregrine falcon, also known as the duck hawk in North America. We have extensively validated our idea of building a flying robot that could flap its wings with several potential customers. It quickly became clear we should found a startup company. So we moved into a new phase, starting this specialized drone development in a more professional manner. Recently we signed a term sheet with the US Cottonwood Technology Fund. They have invested €1.6 million in Clear Flight Solutions. And this commitment from such a prestigious foreign investor will accelerate our scale-up as we become a global player.”
Birds are not easily fooled
“It turns out that the robot needs to accurately mimic the silhouette but also the movement. So it needs to look like the predator or the birds take no notice. But it also needs to move like the bird. Our robot birds can fly at speeds up to 80 kms per hr. People ask us why we didn't just make a fixed wing model. The problem is that the birds quickly realise that a bird that is not moving its wings is not hunting at all. A real bird expends a lot of energy during its flight, so it needs to search for food in order to replace that lost energy. So the flapping wing motion is essential to trigger this natural instinct in the birds we're trying to scare off.”
The clear flight team have created the look of the falcon by using photographs and 3D printing technology. The body is made of a glass-fibre nylon composite, which is both lightweight and rugged. “You can crash these things into the ground at 50 km/h and almost nothing will break,” Nijenhuis says.
We have also been experimenting with a larger robot bird that looks more like an eagle. Check out the footage on the Robird video channel
“Our robot birds work on rechargeable batteries and can stay aloft for around 10 minutes. This is more than enough because normal birds of prey hunt in periods of between 5 and 7 minutes. If they haven't found a prey by that time they are very tired. If they have got a prey, then they are feeding. So technically, our flying time is just right.”
“Of course, we're always continuing development to make them better, safer and extend the flying time. Our first trial was with a waste management plant in the Netherlands which yielded excellent results. It meant that in the long-term the bird problem was reduced by up to 95 percent. It takes time, but in the end it is all about longer term number reduction. The final figure depends on the time of year you make the measurement.”
“In March 2015, we started trials at several airports and these are ongoing as we speak. There is an eager market – Amsterdam Schiphol airport alone spends around €2.5 million a year keeping the runways clear of birds. We’ve developed our own autopilot system. The Robird pilots are able to define a preset area by drawing a flight path on a tablet app. They then hurl the drone into the air and the robird flies autonomously, returning to the launch area at the end of the flight.”
Social Media Involvement
“There has been enormous interest from both the media as well as the public in what we’re up to in Twente. Although we’re not selling directly to the public, we do want their support as building new birds is top of our agenda in the coming months. So we’re deliberately using our Facebook page to share pictures and info about the new birds we’re building for clients. We’re inviting fans to give the birds names – and that works perfectly. Our latest robirds, Jerrie and Amelia, will be chasing real birds away from the blueberries on the family-run fruit farm De Greftenhoeve until the end of September. Drop by their tea-room if you’re passing through Twente and see the robirds in action!”
The biggest challenge for now
“Strange as it might seem for a startup at our stage of development, finding investment is not our biggest challenge. Actually, it is the legislation regarding unmanned aerial vehicles or drones. We need to get licences and exemptions from local laws for everything that we do.”
“Many people don’t realise there's a huge difference between the hobby market which is virtually unregulated and the commercial market where you need a pilot's licence and product licences to do anything. Operating robot birds like this requires ongoing maintenance and flight logs need to be kept of all the flights performed by the system.”
“There is an international lobby going on through an organisation called UVS-International. They are registered in The Hague but operate out of Paris. They are actively talking with the European Union and with organisations like the European flight Safety Association (EASA). Together we need to come up with suitable guidelines so that drones can fit seamlessly into airspace. Remember, there is only one airspace and therefore we all need to act responsibly to keep it safe.”
“We also think that initiatives like StartupDelta can help raise awareness of the legislative challenges that European UAV start-up companies are facing. We don't just need airports, we need the airlines, insurance companies, aviation authorities, and air traffic controllers to be part of the conversation. We need to be on the same page as soon as possible!”.