Robotics, Drones, Re-fueling mid-flight | Meet our latest resident Kiwi, Dan Wilson

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Kiwi Landing Pad is home to some awesome residents who are doing some really cool things, earlier this year we had Robotics PhD and resident drone builder join us at the Kiwi landing Pad from Sydney. Dan is one of the first people in the world to dock &refuel drones mid-flight, we think this is pretty impressive. Dan Wilson is the cofounder at OCI Technologies.

What does OCI Technologies do?

OCI Technology makes relative navigation systems for autonomous aircraft (i.e drones). The company is a spin out of the work that Dan did as part of his PhD at the University of Sydney, which looked into the refuelling drones while they are still flying. In terms of applications building the navigation systems for autonomous aircraft has a wide range of real world opportunities, including in flight drone recharging but also precision landing on moving ground vehicles. For these sorts of situations traditional sensors such as GPS are not accurate enough, or are otherwise unavailable.

The Technical Limitations of GPS

GPS is normally accurate to within 3m when there’s a clear view in the sky, but degrades really quickly around buildings which form an ‘urban canyon.’ That’s not good enough when you are trying to solve problems that involve centimetre-level precision which can be solved by the augmentation of traditional sensors with more infrared cameras and ultra-sideband radio ranging. What makes the augmentation complicated is combining all the sensor information in a way that maximises accuracy while remaining reliable – a very important characteristic for flying vehicles.

Why Silicon Valley?

Like a lot of Kiwis, the whole Visa situation plays a big part of why Dan is over here having won a Green Card in the Diversity Visa Lottery. There’s a timing limit that you’ve gotta adhere to – you can lose your Green Card if you don’t move over to the USA within a certain time frame.

The drone scene in Silicon Valley

The drone scene was very hot in 2014/2015 but it’s been slowing down in the past nine months. There’s been a lot of hype going around and now the technology needs to catch up with the public’s expectation. But drones are hard. There’s a saying that “hardware is hard” and that’s especially true when that hardware is supposed to be flying. In the consumer market there are a few massive players from China like DJI, which makes it really hard to compete in that space. Some of the local companies in the Bay Area like 3D Robotics have actually pivoted away from the consumer market and are focusing on commercial market, which involved large layoffs and an office closure. Right now the consumer market is basically making toys for people, whereas the commercial applications are all about solving hard problems, taking people out of scenarios that are dull, dirty and dangerous (or a combination!). Current commercial applications include the drone inspection of powerlines, wind turbines, pipelines and building sites. The space has also got some of the biggest tech companies looking at drones, with Google and Facebook looking at high altitude communication drones, while Amazon is looking at the delivery possibilities.

Right now OCI Technologies are bootstrapping, with Dan saying “we have no plans to fundraise right now – at least not until we’ve got a high performance demonstration working. Venture Capital is probably not the right thing for us, because their entire model is “go big or go home” which is something that’s become a lot more clear to me since moving to San Francisco. That said, opportunities change and we might change, not just now”.

Working at Kiwi Landing Pad

With consistent blue skies, the weather in the Bay Area is perfect for flying drones (it hasn’t rained in months), while San Francisco itself is nice and compact with heaps of amazing restaurants and bars. The stereotype about everyone being in technology is also completely accurate – everyone you meet is involved in technology in some ways. That said, it’s not all easy. Not having a credit history makes things a lot harder, with credit cards and post paid phones not available as easily as they are in New Zealand. The Kiwi Landing Pad, provides that ‘soft entrance’ into San Francisco, with a ready made community and a constant stream of Kiwis coming through, which lets you meet a lot of really interesting people, really quickly.

Long Term Plans

At this stage Dan is looking at taking on additional projects and grow the OCI team. Right now they’re more of a consultancy although they’re looking into building a product at some point.

If you’d like to get in touch with Dan let us know!

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