Drone startup takes flight as TRU Generator opens doors

Robert Atwood, Jay Bell, Aaren Ritchie-Bonar and Richard Sullivan. (Ryan Turcot/The Omega)

Robert Atwood, Jay Bell, Aaren Ritchie-Bonar and Richard Sullivan. (Ryan Turcot/The Omega)

TRU students, alumni launch aerial imaging company Hummingbird Drones

Last summer, a car ride from Dease Lake to Smithers was business as usual for two TRU students – both wildfire fighters at the time – until they struck up idle conversation.

Robert Atwood and Richard Sullivan began talking about remote control vehicles and drone aircrafts. The topic was as routine as their commute, but this particular road trip took an interesting turn when the duo spontaneously decided they wanted to start their own aerial drone company.

“By the time we got down to Smithers, we stopped in at The Source, bought this $400 drone and immediately crashed it,” Atwood recalled. “That was essentially the birth of Hummingbird Drones.”

For the past year, Atwood and Sullivan have been working to install cameras and proprietary software onto drones – the end goal being to provide cost-efficient mapping and research solutions for workers in the natural resource, agriculture and oil and gas industries.

“Hummingbird Drones is an aerial imaging, remote sensing and software development company,” Atwood said. “We do a lot of work with surveying, mapping and data acquisition from the air.”

In late December, two new recruits, Jay Bell and Aaren Ritchie-Bonar, joined the team.

Bell, a TRU computing science alumnus, is spearheading Hummingbird’s software development. He said that the company’s big focus right now is on thermal imaging software.

“The drone will capture video over the span of a field,” he said. “Then the software will go through the video and create a single thermal map out of it.”

The map can display the heat signatures of anything ranging from cattle and wildlife to oil spills and wildfires, according to Bell, depending on what parameters are entered into the software. Additionally, the software provides GPS coordinates for the detected objects.

“If we can just fly up somewhere with a drone and get this info, it really saves people a lot of time, money and effort in acquiring that data.

“If you fly a drone equipped with a thermal camera over a farmer’s field of crops, you can determine the health of those crops by their thermal signature,” he said.

According to Atwood, crops will emit different wavelengths depending on the type and quality of photosynthesis in their leaves.

“The software especially helps with the wildfires,” Bell added. “Because if it’s thermal intensity is super high, that needs to be dealt with right away. But if the heat signature suggests there’s only a 15 per cent chance it’s a fire, you know you can prioritize other spots over that one.”

According to Bell, the whole mapping process can be automated, too.

“We can set a drone up to have a landing pad that automatically charges it, kind of like those wireless chargers that are coming out for smartphones. Then we can set up the drone to automatically fly a set path every day at a specific time.”

“I’d say we have a lot of momentum going here,” Bell said.

“We haven’t seen any profit yet, as we haven’t really started our contracts, but we have been cementing relationships in the past weeks with a number of large engineering and environmental companies in town.”

TRU Generator opens, boosts startups like Hummingbird

Around the same time that Hummingbird Drones was starting up, TRU enterprise creation director Lincoln Smith was working on a project of his own: the TRU Generator.

The TRU Generator is a startup incubator and workspace in the House of Learning basement, closely modelled after existing incubators at other universities, like the e@UBC incubator at UBC, according to Smith.

TRU received $40,000 of support from Western Economic Diversification and a $50,000 grant from the BC Innovation Council (BCIC) last April to build the TRU Generator, according to TRU’s website. Events like H4CK Night and Startup Coffee have been running in the workspace since May, but Smith said the actual TRU Generator program officially launched this semester.

“Eight students split among four companies are now using the Generator to build their own startups,” Smith explained. “They applied to be part of the program last fall, and it started in January.”

Students in the TRU Generator program receive business mentorship, online business education and access to a physical workspace where they can hold meetings.

“We don’t really have a strong background in business right now, so the Generator really progressed our ability to function as a company,” Atwood said. “They’ve been a huge supporter of what we’re doing.”

“The biggest benefit hasn’t been the classroom space or the business courses though,” Ritchie-Bonar added. “It has actually been the mentorship provided to us from the Generator.”

Smith said his vision for Generator is to encourage “collisions” between students with entrepreneurial ideas and students with the business savvy and technical know-how needed to implement them.

“My dream goal is for every student at TRU to have the chance and develop the skill to evaluate a startup idea,” he said.

Smith, who also serves as the Kamloops Innovation Centre’s executive director, also sees potential for crossover between the Generator and Innovation Centre.

“I believe that new innovative businesses can be started at TRU, then continue to be fostered in Kamloops,” he said. “My vision is to see students taking degrees that let them build innovative businesses, graduate, then work with Kamloops Innovation to grow business in our region.”