With its flying-saucer shape and cutesy name, the Dronut aerial drone from Boston’s Cleo Robotics might be the ideal holiday gift. But only if you’ve got $10,000 to spare, and a tough job to do — inside.
The Dronut is a surveillance drone that’s designed to operate indoors, flying through dangerous or hard-to-reach places like air ducts, oil pipelines, or perhaps a booby-trapped building. With its high-definition camera system and 3-D LIDAR laser rangefinder, a Dronut can deliver high-resolution images and video of the places it visits, and even generate detailed digital maps.
“There’s a real need for something that can get into spaces that are dangerous, confined spaces that you wouldn’t want to send people in,” said Cleo Robotics founder Omar Eleryan
A citizen of Canada, Eleryan studied mechanical engineering at the University of Calgary, then spent four years working in the oil industry. His job sometimes required him to don a hazmat suit and inspect underground oil tanks. The experience got him thinking.
Given the grimy conditions of the tanks, a rolling or walking robot didn’t make sense. But a flying robot under remote control could hover over the muck and scan every inch while humans stayed at a safe distance.
In 2016, Eleryan joined forces with software engineer and fellow Canadian Simon Czarnota to begin designing their drone. They launched Cleo Robotics in 2018, and the company was chosen to participate in a business accelerator program run by Boston-based nonprofit MassChallenge. The experience persuaded Eleryan and Czarnota to move the company to Boston.
“Boston is the robotics hub, not just for the US but I think the world,” said Eleryan.
Cleo employs fewer than 10 people, according to Eleryan, and has raised about $1 million so far from angel investors.
The Dronut resembles a flying saucer, but not because its builders love 1950s sci-fi movies. They say the design makes it tougher and safer. Most surveillance drones are quadcopters, kept aloft by four whirling sets of exposed rotor blades. But that makes the drones too large to fit into many small spaces, like pipes or heating ducts. Also, the whirling blades can easily collide with nearby objects, causing a crash. Or they can injure people.
The Dronut has just two rotors, but they’re mounted on a single axle that runs through the center of the drone. The blades are completely surrounded by a hard carbon-fiber casing. This is called a “ducted fan” design. Engineers have been tinkering with the idea since at least the 1950s, when the US military tested a ducted-fan hovercraft for soldiers.
But ducted fans are difficult to steer. Cleo has solved this problem with vanes attached to small actuators. These vanes extend or retract, aiming the stream of air blasting from the underside of the drone. A nudge on the joystick makes the Dronut move left or right, up or down. Or the drone can rotate so its front-mounted cameras and LIDAR laser sensors can scan an entire room, or the inside of an oil pipeline. The Dronut’s removable battery pack can keep it aloft for up to 15 minutes at a time.
This drone doesn’t produce a droning sound. It’s more like a scream, as the dual propellers rip through the air. Eleryan admits that in its current form, the Dronut is far too loud for use near people. He says Cleo engineers are hard at work on a new version designed to generate less noise.
The indoor drone market isn’t exactly crowded, but a handful of companies are making a play. For instance, Corvus Robotics of Boston has developed a fully autonomous drone system for use in warehouses. A fleet of camera-equipped Corvus drones can patrol the aisles of a warehouse, scanning the shelves and keeping track of inventory.
The Corvus system won’t use human pilots; the drones find their own way, then automatically land at docking stations. They recharge their batteries, upload inventory data to the warehouse computer system, and take off again.
By contrast, the Dronut is controlled by a human using a smartphone connected to a controller similar to those used for video games. To explore the inside of a power-plant boiler or an oil refinery still requires the human touch.
Since launching sales in November, Cleo has signed about a dozen clients. One of them, Jaap de Vries, vice president of innovation science and technology at Rhode Island-based insurance company FM Global, is testing the drone as a tool for conducting safety inspections in complex industrial facilities.
“We’re kind of exploring if we can have a simple technology go in, take all the hazard away for our people, and still get our people the data that they need,” said de Vries.
So far, he’s been impressed by the ducted-fan design that keeps the drone’s spinning blades out of harm’s way. “It can really bounce off walls and be very stable,” he said. “They don’t have to worry about getting stuck so much.”
Lian Jye Su, a Singapore-based robotics analyst for the US firm ABI Research, said that indoor drones presently comprise no more than 2 percent of the overall drone market. “But with the right solution like Cleo Robotics and Corvus Robotics,” Su added, “the market can potentially double or triple to 5 percent in the next five years.”
Eleryan said there are construction companies that want to use the Dronut to capture video of ongoing projects, and demolition companies interested in surveying structures before tearing them down.
“We’re getting customers across the world,” Eleryan said. “There’s some applications that we never thought of before.”