Manual inspection of pressure vessels for oil and gas production is not a glamorous job. Just ask Omar Eleryan, who had to this as part of his job after he graduated from the University of Calgary with a mechanical engineering degree. Calgary, Alberta is the oil and gas capital of Canada.
“I had to put on protective clothing and a safety harness, and crawl into a tiny manway down to the bottom of a vessel and just look around for 10 minutes to do a visual inspection,” he said. “This made me think about why people have to do these tasks in potentially dangerous environments. Cameras can do these jobs safer, cheaper, and more efficiently. “
This led Eleryan and Simon Czarnota to create Cleo Robotics in 2016. The Boston-based startup is developing the Cleo Dronut, a compact and rugged drone designed for safe operation indoors and in confined spaces for reconnaissance and inspection applications. The company started out in Calgary, but it spent a short amount of time in Silicon Valley before settling down in Boston in May 2019.
Meet the Cleo Dronut
The Cleo Dronut (donut-shaped drone) has a 15-minute flight time, a speed of 3 m/sec, and a carbon fiber body. At 5.5 inches in diameter, 3.3 inches in height and a weight of just 10.5 oz, the Cleo Dronut fits in the palm of your hand without having to be disassembled or folded. It can gather real-time video data and still images and has < 90 ms latency.
Cleo Robotics at a Glance
Founders Omar Eleryan & Simon Czarnota
Full-time employees 4
Product Cleo Robotics developed the Dronut, a compact and rugged drone designed to operate indoors and in confined spaces for reconnaissance and inspection applications. It eliminates the need for humans to enter hazardous or hostile environments.
Eleryan said the Cleo Dronut is not just a quadcopter with an enclosure. To overcome efficiency problems, the drone uses counter-rotating propellers that are on top of each other surrounded by an enclosure. How Cleo controls this unique propeller design is its secret sauce. The technology is patent-pending, so Eleryan understandably would not delve into it too much. But he said it is similar to thrust vectoring, which is the way aircraft and space rockets manipulate the direction of the thrust from motors and re-direct airflow.
“Most drones are multi-rotors or quadcopters with four propellers beside one another,” said Eleryan. “If you scale that down to a 5-inch diameter, the propellers are so small, maybe two inches each, that they can’t lift much so they end up having tiny batteries. That creates efficiency issues where these drones can fly no longer than seven or eight minutes.”
At the moment, the Cleo Dronut is controlled by a human operator. But the drone can locate itself in space and fly itself if the operator let’s go of the controls. And thanks to solid-state LiDAR, Optical Flow technology, two cameras, an IMU and barometer, the Cleo Dronut can fly in GPS-denied environments.
”We built a robot designed to carry sensors and cameras into places too dangerous or hazardous for people,” said Eleryan. “Current drones are too large to navigate or too dangerous to be around. And those types of environments are also inaccessible to ground-based robots at the moment.”
The Cleo Dronut actually started off even smaller at 3 inches in diameter. But as the company interacted with more potential customers, it discovered a slightly larger design was more favorable for more payload and flight time.
“Often times engineers get too excited about the tech and forget about the problem they’re trying to solve,” said Eleryan. “In the initial stages, you need to take a leap of faith because not a lot of people will talk to you. We talked to more than 100 potential customers. We currently have paid pilots in the defense space, law enforcement and the industrial space. I can’t stress how important it is to talk to the customers.”
Cleo Robotics’ journey to Boston
Cleo Robotics currently resides inside MassRobotics, a non-profit organization serving as the innovation hub for robotics and connected devices. That certainly was not part of the plan.
“Initially, we thought we’d end up in Silicon Valley. We’re a tech company at the end of the day, and where do tech companies go? Silicon Valley,” said Eleryan. “We spent some time there, but hardware is not an area of interest there. We kept hearing that hardware is too hard. The atmosphere was very trendy when we were there in 2017. Nobody was interested in drones.”
Cleo Robotics came to Boston in the summer of 2018 to join the local branch of MassChallenge, which is a global network of zero-equity startup accelerators.
“We knew Boston had a strong tech ecosystem, but we were also attracted to the talent pool from the universities,” Eleryan said. “When we got here for MassChallenge, it was clear the environment here is more supportive of hardware startups.”
Cleo Robotics returned in early 2019 to join the Air Force Accelerator Powered by Techstars. It ultimately decided Boston was its home and found space inside MassRobotics.
“We first saw Cleo Robotics when they were a MassChallenge company. It has been great to have them in MassRobotics and watch them further develop the design,” said Joyce Sidopoulos, Co-founder and Community and Programs Director, MassRobotics. “The compact and safe indoor flying robot operates well in confined spaces, allowing companies to better inspect and maintain their assets while keeping their employees safe, and law enforcement and first responders to get a first look in potentially dangerous areas. Plus, it is nice to have a SciFi-looking drone cruising around our space.”
What’s Next for Cleo Robotics
Cleo Robotics is currently working on pilot projects, and it hopes to officially be on the market in the second quarter of 2020.
“As for long-term goals, we want our robot to be working alongside people. We want the robot to do these dangerous, dirty jobs people currently have to do,” said Eleryan. “People don’t have to risk their lives to go into a pressure vessel to inspect it. Let’s eliminate any fatalities in that space.”
While Cleo Robotics is currently focusing 100% of its attention on commercial applications, it has not completely ruled out the consumer market. After all, it was named an Innovation Awards Honoree at the 2017 Consumer Electronics Show (CES), which is the world’s largest consumer electronics show.
“We’re in the final stages of getting our patent,” said Eleryan. “For some markets, we’d license our technology. The one that comes to mind is the consumer market, for which our drone has a lot of uses. But that’s a very challenging market.”