While industrial automation is growing, albeit slower than some analysts expected, and new robotics applications are emerging, developers must still be aware of hazards when launching their innovations. Even the most promising technologies have to find investors and market support. Hummingdrones is a startup whose innovative Robo Firefly aerial drone is waiting on crowdfunding to take off.
Frederik Leys, CEO of Hummingdrones, started developing the insect-like drone nine years ago as part of his dissertation at the University of Leuven in Belgium.
His company’s stated goal is to inspire people of all ages “for science and technology by developing small robots.”
Starting small with Robo Firefly, hoping to go smaller
“As a student, I started developing Robo Firefly’s predecessor out of pure academic curiosity,” Leys said. “There was no drone at the time that could fly like a hummingbird. Making a drone the size of an insect was so far out of reach that we couldn’t do it.”
“I found that the wing motion of hummingbirds is like that of insects and takes advantage of the same aerodynamic phenomena,” he recalled. “I started looking into the advantages of flapping wings versus propellors. They could generate more thrust. They could also be more efficient, so drones could carrier a heavier load and fly for a longer time.”
“These advantages only come to the surface when you make drones small enough,” said Leys. “If we could build drones with a wingspan of 5cm [1.9 in.] or smaller, we are positive that flapping wings would be better than rotating propellors.”
The Robo Firefly weighs just 20g (0.7 oz.) and has a wingspan of 150mm (5.9 in.). Its prototype is highly maneuverable and makes a relatively small buzzing sound.
“At the moment, the technology isn’t there yet to make them smaller, so we decided to start with a hummingbird-sized drone,” Leys said. “The first robotic hummingbird wasn’t so stable, so to continue research and development, I had to start a company.”
“Festo’s drones are different in size,” he replied. “Our flapping technology is resonance-based. Our mechanism is four to 10 times more efficient and uses a spring-like element. In every wing stroke, you have to break motion and accelerate fast.”
“We slow down the wing motion and capture kinetic energy, and then use it to start the next flapping cycle,” Leys said. “Our technology is very robust and has a low part count — fewer than a common toy helicopter — so it’s more efficient than a drone of the same size.”
Leys said he views the toy hummingbird as a step toward miniature drones that would eventually demonstrate commercial value.
Robo Firefly readies for takeoff
The drone can fly up to 100 meters (328 ft.) from the controller at up to 20 kph (12.5 mph) for up to six minutes. It connects to a smartphone via Bluetooth and can recharge in 15 minutes using Micro-USB.
Leys and co-founder and entrepreneur Hans Verhoeven named the device “Firefly” because of its strobe light, which helps users see the fast-moving wings in flight.
The Firefly does not yet include a camera, “because we believe that for such a light drone as the Firefly, there is no technology available that’s able to deliver the video quality we would like to deliver.”
“Testers were mesmerized by a drone that flies like an insect,” said Leys. “We’ve seen suggestions that drones could replace bees for pollination, but that’s not practical in the near term. That’s why we want to inspire people young and old in science and technology.”
Hummingdrones is finalizing Robo Firefly’s design this summer, and it expects to select production partners this autumn. It hopes to ship the first batch of drones next summer.
Waiting for Indiegogo
Nordic Semiconductor, Leuven Mindgate, and the Catholic University of Leuven are listed as supporters of Hummingdrones, but Leys had to turn to crowdfunding to bring Robo Firefly to market.
“Even though the toy market is big, it’s not so easy to find investors,” said Leys. “We had to find an investor who liked the project so we could do a proper market study.”
“Before 2005, people had never been able to fly something they could steer themselves, and there was a sense of wonder and high expectations,” he said. “With companies like DJI selling drones with extraordinary technical capabilities at such low prices, it’s hard to compete. We’d have to sell hundreds of thousands of drones at €100 [$112 U.S.].”
Since May, the Indiegogo campaign for Robo Firefly has raised more than $8,000 out of a goal of $39,312. The campaign includes levels for makers, upgrades, and personalization.
“If people don’t see others joining a crowdfunding campaign in the first five to seven days, they won’t join,” Leys said. “We are not a known company, and we asked backers to wait for a year.”
“A lot is usually done with a prelaunch campaign,” he acknowledged. “We’re now looking to go to China in October for conferences of inventors and toy manufacturers.”
Leys told The Robot Report that selling Hummingdrones’ intellectual property “is an option.”
“What I’ve learned from our adventures so far is that if you want to make something successful for consumers, you have to give them enough value,” he said. “Robotics can help save time, lower pain, provide convenience, but there are not many examples of complex robots that can do that.”
Commercial opportunities await
“We see a trend of drones becoming smaller and smaller,” said Leys. “Winged drones could be useful for safety, construction, and infrastructure inspection.”
“While a drone that’s 12cm [4.7 in.] in wingspan can be carried in a backpack and is sufficient for consumer use, there have to be more applications for industrial applications,” he added. “It would be handy for the military to have very small, quiet drones.”
“Production would be quite easy,” Leys said of scaling up Hummingdrones. “We only need seven parts to be molded, plus electronics assembly. The most difficult part would be the wings.”
“I knew from the start that making hardware as a startup is very difficult,” he said. “Robotics is handy, but only if it’s complex, which requires more time and capital.”
“You need good designers, a big marketing team, sales channels,” he concluded. “If we can sell robots at a lower price and bring them to market faster than a year, then we’ll be successful.”