Engineering drone safety technology for enterprise use is no small task, but Amber McDonald, CEO and Co-Founder of Indemnis, is up for the challenge. So is her tight-knit team.
Together, they’ve become industry leaders, developing patented technology with the goal of enabling businesses to fly unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) over people, which is currently restricted by the FAA. They’re also working in tandem with the FAA and corporations like Amazon and Google to create regulation that will legalize drone flight over populated spaces.
Though bringing drone delivery and other commercial drone applications to the market is the ostensible end-goal of Indemnis's technology, the crux of their work is far more powerful.
“The number one problem we’re solving is we’re protecting life and property on the ground,” McDonald said. “If a drone falls from the sky and hits you, you’re done. That’s essentially a 20-pound weight coming at you at 70 miles-per-hour. It will either severely injure you or kill you.”
The number one problem we’re solving is we’re protecting life and property on the ground
Indemnis is the only company to prove the functionality and reliability of a parachute recovery system to the FAA, and their technology exceeds upcoming global regulatory standards from civil aviation authorities. To date, they’ve raised $3.4M from private investors and have piqued the interest from more. It makes sense, given the total available market for commercial drones is estimated to grow to $127B by 2020.
“Drones are coming and they are the future. They’re disruptive innovation, and they affect almost every facet of business globally,” McDonald said.
A team effort
McDonald and her founding team have years of experience working together and operating drones. Prior to founding Indemnis, they collaborated at a video production company, using drones to capture footage. Doing so presented a problem — on multiple occasions, the drones crashed.
“As drone operators, we saw where the industry was going, and we knew that someone had to create a solution in order to expand the industry,” McDonald said. “We looked at the problem, studied the dynamics of what was occurring, and engineered a solution.”
McDonald and Indemnis Co-Founder and CTO Alan Erickson head the Indemnis team. Their grit, agility, and confident decision-making has carried them through the taxing trial-and-error process that’s necessary to pioneer groundbreaking technology.
“He understands business and I understand tech, but we work together on almost everything,” McDonald said. “Things never go the way you want them to when you’re running a business, but together, Alan and I complement each other.”
McDonald says Erickson is her biggest mentor, and vice versa, both encouraging one another to push beyond their perceived limitations.
“We push each other to be better,” McDonald said. “And as a boss, I can say that I’m not always perfect, but what I ask myself daily, when things happen, is ‘How could I have done that better?’”
Also pushing McDonald and the team to break barriers are the naysayers. Those who have doubted the team’s ability to achieve succeed in the development of their technology have only added fuel to their fire.
"The people who have motivated us the most are those who have put us down or brushed us aside,” she said. “There’s not one person who has shaped what we’re doing except the person who’s said ‘That’s not going to work.”
The people who have motivated us the most are those who have put us down or brushed us aside
Life experiences demanding determination and perseverance catalyzed the fortitude that McDonald and her team possess.
“The founding team comes from a background that required a mindset of overcoming obstacles, and that has carried us through everything in life,” McDonald said. “Failure was not an option in anything that we’ve ever done."
This resolve has primed the Indemnis team to push through all sorts of setbacks and failures, which has helped them succeed in their quest to perfect drone recovery technology.
“One of the reasons that we've been so successful is that we commit to whatever decision we're making, we don't bounce around, we commit, and we see it through. Sometimes it goes amazing and other times it fails, but we quickly evaluate it, we course correct, and we continue. We don't dwell on it. Some of our mottos in our staff meetings are 'The word impossible does not exist in this room' and 'We win as a team, and we lose as a team.' We do whatever it takes.”
Indemnis is all about the team, with each member playing an integral role in its success.
“Every member of our team deserves credit, because everybody has sacrificed a lot of time and energy. It’s not just management,” McDonald said. “We spend more time each day together than we do with our own families. Sometimes we work 16 hours a day for three weeks straight, so we are each other's family. It's important that everyone gets credit for the progress we've made.”
The tech specs
Indemnis has created something called The Nexus, a parachute recovery system that stops drones from plummeting to the ground if they malfunction or lose control, which can happen for a variety of reasons, including mercurial weather conditions.
If a drone begins to fall, the parachute automatically deploys (a pilot can also deploy it manually), far enough away from the machine avoid entanglement in any part of the drone. They’ve achieved patents for the specific technologies that power this mechanism.
“What gives Indemnis a competitive edge is we’re the only publicly-demonstrated company that’s publicly proven that our technology works,” McDonald said. “We’ve tested some of our competitor’s products, and they don’t work.”
To engineer the Nexus, the Indemnis team discovered a way to meld a material called Dyneema, which is the strongest fabric on the planet and 15 times as strong as steel. Macknenzie Banbury, another Indemnis Co-Founder who also serves as Media Manager, accomplished this feat, something no one had ever done before. Doing so allowed them to create a deployment tube that stays rigid after the parachute launches so its attachment point lies outside of the drone’s roll radius. The Nexus remains firm under 30 pounds-per-square-inch (PSI), which is the equivalent of a car tire, and it deploys in under 30 milliseconds at 90 miles-per-hour.
The idea for the solution came from an unlikely place. Erickson was watching a James Bond movie when the 'Aha! moment' hit.
“There was a little bit of Q tech,” McDonald said. “Bond was caught in an avalanche, and he pulls a string and it puts a bubble around him. That’s what sparked the idea.”
The first iteration of Indemnis’s technology mirrored the bubble from the Bond movie. The team didn’t set out to engineer a parachute recovery system out of the gate, instead, they created a large inflatable ball that engulfed the drone if it began to crash. But the manufacturing process of this technology was too expensive to sustain. So, they hit the drawing board and eventually developed the parachute technology.
Indemnis does more than just engineer drone safety technology. They’ve also been appointed as technical lead of the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) testing standard for Small Unmanned Aircraft System (sUAS) parachutes. This is joint effort between the FAA, Indemnis, and other businesses to create regulation that will make commercial drone flight over people legal.
“We are the technical lead in the industry and have been appointed by the FAA to develop standards that will support flight over people,” McDonald said. “We’re also providing software and services to get the waiver from the FAA. We will walk companies through the steps needed to issue a right to fly over people waiver and be able to commercially.”
We are the technical lead in the industry and have been appointed by the FAA to develop standards that will support flight over people
They chose to crowdfund with Republic to delay entering a Series A round. Having received plenty of interest from private investors, McDonald said they wanted to be able to continue to develop their business and technology so they could enter a Series A with the maximum valuation possible.
The end goal
Indemnis is at work on other projects that they hope will lead them toward their end-goal, which is to be a leader in the UAV safety industry.
“We have a lot of other projects in the pipeline, but they all revolve around safety in unmanned systems,” she said.
Of course, the technology that Indemnis has spearheaded can potentially drive mass market adoption of drone delivery. But McDonald isn’t interested in just helping large players like Amazon benefit from this. She’s also looking out for the little guy.
“We want to make it allowable for all size businesses to have access to drone technology for business purposes anywhere and fly anywhere without limitation," she said. "We want both Joe, whose business only makes $100,000 a year, and Amazon to have access to the technology and be able to utilize it to make more money, do things more efficiently, and more effectively.”