Graduate students’ startup makes a strong first impression

After meeting in a math class in 2014, Akash Vidyadharan and Tyler Carter are the co-founders of InfraDrone.

Akash Vidyadharan and Tyler Carter spent the first part of last summer applying for jobs in anticipation of receiving their master’s degree in the spring of 2017. For the second half of the summer, they worked on a project that has caught the attention of investors, corporations, as well government officials.

“One year ago, this idea didn’t even exist,” Vidyadharan, who received a B.S. in aerospace engineering from Iowa State in 2016, said. “We were applying for jobs, both of us online, clicking through job applications.”

“We didn’t like the ones we got though so we thought, let’s do something that stimulates us, something fun,” Carter, who earned a B.S. in mechanical engineering from Iowa State in 2016, added.

Vidyadharan, who is currently working with Dr. Christina Bloebaum on his master’s degree, has been developing a value-based data-driven framework for design of unmanned aerial systems (UAS) that incorporates qualitative attributes such as technology readiness and degree of autonomy.  Dr. Bloebaum’s collaboration with Dr. Halil Ceylan, a professor in the Department of Civil, Construction and Environmental Engineering, led to use of UAS for infrastructure health monitoring. From the foundation of this research project, in addition to Dr. Bloebaum’s and Dr. Ceylan’s mentorship, InfraDrone was born.

From the foundation of this research project, in addition to Dr. Bloebaum’s and Dr. Ceylan’s mentorship, InfraDrone was born. InfraDrone is a company that does structural health monitoring for agriculture and infrastructure using unmanned aerial vehicles. The two construct the UAVs, fitted with monitoring equipment including high resolution cameras and laser equipment such as LiDAR, thermography, and ultrasonics, and pilot them to inspect bridges, fields, wind turbines, and power lines.

“We have a big non-destructive evaluation center at Iowa State where I worked for a while,” Vidyadharan said. “We decided instead of having this NDE equipment in the lab and bringing in samples, why don’t we get this outside and make it more mobile, such as on drones?”

UAV’s offer many benefits to inspecting structures that could change the way the practice is conducted.

“Say you’re inspecting power lines,” Vidyadharan said. “Currently they do inspections one of three ways. The first one is having a person climbing up the pole and physically look at the line, the second way is flying a helicopter over the lines with a thermal camera, and the third way is leaving sensors embedded on the line to collect the data.”

All three of those options can be expensive, time consuming, and in some cases, dangerous. Flying a UAV around the powerline as it collects data is a quick and inexpensive way of analyzing the structure without putting lives at risk.

Recently, InfraDrone has caught the attention of many people, including the next governor of Iowa, Lt. Governor Kim Reynolds. Carter and Vidyadharan spent almost a

Benjamin Dinkins, Lt. Governor Reynolds, Akash Vidyadharan, and Tyler Carter.

half an hour with Lt. Governor Reynolds during a fundraising event, showcasing the technology and how it could help the state of Iowa.

“We gave her a bunch of our stuff,” Vidyadharan said. “We showed her what we are doing and how it could benefit Iowa both economically and also for improving our infrastructure by detecting issues. We are hoping to pursue more projects with the state in the future.”

In addition to government officials, the two engineers have also managed to impress investors, as well as some larger companies and potential clients. The combination of the drone market taking off recently and looser FAA regulations regarding drones has presented a golden opportunity for the entrepreneurs.

Carter admits that while the timing of the drone market is good, the key for InfraDrone is not actually the drone, but the way the analytics are presented.

“The UAV is just the part that collects the data,” Carter says. “People can collect data, UAVs can collect data, satellites can collect data. UAVs are just the fastest and most accurate way. The real money comes in during the processing and the analytics of the data and the NDE testing. That’s where the value is.”

After a UAV scan is completed, Carter and Vidyadharan have figured out how to package the information in a way that is helpful for clients. Analyzing the data, deciphering the NDE results, and presenting it in a way the client can understand is just as important as the initial scan.

InfraDrone recently opened offices in West Des Moines and have started hiring employees.

While they’re still being cautious and making sure all the bugs have been worked out in beta testing, Carter and Vidyadharan are hopeful their sacrifices will be worth it.

“Instead of getting full-time jobs, we thought there was a small chance this could take off,” Vidyadharan said. “So we took the big leap.”