Opportunity Knocks @ SkyX

March 10, 2018

Wow.

What an amazing ride it’s been so far at SkyX. So much achieved in a short time frame by a growing, dedicated team.

A little more than two years ago, in January of 2016, SkyX was basically starting from scratch in a small office in downtown Toronto. CEO and Founder Didi Horn had just moved here, alongside five other all-star players at the top of their field: Liron (electronics) David, Tzuki (both aerospace) and Nir and Michal (software engineers).  Visitors were treated to some hospitality, snacks, and an instant coffee because there was not yet even a coffee maker.

The first SkyX office – January, 2016

THE EARLY DAYS

Before getting to Toronto, a core team had worked with a budget of zero but a vision that knew no bounds. Horn had long believed there would be a huge non-military demand for Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, specifically through gathering data in real-time, from a bird’s-eye view.

There was already a growing market for quadcopters, but those devices were limited by how far they could fly. Typically, they’d be in the air for 20 minutes or so before they had to land. That meant a short round trip, which excluded them from being used in long-range asset monitoring.

Yes, there were some fixed-wing unmanned aircraft, but those typically required a runway or cumbersome catapult launch system. They, too, always had to “return to home” to recharge or refuel.

Could there be a way to combine the best of both worlds – to fly and cover thousands (and thousands) of kilometres – with none of the drawbacks?

This small team believed there was.

THE SKYX VISION

The concept would blend two ideas: A VTOL aircraft and a remote charging station. VTOL stands for Vertical Take Off and Landing, much like a helicopter. But this aircraft also had a fixed wing as part of its design, so the aircraft could transition into forward flight – giving it greater range and eliminating the runway/catapult issue.  If it worked, it would be able to take off and land pretty much anywhere.

But they wanted it to be able to keep going, not have to return home.

The short story is that this trio tested a small version of a fixed-wing VTOL – and made something that flew quite well. It wasn’t what SkyX has today, but it was a start.

Electronics engineer Liron Shemesh with the very first proof of concept. SkyX has come a very long way since then.

By a stroke of luck, word reached Dr. Liu Ruopeng – one of the founders of the Chinese high-tech company Kuang-Chi Science. Dr. Liu was visiting and called Didi at short notice and asked him to come meet at an airport (where Dr. Liu was awaiting a flight).

An hour or two later, Kuang-Chi became the flagship investor in SkyX.

And that’s when SkyX really got started.

WELCOME TO CANADA

Canada made sense as a base. The initial target market would be monitoring oil and gas pipelines, and North America is pipeline central. In fact, some $38B is spent annually monitoring pipelines in North America alone.

Collectively, the team envisioned a system that would work something like this:

They hit the ground running, soon moving to a facility in Markham where they could start building and programming. It was April of 2016.

HARD WORK, GROWTH, MILESTONES

Rapidly, the team grew (you can check out everyone on this page).

But the real story here is the SkyX team’s astonishing speed in crushing milestone after milestone after milestone.

  • Build the first SkyOne – check.
  • Successfully hover – check.
  • Make SkyOne successfully recognize and land on a beam of light – check.
  • Successfully transition to autonomous forward flight – check.
  • Build a proof-of-concept charging station – check.
  • Build a full-scale xStation – check.
  • Run a fully autonomous loop, capture georeferenced data, land on the xStation and recharge, then take off again – CHECK.

The xStation, with the canopy closed, from above. Photo by Scott Simmie/SkyX

MEXICO

And then – with many eyes watching – the most ambitious project of all: Taking SkyOne down to Mexico, and flying over a 102-kilometre section of pipeline. The goal would be to prove to a potential client that SkyOne could produce detailed and meaningful results in a fraction of the time of the traditional ground-based inspection.

Engineer Isaac Wang on the ground in Mexico, communicating with “Mission Control” back at SkyX headquarters.

On November 23, that flight took off – with part of the SkyX team in Mexico, and the rest in Markham. The team in Markham actually programmed the flight and launched it, then monitored in real-time as SkyOne flew its mission. SkyOne would take off from one location, fly directly above the pipeline for 102 kilometres on a single charge, before landing at its destination.

Just after takeoff on the 102-kilometre Mexico mission

The mission was flawless; the results produced for the potential client stunning: Some 15,000 images, about 200 of which showed problems on the ground worth investigating. It was, for the team, a triumphant moment.

It was also, for Kuang-Chi, validation of Dr. Liu Ruopeng’s initial instincts: SkyX had a truly disruptive concept, and had people with the skills to back up its goals.

And for the team itself? The moment the Mexico flight landed brought elation – whether you were on the ground in Mexico or in the office in the Greater Toronto Area. All of that hard work had paid off.

The SkyX Crew in Mexico, following the 102-km flight. The operation was controlled remotely from our Greater Toronto Area headquarters

And the team back at SkyX headquarters

A NEW OPPORTUNITY

Now, SkyX is entering a new phase. And it’s extraordinary.

There’s interest in the system from oil and gas companies on four different continents.

An agreement with one client is imminent.

And – perhaps of greatest interest to some – a window is briefly open for an opportunity to grow with this incredible team.

The company is in the midst of its Series A round of financing, meaning a select group of investors will be able to get in while SkyX is still young.

That’s important.

Because – trust us on this – we’ve only just begun.

Two SkyOne aircraft, plus our xStation, at our flight facility outside Toronto

 

Scott Simmie