Start-up goes for slice of drone market

Hire UAV co-founders Chris Renton and Ilce Vodjanoski, who have been awarded $30,000 in seed funding in Slingshot’s Jumpstart program.
Hire UAV co-founders Chris Renton and Ilce Vodjanoski, who have been awarded $30,000 in seed funding in Slingshot’s Jumpstart program.

ARMED with an automated drone that would not be out of place in Star Wars, two Novocastrians are eyeing a slice of the multi-billion dollar unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) market.

HiveUAV is the start-up driven by Ilce Vodjanoski and Chris Renton, one of six teams who won $30,000 each in seed funding in Slingshot’s NRMA-backed Jumpstart program.

The pair pitched their product to investors in Newcastle last week and Slingshot co-founders Trent Bagnall and Craig Lambert say their current start-up intake is the strongest yet.

Beyond the potential of HiveUAV – more on that later – what is easily forgotten in the Slingshot story is the local spend that the Hunter-grown business accelerator is generating. 

‘‘We’ve been using local designers to help with design aspects and also product development,’’ says Vodajanoski.

‘‘We are currently developing the prototype and almost all of it is being done locally, and the University of Newcastle has helped with marketing.’’

Another case in point is Jumpstart winner Camplify, the caravan-sharing start-up founded by Justin Hales.

‘‘Locally, we have a web developer who does the front-end stuff and for the back-end we are using [Mayfield East firm] Tellingence, they have been around for a while and are strong with web and data systems,’’ says Hales. 

Bagnall and Lambert estimate that Slingshot, its partners and the start-ups in the program have invested just over $1million in Newcastle since it began two years ago.

They are close to raising the $10million seed funding pool they initially targeted but are disappointed the majority of the funds have come from outside the Hunter.

“We still believe that a significant global technology business can come from Newcastle,” they say. 

HiveUAV hopes it will be theirs.

Their automated drone has traditional applications in farming, emergency services, mining and construction but packs the potential to move into new markets. 

Vodjanoski and Renton’s prototype improves on limitations with current drones, which must have their batteries replaced after a relatively short flight and be manually driven. The extraction of images they capture can also be difficult. 

‘‘We’re developing a docking station, or hive, that allows the drone to fly in and out and recharge and operate automatically,’’ says Vodjanoski. ‘‘You plan your mission and the drone takes off, does its mission and comes back and is essentially stored in this docking station that charges the battery and protects it from the elements.’’

Multiple HiveUAVs can be used at once, and companies can avoid the often high cost of hiring someone to operate them.

‘‘We are selling a product to the end user to empower them, rather than having to rely on a third party,’’ says Renton.

Vodjanoski says the NRMA is viewing HiveUAV to expand on their current efforts in traffic and road monitoring.

He says the drone market is expected to be worth $2billion in the next decade and, in half that time, HiveUAV hopes to sell several hundred units.

HiveUAV drones will cost about $60,000, compared to current UAVs that are a minimum $100,000 spend.

For Renton, a University of Newcastle mechatronics lecturer and fellow UoN graduate Vodjanoski, the biggest hurdles have been refining the drone take-offs and landings. 

‘‘We’ve developed and combined key technologies that have been research problems for a long time and are now feasible in an engineering sense, so we combine the latest generation of GPS technology and use machine vision to be able to reliably dock and take off from the hive,’’ says Renton. 

The pair will start field trials of their prototype next month and expect the product to be on sale by the end of the year. 

Closer to launching is Camplify, described as the Airbnb of recreational caravaning. 

Its website is currently registering those who own a caravan or wish to rent one in view of launching the booking system next month. 

Kurri Kurri-raised Hales says Slingshot’s input, combined with the access to the NRMA extensive market research, has been invaluable. 

‘‘We would never have had anything otherwise, it probably would have been an idea we would have done nothing with or we would have been struggling now with ‘how do we start this’,’’ he says. 

Hales is ready to tap the estimated 500,000 recreational van owners registered in Australia and 9.3million Australians are keen to take a camping holiday.  

‘‘We are looking to be all over Australia and provide the services everywhere, our goal is to always be based here and provide technology out of Newcastle and once we have everything bedded down here, look to take it globally,’’ he says.

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