New super-precise drones could win over wireless industry

PreNav beta-testing drone- and cloud-based inspection system

prenav drone
PreNav drones PRENAV

PreNav demos precision drone flights via an LED lightshow

Big IT companies have largely been mum on plans to use drones, but emerging technology from Bay-area startup PreNav appears to have at least intrigued wireless service providers and cell phone tower operators.

Founded in 2013, PreNav has secured $1.2 million in seed funding and is working on raising Series A financing. It is currently beta testing its precision drone technology, which carriers/tower operators could use to inspect towers in a safer and more efficient manner. The drones could zoom in on everything from nuts-to-bolts (literally) and cabling, plus deliver 3D images that customers can use to determine a tower's structural status. And with more than 100,000 towers in the U.S. alone, that could present PreNav with a big opportunity.

Other potential customers include wind turbine operators, such as early user Senvion, as well as outfits overseeing everything from bridges to dams to oil rigs.

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PreNav next year plans to roll out its 3-piece system, which consists of roughly 9-pound industrial grade drones, a ground-based guidance robot that includes a powerful embedded processor, a camera, laser rangefinder and wireless tablet for the user interface, plus cloud-based software to process, analyze and share data. The robot scans the structure and then guides the drone around it "with centimeter-level accuracy" to take photos that are then turned into a 3D reconstruction. This is a much more precise and reliable system than those based on GPS technology, which has difficulty understand the relationship between a drone and a structure being examined, according to PreNav.

PreNav is pushing this video in which LEDs on drones are used to showcase precise flying patterns.

PreNav claims the system, initially targeted at the U.S. market, can be operated via the touchscreen interface even by those who don't have manual piloting skills. What's more, PreNav says it is working to enable tower inspection, including drone setup, in less than an hour.

The startup is the brainchild of CEO Nathan Schuett and CTO Asa Hammond, who previously worked on camera systems and computer vision applications as contractors for Google and some Bay-area startups.  Among Hammond's claims to fame was developing a robotic motion control system for a design firm (and eventual Google acquisition) called Bot & Dolly used to shoot the movie Gravity. 

The company's drone system would seem to sync up well with the direction of the FAA, which has been overseeing drone/unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) rules in the United States. 

"PRENAV supports the notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) issued by the FAA back in February 2015. By removing the requirement to have a certified pilot in command of the aircraft, drones can be used by a much broader range of people, namely the existing industry of  climbers, technicians, and anyone who is inspecting or maintaining industrial assets. Further, the rules focus on drones that fly within line of sight of the operator, which aligns well with the applications PRENAV is targeting with our system."

With drone rules becoming clearer in the U.S., funds increasingly have been flowing into drone-focused startups. One of PreNav's investors, Drone.VC, for example, specifically targets drone companies. Crunchbase showed that some $210 million had been pumped into drone startups this year through mid-June.

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