My last article was on “The future is not distant …. It is within our grasp”: A study in UAVs and their potential”.
Following up from this I interviewed Kostas Karachalios, the CEO of Perceptual Robotics, to learn more about the company, industry, and their leader. Below is an edited transcript of our conversation for clarity.
1) Some argue that we are entering a new era of capitalism, one which is not centred on profit making alone, as such what drives you as a CEO?
I am driven, similar to the rest of my team, to see the impact of the work we do. Which is why we focus on the inspection of wind turbine assets and are looking to expand into other renewable energy sectors, where we can make a difference. Understanding where we sit in the value chain and how we are playing a small part in increasing the adoption of wind energy and sustainability by reducing the cost and considering their whole life. Given the technical nature of our industry we are also driven by puzzle solving and tackling challenges.
2) Having created a company that has received substantial funding from investors what are key tips/advice would you give to prospective entrepreneurs or individuals who has just started a business?
There will be a long list of lessons hard learnt and patience is needed.
You should first talk to the users of your product/ service to really understand what your customers need and fine tune your product to their requirements. Show up to these meetings as if you know nothing so you can hear from a different perspective every time.
Secondly you will refine your business model as you are developing and come up with new ways to commercialise your product. Keeping an open mind to see what the market needs is important here.
Lastly speak with other founders who have been through similar things and can give you advise and how to avoid the same mistakes we all make. Throughout your development see it as an adventure as although there’s a lot of challenges, they are not problems but can be overcome.
3) For the benefit of people reading this interview could you give us some details as to who your clients are? What industries do they work in? and what services do you provide?
Our clients are primarily in the wind energy industry, and there are three different customer types: Wind turbine manufacturers, owner operators and independent service providers.
Who are client is depends on who is responsible for the repair of wind turbine blades and their inspection.
We offer our clients a tool to improve their method for inspecting wind turbines, using an automated drone. They can place the drone in front of a turbine, press a button and it will collect hundreds of images of all four sides, of all three blades, therefore highlighting damages. Going up and coming down safety without any real human intervention during the flight. The process is combined with blade specialists and machine learning to process the data collected and ensure no damages are missed. Diving deeper into the analytics, we then put all this data into a web portal and cloud so customers can get insights about inspections, repair processes and how to optimise these.
4) Dhalion was your first product, what’s your next?
The principle of engineering innovation is built into the culture of the company, and we have quite a few things planned. Firstly, we are looking offshore as this is a rapidly growing market and currently our products are primarily onshore. We are developing into automated take-off and landing from moving vessels.
Going deeper into the analytics, we want to tell customers not just what is wrong and how to fix it but how to optimise the whole operations around inspections and repairs. For example, which damages they should repair, when they should repair and how often they should be inspecting.
These types of questions link to our goal of going more into the maintenance support to create tools for technicians, who go to repair turbines, and gather information about repairs, creating a complete data base. How you repair things informs how you inspect and vice versa.
5) How else can UAVs be used for the rest of the green energy sector?
There is an endless list. I would say the intersection between robotics and renewable energy is very exciting especially trying to understand the operations and maintenance aspects of these types of assets more. Solar panel and hydroelectric dam inspection is a clear use of UAVs. Their role can be extended to power lines and grid infrastructure, which are essential to renewable assets in the first place.
The next step is interacting with assets themselves to perform minor repairs with UAVs and other robotics systems both in the air, on the ground, and underwater, in offshore environments. Most of these assets exist in remote places requiring people to go long distances so UAVs can play a role in the security of these assets. Even in the preconstruction phases UAVs can be used more traditionally to take site surveys and other environmental analysis of the landscapes to help plan for installation.
Other applications I am quite excited about are drones being used to map wildfires and help coordinate firefighters. UAVs’ environmental impact is bigger than the green energy sector directly as they can be used for tree planting, harbour monitoring and monitoring emissions of shipping vessels.
6) Apart from UAVs what other new technology is beneficial for business currently
Mostly speaking about our business, artificial intelligence in the form of more traditional machine learning as well as neutral networks are pushing boundaries of what we can achieve in term of predictive and modelling capacity. These link to acquisition device improvements such as sensors and robotic system that can now be combined with appropriate data processing algorithms.
For us, constant improvements in photography and sensors are driving what UAVs can do and see. Finally, cloud technology is unlocking a whole different range of business models. Allowing small companies to accommodate scalable operations and larger products of data, with lots of moving parts.
7) What has your experience been with cloud technology? What software do you use and how has it helped your company?
We use a variety of software but most infrastructure is based on Amazon Web services. The key words here for us are scalable, distributive, and secure. These have allowed us to build complex workflows that otherwise would be hard to manage with local servers or otherwise. Cloud technology has therefore meant we spend less time on infrastructure and more time on actual algorithms and creating value.
8) What advice would you give to someone looking to get into this industry?
Individuals need to understand the fundamentals and look at the infrastructure of the energy and drone aspects of the industry. A good understanding of the basics of telecommunication, of the technology and capabilities they can produce is required.
As well as understanding the whole vertical chain and lifetime of systems, where you can see what value, you are bringing to the table and where your work fits in. This helps us have purpose when working so even when we are a small part of a much bigger puzzle, we understand how we fit it together. Further allowing us to see these things that would otherwise be diminished with specialisation.
9) Having undergone trials and tribulations, highs, and lows, what advice would you give to your younger university self?
Your attitude is important especially when dealing with challenges where you should view them as an adventure to deal with and overcome, as mentioned before. Also, just ask. That is something that you learn more and more in the business world and its worth trying and see how things go.
10) What kind of background do you need for this industry?
There is a broad range of skills. For the Robotics side these come from some form of engineering. However, data processing can come from biomedical background and physics as this area boils down to understanding complex topics and maths. A lot of things I see missing from peoples’ skills is the cloud aspect and web development front and back end. These create challenges in the production environment. Another area is drone pilots where individuals can quickly be trained up and this role has a plethora of applications, both technologically and commercially.
To learn more about Perceptual Robotics click here: https://www.perceptual-robotics.com/