His Drone Innovation Exceeded His Expectations – So He Dreamed Bigger
How a simple solution unlocked an extraordinary opportunity.by Cliff Dahlberg
Love it or hate it, Reddit can inspire laughter, rage and deep thought all within a few scrolls of your thumb. For Rahul Tiwari, the social platform inspired action.
As he browsed his feed one morning, Tiwari read an interview with an African bush pilot raising money for his anti-poaching agency to replace a surveillance airplane that had crashed. Without the plane, they couldn't effectively monitor the animals, but the organization couldn't afford to replace it.
Tiwari thought their reliance on airplanes was outdated — why not use drones? But when he surveyed anti-poaching organizations, he learned that drones were actually quite limited.
"The folks at the Reserve Protection Agency found that the drones that they could find off the shelf, they would either be limited in flight times, they could fly for 20 or 30 minutes, or they couldn't lift very heavy cameras," Tiwari said. "And what they needed to really do... they needed to lift really great cameras for a really long time."
To Tiwari, this limitation was an opportunity. There had to be a better way. So he assembled some "brilliant like-minded friends" to design something new.
Why stop at success?
To address flight time, the team initially looked to build a better battery. But, at the time, battery technology didn't offer the type of small, lightweight power they needed.
"And so we came up with an absurdly simple solution — we plugged a wire into it," Tiwari said. "We took an ultra-thin tether, thinner than a headphone wire, and kept the drone powered through that wire day in and day out."
With the tether in place, and a souped-up camera on the drone, their innovation could monitor for poachers in a way that was more cost effective than the planes or helicopters that had been used before.
A field test in South Africa trialed their system in a real-world setting and it worked perfectly. They could monitor elephants on mountains miles away from the drones tethered to pickup trucks.
Their months of dreaming, designing and prototyping had paid off. Job well done, right?
"It turned out that the people we were working with there at RPA were visionaries in their own right. And they convinced me that we weren't looking broad enough yet," Tiwari said. "Anti-poaching was a great start, but from everything from port security, to broadcast journalism, to telecommunications, there were applications everywhere if we marketed this and found the right problems to solve.
"And that was the big leap, when we realized that our little science fair project that we came up with at Purdue could actually be a product that could actually help the world. It sorta seemed like now or never."
A new frontier?
Tiwari took a leap of faith. He left Purdue University in Indiana to return to Minnesota, his home state, to pursue his drone company — now called Spooky Action — full time. He recruited childhood friend and co-conspirator Dan Dao to serve as lead engineer in the Twin Cities. He found a garage studio for their headquarters. All that remained was a new goal.
"I think one of our initial big challenges as we were transitioning from helping anti-poaching agencies to trying to start a company, was finding actual problems to solve. And then trying to figure out if our drones could solve that problem. And we sucked at it for a long time," Tiwari said.
"But eventually, we started to get okay. We started to have a high enough hit rate where we were able to find real problems that were financially and — in terms of social impact — important enough that we could sell our product in those industries."
The Spooky Action team has set their sights on using their drone innovation to bring internet connectivity to the remotest regions of Northern Africa. They're back to designing and prototyping, testing and evaluating.
"It wasn't necessarily obvious going in that we could use our drones as cell phone towers," Tiwari said. "But only with digging into the problem and then working backwards to a product could we learn that that was possible."
"When I started I was excited in Spooky Action because it was gonna be the thing that made me famous, it was gonna be my baby. But as we've started to find these more impactful projects — bringing internet to people in Africa, helping search and rescue teams — we've learned that we're on a much more valuable mission. We are helping people save the world."