The founder of SPOTR Industries, Chris Lewis, first became fascinated with drones as a U.S. Marine piloting drones for convoy surveillance and security. After a decade in the Marine Corps, Lewis learned more about the different capabilities of drones as a student at NC State.
In 2019, Lewis began working for Birds Eyes Aerial View, operating drones in California for wildfire-mitigation purposes. Soon after he founded SPOTR Industries to utilize drone technology to tackle disaster relief. The Raleigh-based startup is currently participating in the ninth cohort of the RIoT Accelerator Program (RAP), which began on Sept. 29.
“Much like being in a combat situation, everything’s in your face in a disaster-relief situation,” Lewis said. “Getting in the sky and getting a bird’s-eye view, that’s when you have the upper hand again. Because you’re able to see way further out—and be able to plan accordingly and plan further out—as you’re responding to these hectic situations.”
Drones are most needed for tasks that are impossible or unsafe for people to do, Lewis said, such as many disaster-relief operations like search-and-rescue, telecom and electrical line inspection, aerial damage scans, and delivering supplies to isolated areas.
SPOTR will provide access to NASA’s Unmanned Traffic Management System through Airspace Regulatory Automation software. SPOTR’s secret sauce beyond its software, Lewis said, is that it will enable autonomous drone operations beyond the visual line of sight, which is advantageous for wildfire and hurricane response and relief.
“In a disaster area, if someone is isolated because of a flood, you’ll be able to bring supplies to them so that they can sustain from where they are until we can get to that location,” Lewis said. “So there’s all kinds of other capabilities that have barely been touched on. I’m excited to work in this field because there’s a lot of potential to help people recover from these disasters faster than ever before.”
SPOTR is currently performing aerial data collection services and working on product development for its software, with plans to launch the software in 2022, Lewis said. Lewis and the SPOTR team were in New Orleans for a few weeks following Hurricane Ida doing humanitarian aid, infrastructure inspections and damage assessments across the affected area.
Working with AERPAW
Lewis said SPOTR is looking to partner with the research platform at NC State called AERPAW—which stands for Aerial Experimentation Research Platform for Advanced Wireless—to help with product development.
Lewis said SPOTR will attend AERPAW’s Fall 2021 Event on Nov. 9, where it will have a booth promoting their mission. At the event—which will be held on NC State’s main campus—AERPAW will give tours of their experimentation areas and give demos of drones using their software.
The software will make airways safer for both manned and unmanned aircraft by increasing communication between the two, so that drones and planes aren’t running into each other while conducting complex operations during disaster response, Lewis said.
The majority of the SPOTR team are veterans. The startup is partnering with the United States Veteran Corps to create a training program for veterans interested in entering the drone industry, called Vets to Drones.
The startup also partners with USVC to respond to disasters using drone technology, because SPOTR’s focus isn’t just on providing drone services after a disaster, Lewis said, but on being boots-on-the-ground help. He said the USVC has beaten the Red Cross and FEMA in disaster response time and time again.
“Because we’re all veterans, we want to give back and help people,” Lewis said. “We’re used to being in rough situations, and going into disaster areas is pretty comfortable for us. So our crew stages right outside of the cone of destruction pre-storm so that we are there before anyone else to help with humanitarian aid and search-and-rescue operations with our drones. And then post-storm, we help rebuild the infrastructure.”