Jeff Robinson has always been mechanically inclined and interested in going fast; his first word was “car.” But for decades, his passion has aimed even higher: airplanes.
He put this passion on hold for years, but now the 51-year-old entrepreneur is finally following his dreams. He has created his own startup HLRobin to launch a new unmanned aircraft that he believes will transform air cargo, for both retail and military purposes, as we know it.
The H-450 BAT is an aircraft that can solve shipping and logistics problems with a 3,000-pound lift capacity. This is a far higher lift capacity than competitors, meaning HLRobin will be able to provide hub-to-hub delivery for packages, vehicles, and military equipment.
Now the RTP-based startup is one of nine companies that are participating in CED’s GRO Incubator. GRO is a 12-week program designed to help early-stage startups engage in customer discovery, find product-market fit and build a successful business model.
HLRobin is an idea that Robinson initially had around 15 years ago, but after witnessing the inefficiencies in UPS trucks during the pandemic, he knew there had to be a better way and that just maybe, he could create it. Thus, HLRobin was born in March of last year.
Robinson’s startup advice more than a year into his venture? Just go for it.
“If you’ve got a good enough product and you find a niche, don’t let people sway you from going after your goals,” Robinson said.
He envisions the aircraft serving cargo delivery companies like FedEx and UPS while also transporting materials right to the front lines for the US military. The military currently uses hefty helicopters and larger aircraft, whereas the unmanned H-450 BAT is more maneuverable, can fly below radar and has a low heat signature that makes it less vulnerable to surface-to-air missiles.
The H-450 BAT could even fight wildfires without putting anyone in harm’s way, Robinson said. This is because the aircraft could put flame retardant on a bush fire at low altitudes without a pilot needing to fly too close in low visibility and harsh conditions.
The National Science Foundation has already recognized the potential in HLRobin’s aircraft, so much so they’ve contributed around $10,000 toward events and classes.
“You only need one person to say yeah, I’ll buy it, and that can change the whole outlook of a project,” Robinson said.
And Robinson is hearing some possible yeses already. While working closely with the Federal Aviation Administration during the H-450 BAT’s construction, Robinson is in conversations with UPS as a possible client.
“With Covid happening and people being able to work from home, it really opened the lines of communication between like-minded folks around the world,” Robinson said.
As the larger global community looks to prevent climate change, the H-450 BAT also presents a compelling sustainability value proposition.
“My carbon footprint is only 1 percent part of the problem,” Robinson said. “I like to help, and I think helping commerce to lower pollution by utilizing more resourceful and more efficient ways of moving content would be a great thing.”
Alongside its sustainability impact, ensuring safer methods of supply transport in the military could also mean HLRobin’s aircraft will literally save lives.
“Our mission is to help them be where they need to be on time every time and do it without putting American lives in jeopardy in the process,” Robinson said.
Outlook For The Future
While HLRobin has so far been bootstrapped, part of the appeal in joining CED’s GRO incubator is in preparing for future conversations with venture capitalists, Robinson said.
“I don’t know everything,” Robinson said. “That’s my secret. And since I don’t know everything, I think GRO could give me a better understanding of venture capitalists.”
Robinson is aware of the areas where his strengths lie and where the resources and support of CED’s program could catapult his business to new heights.
“Give me a screwdriver and wrench and some other tools, and I’m fixing and building things,” Robinson said. “But I want to learn more about that aspect, so I can efficiently go after that kind of capital. And I don’t want to go out there haphazardly before I learn some of the ropes and I make myself look silly to people who could possibly really help me in the future.”
Robinson’s plans for HLRobin’s future are just getting started. Not only does he see the aircraft changing the game for commercial and military cargo, he also sees the impact they can have within the Triangle community.
“I see the company growing into something that essentially will be a leader in this area of cargo, and also see it being a leader in the community because I do want to bring back resources to the community and help the Triangle grow,” Robinson said. “I want to be a force for good in this area.”