A Kenai-based business owner has tapped into the unmanned aircraft and sensor industry beginning to grow in Alaska, and says there is room on the peninsula for more like him in the future.
John Parker founded of Integrated Robotics Imaging Systems Ltd. three years ago at the age of 69, but he hasn’t slowed down since. The company released a new radar in March that can accompany unmanned aerial vehicles, making them into unmanned aerial systems, to help users gather helpful data.
Parker’s new radar, a frequency modulated continuous wave radar, can track up to six objects simultaneously. It has a 45 degree field of view, and is designed with a range of about 120 meters. The radar has also been designed to cut down on background clutter
“This is a target tracking sensor,” Parker said. “Background clutter is things that would degrade the signal and cause you to have a false signal or something like that, so we filtered all that out in our designs.”
Of the ten sensors he currently has, all are spoken for at $8,000 a piece, aside from the one he will keep for continued testing, Parker said. That includes a stand for the radar as well as the program to run it. Integrated Robotics is ready to produce another 50, of which about 30 are already spoken for, he said.
“This could be mounted on the helmet of a police officer or a fireman who could, you know, enter a building — who has a need to enter a building that is obscured with, let’s say, smoke, or tear gas or other smokes … and it would give them the ability to see objects that are in the building,” Parker said.
Parker said his team plans to focus more on manufacturing sensors in the future.
“We have a new division that we’re currently in the process of spinning off called IRISsensors,” Parker said, explaining that the division will be focused on sensor development, while another part of his company will still be devoted to UAVs themselves.
Parker has a UAV in the basement of the Kenai business that runs more quietly than a lot of others our there, which he said makes it attractive to groups who need to gather data that has traditionally been hard to get. He has been approached by the Department of Fish and Wildlife in the Yukon territory, where staff want a way to accurately count bears and buffalo without affecting the animals.
He has also been asked to develop a sensor that can help get an accurate count on elephants by seeing through the tree canopies they tend to gather under, he said.
“Human bodies have a tendency to absorb signals,” Parker said. “We’ll develop a library of the specific absorption rate of a five-foot-four human as opposed to a 20-foot elephant. So part of that project will be to identify those things. So we’ll go out and we’ll probably spend a hundred hours of flying the radar to determine what different animals, or biomass, at what rate they absorb the signal.”
Currently, groups reach out to Parker to see about using his UAV or to get sensors that will be able to collect the type of data they need. In Alaska, sensors mounted on quiet UAVs could be a boon to those in the Department of Natural Resources or other related fields he said.
“Some of those requirements by Fish and Wildlife, and ADF&G and NOAA and people like that … they have the need to gather that data but that need is superseded by not disturbing those animals in their environment,” Parker said. “Many of the UAVs on the market today are very noisy and they would disturb animals.”
While Federal Aviation Administration regulations are still catching up to unmanned aircraft, Parker said the Kenai Peninsula, and Kenai in particular, is in a good place to benefit from the ability to commercialize the industry. Integrated Robotics has what is called a 333 exemption to commercialize, which comes with strict rules about what Parker can and cannot do, he said. Parker’s UAV, for example, can’t be flown within five miles of an airport.
As more sensors are developed to fit the needs of groups and companies, Parker said there will likely be room for more businesses like his on the peninsula. He owns a second building, and said he has considered setting it up as an incubator in which to mold other startups and provide them with the resources they need to stay afloat for that first, tough year.
“For the state of Alaska, there’s huge opportunities in commercializing this industry here, and it gets us away from oil and tourism and fishing,” Parker said. We’re perfect here in Kenai for technology, because we’ve got an airport that can handle a 747 if it has to, you’re 20 minutes from being able to go anywhere in the world in Anchorage, so I mean this is a shoe-in for technology to come down here.”
Parker’s radar can sense from ground to air, air to ground and object to object. The next level will be to develop air-to-air sensors, he said. This will unlock many more options for organizations and companies that want to use UAVs to gather data, as air-to-air sensing would allow the systems to be used outside of direct line of sight.
“Air to air is the key to the entire industry, and we expect to have that this year,” Parker said. “It’s the most difficult because you have two things that are moving, and then to gather the data on how fast is that other thing that’s closing on me moving, at what angle is it moving, you know, at what bearing is it moving, and then how fast am I moving … and where are we going to intercept each other where we don’t want to?”
Future success in the industry may well be found in the sensors rather than the UAVs that carry them, Parker said.
“We say the UAV’s just a mule. It carries the sensor,” he said. “The UAV can’t give anybody anything. The sensor gives you data.”
According to a February report from BCC Research, a market research company based in Massachusetts, the global market for sensors is predicted to grow to a $113.2 billion market by 2016, and then go on to reach $190.6 billion by 2021.
“That’s our job is to design sensor systems that gather the data that’s needed by our clients, or anybody for that matter, in a format that they can easily recognize without having a high level of technological understanding,” Parker said. “Because quite frankly, they don’t care. They don’t care what that UAV looks like or flies or anything. They personally don’t care what this radar looks like. All they care about is, ‘I need to know how many moose are out there,’ and we can do that.”
Integrated Robotics also has a processor that can compile data from multiple sensors at the same time, in what Parker calls data fusion. His company will produce a few more sensor variations, including a sonar sensor for aquatic information gathering, before it prepares to tackle and air-to-air sensor, he said.
The 72-year-old has no intentions of slowing down after that, either.
“When you get up in the morning and can’t figure out whether you’re going to work or going to play, you’re in the right place,” he said.