Engineering capstone class leads to award-winning drone technology start-up


5/15/2015 | By: Kirstin Swagman  |

Many graduating seniors are eager to put their college coursework behind them, but four University of Nevada, Reno graduates will be continuing to work hard on one college project.

The group, which includes Erik Edgington, MacCallister Higgins, Zachary Carlson and Nolan Young, transformed a senior capstone project in the College of Engineering into an award-winning company, and as they graduate, they're turning their attention to capitalizing on Reno's entrepreneurial culture and growing drone community.

The company, Nevada Dynamics, has a bold vision. They want to use technology to solve the regulatory and safety roadblocks standing between an average company and commercial use of drones. To do so, they are developing a system that eventually could automate a drone's path through the sky, avoiding everything from bad weather to buildings to no-fly zones. The interface for a business owner could be as simple as typing in a destination address.

When the team came up with the idea last fall, they instantly knew they were on to something big. Higgins, who had worked for a drone company over the summer, had seen his employer struggle with the logistics of drone routing, and he and Edgington realized that as the commercial use of drones grows, there could be a significant market for a company like Nevada Dynamics.

"I was just so overwhelmed, I went home and called my family," said Zach Carlson, computer science and engineering student at the University and chief technology officer for Nevada Dynamics. "It was such a huge vision. We're going to revolutionize the sky."

Nevada Dynamics has developed a fully connected communication system enabling remote control of a drone, and now they are working to get a COA, or certificate of authorization, from the Federal Aviation Administration to test their systems on live drone flights.

"Getting that live testing and getting those hours in is really important," said Carlson. "We want to make sure it's safe and reliable."

With the basic communication system working, Carlson and the technology team are focused on creating enhancements with the eventual goal of using artificial intelligence to have smart path planning done autonomously by the drone. On down the road, the company may explore adding sense and avoid type technology to account for unplanned obstacles, such as birds.

"The senior capstone class really gave us an opportunity to work collaboratively and find ways to solve not just the engineering problems but the business problems any start-up needs to be able to tackle," said Carlson. "Our advisors were very supportive and gave us the freedom to really explore the ideas that interested us."

Since winning 1st place and $50,000 at the Sontag Entrepreneurship Competition in March, the team has been hard at work networking, talking to potential companies, attending trade shows, and continuing to compete and apply for business incubator programs. A number of partnerships are in the works, including collaborations with other niche UAS companies that focus on providing real-time data about no-fly zones. The team has also been working with NAASIC, the Nevada Advanced Autonomous Systems Innovation Center.

"Winning Sontag was a huge momentum boost for us," said Edgington, a mechanical engineering major and president of Nevada Dynamics. "Before that we were a group of college students. Now we're still a bunch of college students but it legitimized us as something people could get behind."

After the Sontag competition, Nevada Dynamics went on to place 3rd in the Donald W. Reynolds Governor's Cup. They've participated in Reno-based start-up events such as 1 Million Cups and a town-hall style meeting on entrepreneurship in Reno hosted by Senator Dean Heller, and they are traveling to trade shows in Silicon Valley to pitch their product to potential investors and industry partners.

"The community has been so supportive and behind us, said Edgington. "Drones are such a popular thing right now. The local community reached out."

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