Purdue startup gains traction with drone tech
A startup based at the Purdue Research Park is capitalizing on the increased use of drones by law enforcement and is gaining national and global attention. Uniform Sierra Aerospace was founded by three Purdue alumni after they took part in federally funded research on the use of drones for first responders and found that many departments were buying very expensive indoor drone systems that weren’t performing reliably.
“We sort of looked at each other and were like, ‘The stuff we’re building for fun…beats a lot of these things that the police departments are buying,” said co-founder and CEO Duncan Mulgrew.
Mulgrew and Chief Technology Officer Jeremy Frederick met as freshmen at Purdue and bonded over a shared interest in aviation and technology. The pair would build drones as a hobby and helped start a drone club at Purdue.
The pair decided to form a company alongside Chief Operating Officer Trevor Redpath. Shortly thereafter, the trio had developed the Arrowhead system, an unmanned aircraft system designed to help first responders gather information in situations that would be dangerous for a person to investigate themselves, such as a hostage situation or a building collapse.
Frederick said to get the aircraft to an affordable price point while still being manufactured in the U.S., the team had to prioritize the most needed capabilities in the aircraft, and remove more niche features of existing drones.
“For instance, some of our competitors systems have components that can break windows [or] can drop off payloads. And a lot of those capabilities are things that officers in public safety departments already have,” said Frederick. “So, [on] our side of things, we’ve prioritized reliability, and we’ve reduced a lot of those extraneous capabilities to create the most easily flyable and the most durable system on the market.”
Mulgrew adds the training time for the Arrowhead system only takes 4-5 hours instead of 3-5 days for their main competitors, which creates an added benefit for first responders.
“We’ve partnered with a bunch of training organizations around the country and internally to provide that really rapid training so they don’t have to shut down their whole team for a whole week to get their guys trained up,” he said. “They can put aside an afternoon or an evening and get us or one of our partners out there to get them flying really quickly.”
Mulgrew said the trio bootstrapped their operation from the beginning to build a prototype and make their first sales. But the company has earned additional funding over the last year.
Uniform Sierra Aerospace took second place in the First Responder UAS Indoor Challenge earlier this month, winning $92,500. That’s in addition to a total of $20,000 the company earned by advancing to later stages of the yearlong competition.
“We got to be on the ground with a lot of subject matter experts and public safety UAS users – actual fire departments, police departments – to demonstrate our system show to them fly in an incredible simulated environment,” said Mulgrew. “We got a lot of great data, and then the prize money is phenomenal. And the marketing we’re going to be able to get out of winning the Best in Class [for] price and ease of use, that’s huge for us.”
A beta test Arrowhead system was launched last August, and Mulgrew said the company has begun delivering systems to law enforcement departments in Indiana, West Virginia, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Florida, where there is a particularly high demand.
Last month, the state of Florida banned the use of Chinese-made drones or drones that use some Chinese components. Mulgrew said that created a lot of interest of the Arrowhead system.
“The week after they passed that law, we had, on average, 2-3 departments from Florida emailing us every single day of the week, asking to get their hands on systems [or] get demos,” he said. “The fact that we’re fully built in the U.S., and we have versions of the aircraft available to use [with] only U.S. and European parts so we can sell to those agencies down in Florida is huge.”
The company is also shipping its first system to eastern Europe at the end of the month.
Mulgrew said the company is struggling to keep up with demand but is preparing to close on a seed round of funding, enabling a move into a larger, 2,500-square-foot production space at the Purdue Technology Center to ramp up manufacturing beginning next month.
Mulgrew, Frederick and Redpath are currently the only full-time employees of Uniform Sierra Aerospace, but the company hopes to triple that number by the end of the summer.
The company aims to increase its connections with industry partners to get the Arrowhead system name out to more departments nationwide, with the goal of delivering more than 30 full systems by the end of the year.