FreeSkies Takes Rein of the Quadcopter


Stephany Guerrero

Editor's Note: This is one in a series of features on competitors in the 2015 Cozad New Venture competition, a program sponsored by the University of Illinois' Technology Entrepreneur Center that is designed to encourage students to create new businesses. The competition process offers teams assistance in the form of: mentors to help guide them through the phases of venture creation, workshops to help with idea validation, pitching skills, customer development, and more as well as and courses to enhance their skills and knowledge. Teams who make it to the finals round of competition will have the opportunity to meet with venture capitalists, early stage investors and successful entrepreneurs who will serve as judges. The judges will determine up to eight finalist teams that will present their ventures at the finals event. Last year, these teams competed for nearly $200,000 in funding and in-kind prizes. 

The FreeSkies Team from left to right: Ankur Mehta, Andy Putch, and Jay Mulakala
The FreeSkies Team from left to right: Ankur Mehta, Andy Putch, and Jay Mulakala

Filmmakers have turned to quadcopters as an alternative way to get high-angle shots. But they can find it difficult to guide their quadcopters precisely and without damaging the on-board camera.

FreeSkies is a student start-up that wants to liberate the process. “The idea is to let the computer do all the calculations and handle the complex task of flying, allowing the directors to focus entirely on the production itself,” said team member Jay Mulakala.

Control is the key in quadcopter guidance. FreeSkies has developed software that uses visual cues to learn about its environment. The camera will be able to “see” the obstacles in its path and will adjust for them.

Animated image: How the camera 'sees' and adjusts for obstacles by using corners and a central point of reference.

A typical controller or smartphone app can guide a quadcopter. But it’s not easy to guide the quadcopter without experience. Movements made through these devices tend to lurch. In the quest to get the right shot, filmmakers hire professional quadcopter pilots or a traditional crew to do the job.

Quadcopter drones like the Go-Pro and Parrot are popular and the market is expanding greatly for hobbyists and filmmakers alike. New FAA regulations have made it easier for quadcopter drone use as well. “It’s a huge growing field and as students it’s really cool for us.” said Andy Putch, another member of the team. 

“We want our clients to use equipment currently available in the industry. We are providing a way to optimize the software behind current hardware out there so that it’s much easier to control,” Mulakala said.

Work on the project started in AE 483 (an aerospace engineering design class), where team members Mulakala, Putch, and the third member of the team, Ankur Mehta, were working on machine learning and artificial intelligence. AE 483 is a class where students learn about applying decision algorithms to aerospace systems like GPS, air traffic, satellites, and drones. Throughout the course they developed controllers, which performed basic hovering and interloop control.

“That’s where you start doing interesting things,” Putch said. “Once you have all the controls you have a machine that can understand its environment and that can identify where the obstacles are.”

The quadcopter FreeSkies uses to test their precision software
The quadcopter FreeSkies uses to test their precision software
At the conclusion of the class, the team had the basis for their autonomous software. Mulakala saw the AE 483 class as the opening to a collaborative opportunity.

“I wanted to start my own company, but I never really had a concrete idea of how to turn that passion into a business,” Mulakala said. “In meeting Andy and Ankur, I discovered we had shared interests in aerospace and entrepreneurship. That’s how FreeSkies was born.”

The FreeSkies team’s software is on the precipice of easing filmmaking. “We want to replace the other filming equipment like dollies, jibs, cranes.  Those all require a full crew to operate them. Now you’ll be able to just get a drone that will take that shot for you. In the independent film industry, that’s a lot of money saved,” Mehta said.

Flying the quadcopter
Flying the quadcopter

FreeSkies is talking to the local Champaign Movie Makers to better understand their challenges.

“We have learned that they are uncomfortable guiding their own drones,” Mehta said. ”They also encounter time-constraints building custom dollies. There’s also the stress of drawing up contracts for all the added crew needed to film high-angle shots with traditional equipment,” said Mehta.

The market is prime and they have seen success. FreeSkies secured one year of office space at Enterprise Works, the University of Illinois’ tech incubator, by placing at the 54 Start-Up Weekend Competition. They are now competing in the Cozad competition and are looking forward to a summer in sunny Menlo Park, Cal., where they earned a Light Speed Venture Fellowship. FreeSkies is also developing an app with their precision software and they hope Cozad and their upcoming summer will open new doors to their venture.