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Houston drone company sees rising need for automation within the energy industry and beyond

In a post-COVID-19 world, it's time for drones and automation to shine. Photo courtesy of Airobotics

For years, Ran Krauss has watched the drone and automation industry be overhyped and misunderstood. But due to a myriad of causes — a global pandemic that's forced workers to stay home, a oil glut that's caused energy company layoffs, and years of work pushing through new regulation — it's finally time, Kauss believes, for drone technology to take-off.

Krauss has worked in the drone industry for years and, in 2014, co-founded Airobotics, a full-service drone company, with Meir Kliner. Between COVID-19 and an oversupply of oil, energy companies, which make up most of Airobotics clients, are seeing how important automation and drone technology is.

"Everyone watched Netflix before, but the pandemic increased demand," Krauss tells InnovationMap. "For us, our ability to provide remote monitoring applications was always something of value, but obviously in times like this when staff can't get into a site, there's more significance."

The COVID-19 crisis, Krauss explains, has perhaps sped up energy companies' plans to integrate this type of technology.

"One of the effects of the pandemic is reconsidering the timeline and deployment of robotics as a whole to deal with future threats like this," he says. "The world is going to think differently about automation, robotics, and drones."

Krauss saw an opportunity for drone technology within industrial business, but wanted to take it a step further with automation. That's how he came up with the idea for a drone in a box — an idea that became Airobotics. The company's technology operates as a one-stop shop for companies looking for drone and automation technology.

Airobotics's technology includes a docking station that even has a robotic arm to replace batteries in the drone. Photo courtesy of Airobotics

The Airobotics device comes complete with a docking station that even has an automated arm to replace batteries, for instance, so limited human interaction is needed. Airobotics works with its clients to customize data collection needs, and then manages the operations as a service provider.

"As an operator, we figured out that we needed to create an automated system — similar to an autonomous car — for safety, productivity, and cost effectiveness. That's why we started a robotics company," he says.

While Airobotics — which has clients worldwide — has offices in the United States, Israel, and Singapore, Texas is a focus for the company, Krauss says.

The company's technology has seen historic approval from regulators in each of the countries it operates in. Specifically, Krauss praises what the Federal Aviation Administration is doing to advance drone technology regulation, and the department recognizes Airobotics as subject matter experts.

"We're working very closely with the FAA, which has identified us as a partner to help them create the right environment for drones to be integrated into the airspace," Krauss says. "You can't ignore new technologies but just saying, 'OK, this thing [isn't allowed to] fly.' There has to be the right balance of public safety and encouraging new technologies to take place."

It's not only industry and regulatory support Airobotic has seen. The company has gone through quite a few funding rounds and raised over $110 million.

"Our investors have identified the situation and the market potential our company has over anybody else," Krauss says. "We're the trailblazers, which comes at a cost — it's much easier to follow than to lead. But, we're happy to do so."

Perhaps, one of the biggest challenges for the company and the industry is educating potential clients. The word "drone" is used to describe everything from a remote-controlled device with a camera on it that's just a few hundred dollars online to Airobotics's Optimus device, which is made up of thousands of parts.

"There is definitely a constant need for market education in this sector — always has been the case," Krauss says.

For Krauss, he's seen drone technology go through this "hype phase," and he sees a bright future for what drone and automation capabilities are coming.

"I think we're going to see a resurgence in this industry in the coming years — with applications in the real world with real value generation, not just hype and science fiction," he says.

One industry that's ripe for drone technology disruption — smart cities innovation. Krauss says he hopes Houston is a city that looks to utilize the tech.

"I think the digitization of the urban environment is going to be the next sector where we're going see drones create a lot of value," he says.

Airobotics has clients within the industrial sector. Photo courtesy of Airobotics

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Building Houston

 
 

5G could be taking over Texas — and Houston is leading the way. Photo via Getty Images

Based on one key measure, Houston sits at the forefront of a telecom revolution that could spark a regional economic impact of more than $30 billion.

Data published recently by the Texas Comptroller's Office points out that as of last November and December, Houston led all cities in Texas for the number of so-called "small cells." Small cells are a key component in the rollout of ultra-high-speed 5G wireless communication throughout the Houston area and the country.

As the Texas Comptroller's Office explains, small cells are low-powered antennas that communicate wirelessly via radio waves. They're usually installed on existing public infrastructure like street signs or utility poles, instead of the big communication towers that transmit 4G signals.

The comptroller's tally shows Houston had approved 5,455 small-cell sites as of the November-December timeframe. That dwarfs the total number of sites (1,948) for the state's second-ranked city, Dallas.

"Houston is in the vanguard of small cell permitting in Texas, and not just because it's the state's largest city; advocates have lauded its proactive approach to 5G. Other cities, particularly smaller ones, are lagging well behind," the Comptroller's Office notes.

According to CTIA, a trade group for the wireless communications industry, 5G holds the promise to deliver an economic impact of $30.3 billion in the Houston area and create 93,700 jobs. The group says industries such as health care, energy, transportation, e-commerce, and logistics stand to benefit from the emergence of 5G.

"Maintaining world-class communications infrastructure is a requirement for success in a rapidly changing global economy. Small cells and fiber technology are the key foundational components for network densification and robust 5G. Cities like Houston that have embraced the need for this infrastructure will see the benefits of 5G faster than others," Mandy Derr, government affairs director at Houston-based communications infrastructure REIT Crown Castle International Corp. and a member of the Texas 5G Alliance, tells InnovationMap.

Derr says leaders in Houston have embraced the importance of small-cell technology through "reasonable and effective" regulations and processes aimed at boosting 5G capabilities. Three major providers of wireless service — AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon — offer 5G to customers in the Houston area.

"More small cells and fiber provide greater and faster access for the masses, enabling the connectivity that is essential to our businesses today — whether it's accepting payments on a mobile card reader, completing a sale on the go, or reliably reaching consumers where they are," Derr says.

In a blog post, Netrality Data Centers, which operates a data center in Houston, proclaims that Houston is shaping up to be a hub of 5G innovation.

"Houston has always been on the frontline," Mayor Sylvester Turner said during a 5G roundtable discussion in 2019. "It is who we are. It is in our DNA. We are a leading city. We didn't wait for somebody else to go to the moon. Or to be the energy capital of the world. Or the largest medical center in the world. But you don't stay at the front if you don't continue to lead."

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