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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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This UH engineer is hoping to make his mark on cancer detection. Photo via UH.edu

Early stage cancer is hard to detect, mostly because traditional diagnostic imaging cannot detect tumors smaller than a certain size. One Houston innovator is looking to change that.

Wei-Chuan Shih, professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Houston's Cullen College of Engineering, recently published his findings in IEEE Sensors journal. According to a news release from UH, the cells around cancer tumors are small — ~30-150nm in diameter — and complex, and the precise detection of these exosome-carried biomarkers with molecular specificity has been elusive, until now.

"This work demonstrates, for the first time, that the strong synergy of arrayed radiative coupling and substrate undercut can enable high-performance biosensing in the visible light spectrum where high-quality, low-cost silicon detectors are readily available for point-of-care application," says Shih in the release. "The result is a remarkable sensitivity improvement, with a refractive index sensitivity increase from 207 nm/RIU to 578 nm/RIU."

Wei-Chuan Shih is a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Houston's Cullen College of Engineering. Photo via UH.edu

What Shih has done is essentially restored the electric field around nanodisks, providing accessibility to an otherwise buried enhanced electric field. Nanodisks are antibody-functionalized artificial nanostructures which help capture exosomes with molecular specificity.

"We report radiatively coupled arrayed gold nanodisks on invisible substrate (AGNIS) as a label-free (no need for fluorescent labels), cost-effective, and high-performance platform for molecularly specific exosome biosensing. The AGNIS substrate has been fabricated by wafer-scale nanosphere lithography without the need for costly lithography," says Shih in the release.

This process speeds up screening of the surface proteins of exosomes for diagnostics and biomarker discovery. Current exosome profiling — which relies primarily on DNA sequencing technology, fluorescent techniques such as flow cytometry, or enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) — is labor-intensive and costly. Shih's goal is to amplify the signal by developing the label-free technique, lowering the cost and making diagnosis easier and equitable.

"By decorating the gold nanodisks surface with different antibodies (e.g., CD9, CD63, and CD81), label-free exosome profiling has shown increased expression of all three surface proteins in cancer-derived exosomes," said Shih. "The sensitivity for detecting exosomes is within 112-600 (exosomes/μL), which would be sufficient in many clinical applications."

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