Anyone who flies semi-regularly will have experienced flight disruption from fog. But that may soon be a thing of the past.
Christchurch-based Pyper Vision is developing fog dispersal technology, to limit the disruption and delays fog causes in airports all around the world.
Says founder and CEO, Emily Blythe: “We support airlines to land 24/7, by providing the guaranteed visibility that you need to land at an airport and avoid the delays and cancellations to ensure your passengers get to their destination on time, every time.”
I asked Emily what triggered her insight that there might be an opportunity for a solution to fog dispersal, and how she got started.
“Firstly, I’m from an aviation family. I’m a pilot, my mum works as an air traffic controller, my dad is a pilot, my grandad started teaching me how to fly when I was 12. My great great grandad was on one of the earliest commercial flights in 1911 - before the earliest documented flight. I’ve been delayed due to fog, I’ve had flying lessons cancelled due to fog, I’ve sat in the control tower with my mum and seen the inability of planes to move.
“I’d seen the problem of fog issues from every angle, and I had an in depth knowledge of the havoc fog can play.
“In high school, I had an economics teacher who encouraged us to think about real world problems and how we could solve them, and this fog one had been on my mind. I actually pitched it to the Young Enterprise Scheme in 2016 but they said I should pick something easier.
“I ended up starting another business and as that one came to a close, I realised I had fallen in love with the constant problem solving of business, and I had the confidence to take on a new challenge. It made the journey to starting for Pyper Vision much smoother than my previous venture, because I had a bit more business nous.
“Previous attempts at fog dispersal were mostly military. I started researching methods that had and hadn’t worked. The most famous one is FIDO - the Fog Investigation and Dispersal Operation - the US military would burn fuel on either side of the runway and the heat rising would lift the fog.
“Other attempts involved a plane taking off from another airport to disperse chemicals over the affected airport. Calcium chloride mixes changed the air moisture content to disperse fog. This obviously had huge logistics challenges, and an unconsidered environmental impact.
“That’s where drone use came in - it solved the logistics challenge. We also needed to focus on the sustainability aspect and ensure that our compound biodegraded and didn’t adversely affect the environment.
“We worked in partnership with Canterbury University and spent two years in research and development to develop our chemical compound. We built a fog chamber to understand what happens when our tech gets dispersed, and any environmental degradation that was occuring.
“We monitored the soil and water quality following tests, and designed our agent to be non-corrosive. We found no detection in the soil or water and it’s such a small amount that gets dispersed, it biodegrades quicker than it could ever build up in the environment.
“While we’ve found this ourselves, we’re now looking for independent studies to verify this for us.
“The other big element for us is regulatory capability - Civil Aviation bans operating drones past line of sight and we’re sending an aircraft up in the fog. There’s a list of rules around the operation of drones, and we’re breaking every one of those.”
I asked Emily what her key focuses for Pyper Vision are in order to grow.
Says Emily, “Firstly, working our way through regulation. We need to keep working with Civil Aviation to clear the way for us to clear fog.
“Second is customer alignment. The biggest beneficiaries of fog dispersal are the airlines, but they don’t want to pay for something other competitors will benefit from. We can go through the airports but there’s less incentive for them to do anything without airlines at the table. So we have to approach it from value based pricing - the biggest driver of cost for an airline is passenger disruption.
“Thirdly is the scaleability going forward. We’d love to fully automate the drone operation - it drops the cost of operation and removes human error. But not every country is ready for automated drone operation yet.”
I asked Emily about the role of Outset in her journey and the importance of organisations like them for NZ business.
“We’re excited to have a new investor in Outset Ventures onboard. Most investors within New Zealand are familiar with SaaS (software as a service) businesses, and expect a quick return on investment. So having an investor that understands deep technology has been great for us as a business.
“It’s awesome to have an organisation like Outset actively supporting hardware development in New Zealand. Hardware has been a big part of NZ’s innovative DNA historically and continuing to support it’s development is key. And having a good network of hardware founders linked through Outset has been wonderful.”
I asked Emily what advice she’d give to someone looking to start their own venture.
“Don’t give up. It can’t be tough getting started, and especially in hardware, it costs much more than you think,” laughs Emily.
“I’m also a firm believer in trying some out of the box ideas. We’ve been taught to think a certain way, and consider what’s realistic - that’s why I try to involve our whole team in product development to get a diversity of ideas.
“But finally, don’t analyse your idea forever. Just get on with it - if you always analyse, no one would ever launch anything.”
Finally, I asked Emily what’s next for Pyper Vision.
“Clearly we’re driving for commercialisation.
“We’re continuing to test and refine our product. We have a series of tests coming up, and we’re hoping to film our technology in action as the fog disperses.
“We also need to keep cutting the red tape in the way, and unlocking customer delivery to ensure every passenger can get to their destination without fog delays.”
To find out more, visit: www.pypervision.com.
This interview was published in partnership with Outset Ventures, New Zealand's home of deep technology, championing deep technology founders, providing investment, facilities, and support for technology on the forefront of new industries to thrive. outset.ventures