A button that says No Nets

No Nets: Recovering Drones Safely

In Recent Posts, Anecdotes by Steve Sliwa

At the drone company, Insitu, we invented SkyHook, which was a way to recover drones. At the time, people used nets to recover unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for locations without runways, such as on ships. They put these nets on the vessels and had the drones aim for them. Unfortunately in those days, the control systems were terrible, and the rocking and up-and-down movement of the ship made matters worse. The drones frequently missed the nets, resulting in a damaged or destroyed drone and sometimes damaging the ship as well. If they tried to land across the ship, the control systems weren’t good enough, so they tended to land on the ship by coming up the stern. In some situations, two posts held the net. If the drone hit the post, it was often demolished. If it flew under the net, it hit the ship, or when it flew over the net, it wasn’t always able to pull up. As one can imagine, recovering drones was problematic, and the technique of using nets was not popular.

SkyHook’s method involved hanging a rope off the side of the ship. The drone aimed for the rope, and the rope caught it. If the drone missed, it flew past with no repercussions. But honestly, they rarely missed, maybe 0.1% of the time, because the control systems were very good. We had patent protection, but prior art existed, and other companies were also working in this field. Insitu, however, was the only company to develop this technology.

Admittedly, the nets improved as well with the advances in technology. GPS was getting better also, which meant more accurately predicting the location of the net on the moving ships and the calculations for the movement. People could have used nets, but the perception remained that using them meant damaged equipment and ships.

We had a viable solution (reality), but we needed to communicate that to create the perception that our method outperformed nets. We focused on the fact that we didn’t use nets, and our marketing team came up with a very effective campaign, the no-nets button.

We passed these buttons out at tradeshows, and people carried them around. Our biggest victory was when two Navy Admirals, who were responsible for the drone program, saw our buttons and thought they were cool. They pinned them to their uniforms and walked around. Needless to say, that helped us with our perception, and we ultimately won many contracts with the Navy. This built momentum that SkyHook was great and required no nets.

We knew that we had a state-of-the-art solution, we merely had to find a way to communicate that message.

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