Made in Santa Cruz County

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LA SELVA BEACH – Nestled among cypress trees and a blanket of thick coastal fog is a low-key workshop where parallel flight drones are tinkered with and tested. The “Firefly” – weighing 120 pounds – bears little resemblance to its amateur cousins ​​and looks more like a small plane.

It is about 3 feet tall and has a wingspan of over 5 feet. And here, form is function. The startup’s drones are specialized in the transport of heavy loads: firefighting equipment, industrial packages or even human organs for transplants.

“Drones are going to get bigger and we are leading the way,” said Joshua Resnick, CEO of Parallel Flight Technologies. “We’re building something that’s a self-employed workaholic, that can actually haul big things. “

Helicopters and airplanes have long been used to fight forest fires and ferry crews to remote locations. But these resources are expensive, often in high demand during peak fire season, and can be limited by poor visibility. Parallel Flight aims to fill this gap.

“What we don’t have are basically pickup trucks from the sky,” Resnick said. “We don’t have workhorses capable of delivering supplies to firefighters on the front lines or dropping payloads for controlled burns, and we don’t have drones capable of putting out small fires.

Parallel Flight engineers evaluate the performance of a Firefly during a test flight in the company’s van, a mobile laboratory. (Hannah Hagemann / Santa Cruz Sentinel)

Parallel Flight drones are equipped to fly from two to seven hours continuously. Most other industrial drones on the market fly for 15 minutes to an hour.

That, combined with the Firefly’s four propellers and hybrid fuel and power system, means it can reach speeds of 60 to 100 mph and carry up to 100 pounds longer distances compared to its competition. , Resnick said.

Another specialty of the long-distance drone? Intensify prescribed burns.

These intentionally set fires – a practice established by indigenous peoples millennia ago – reduce the risk of forest fires and provide ecological benefits to plant communities. The Firefly will be able to set fire to 1,000 to 4,000 acres of land in a single flight, according to Resnick. Drones in the sky now igniting prescribed burns only fly for about 10 minutes.

The company also plans to use its drones for industrial and maritime operations. Resnick spoke of fireflies helping build wind turbines, carrying heavy magnets to map aquifers, dropping packages in remote Arctic villages, and supplying rural areas with essential medical equipment.

Parallel Flight also benefits from institutional support.

The US Department of Agriculture, the Forest Service’s parent agency, provided the company with $ 750,000 in grants. The National Science Foundation and NASA have also invested cash to fund the startup’s research.

Triggered by wildfire

The idea for Parallel Flight sprang up in 2017, when the Tubbs fire devastated parts of Santa Rosa. Later that year, the Bear Fire broke out in Boulder Creek, near Resnick’s house.

“I had friends in Santa Rosa who lost their homes. Then we had a little fire in Boulder Creek, ”Resnick said. “My house is in the Santa Cruz Mountains, not too far away… so it was kind of a wake-up call.

This prompted the engineer to try to find solutions.

Resnick monitors a replica Firefly drone during a test flight. He was also holding a manual controller, which could be used to take over the drone in an emergency. (Hannah Hagemann / Santa Cruz Sentinel)

Firefighting agencies such as Cal Fire and the Forest Service have previously sent drones into the skies to detect smoke and monitor the behavior of fires.

But Resnick, who co-founded the company with David Adams and Bobby Hulter, found no one was flying drones to help wildland firefighters with supply drops.

This is largely because many drones can’t go the distance when it comes to battery life and supply transport. Parallel Flight aims to ease the burden on wildland firefighters by providing tools, such as chainsaws and fuel, to remote locations.

“If you get a hot meal or a cool sandwich, if you don’t have to walk that far to refuel… it all makes firefighters more efficient, increases their stamina and makes them safer,” Resnick said.

Maximizing its load capacity at 100 pounds, the drone can perform a two and a half hour flight. But the company plans to build fireflies that can hold up to 1,000 pounds of equipment. For industrial applications, Resnick said, Parallel Flight is studying the use of renewable fuels, such as ethanol and biodiesel, as opposed to gasoline.

Helping firefighters put out fires with water or fire retardant is another goal on the horizon.

But until those bigger parallel flight drones are built, Resnick said, the focus is on supply drops and prescribed burns.

Test limits

Parallel Flight is on a campus shared with the private Monterey Bay Academy, where acres of empty fields stretch out to reach the coast. It is a perfect flying ground for drones.

Engineers test daily flight missions on a “mule” – a replica of Firefly. The aircraft is pre-programmed to travel certain distances and hit targets on a flight path. But when it comes to actually piloting, the drone can do it on its own.

A Firefly drone weighs 120 pounds. On a recent test flight, it was fitted with water that could be routed to wildland firefighters in remote areas. (Hannah Hagemann / Santa Cruz Sentinel)

“When you set the plane up, it’s almost like a baby is learning to walk,” Resnick said. “He has a lot to learn before he can control these muscles. Then, once he knows how to walk, you can step back and say, “Just follow this path.” “

Inside the Firefly, hundreds of sensors alert the drone’s computer to what’s going on in the airspace it passes through. The computer then takes this information – atmospheric pressure, temperature, acceleration data – and adjusts accordingly.

At the same time, engineers carefully monitor critical information transmitted by the aircraft: GPS data, battery voltages, fuel levels and rotor speeds.

Resnick and the team are pushing the limits of the drone, before Firefly is deployed to its first customers in 2022.

“We are still learning how the plane behaves,” Resnick said. “Each test you take should be riskier than the last.”

Light “good fires”

Drones have already been sent into the airspace to ignite prescribed fires. These planes deploy what are called “dragon eggs” – containing potassium permanganate – which ignite when injected with coolant.

But these flights are of short duration. Prescribed burns carried out in helicopters have become fatal and can be inaccurate in targeting specific vegetation types.

A parallel flight drone can carry 4,000 dragon eggs, according to Resnick, while drones that currently light prescribed fires only carry 400. The Firefly will be able to ignite more than 2,000 acres in one trip, depending on the country. drought of vegetation and weight of equipment. It also has an infrared camera which would allow a prescribed burn to be carried out at night.

A replica Firefly drone takes off on a recent test flight. (Hannah Hagemann / Santa Cruz Sentinel)

Jared Childress, burn coordinator at the Central Coast Prescribed Burn Association, said he was delighted that such technology was brought online.

“Going from ‘maybe we could burn 100 acres in one day’ to 1,000 acres in one day is obviously a game-changer,” Childress said. “And doing it affordably is a big deal.”

Next steps

Currently, the company produces about one drone per month, Resnick said. By 2023, the majority of Parallel Flight customers will have a Firefly on hand.

The company also plans to light an inaugural prescribed burn with its drones sometime in 2022. But it remains to be seen how quickly the aircraft will become standardized in the worlds of forest firefighting and land management. .

Fireflies taking flight to complete industrial jobs, Resnick predicts, will happen in the short term, as most workers in those industries don’t face the same dangers as firefighters.

But the company’s mission to deal with the increasing risk of forest fires remains at the forefront.

“Due to climate change, we are seeing an exponential increase in fires globally,” Resnick said. “We can’t just tackle an exponential problem with linear technologies. Something drastic has to happen.

In one look

Name: Parallel Flight Technologies.
Location: La Selva beach.
Start year: 2018.
Number of employees: 15.
Value: $ 35.3 million.


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