Unmanned aircraft systems
Elston co-founded Black Swift Technologies with CTO Dr. Maciej Stachura after they worked together at University of Colorado Boulder.
"He [Stachura] was doing communication relays," says Elston. "If any interference got in the way, the aircraft would actually physically move themselves to better provide communications between the two different points. If you happen to go behind a mountain ridge or something, it would automatically adjust to that."
Stachura and Elston worked together on the NOAA/NSF-funded VORTEX2, the largest tornado research project in history, before starting Black Swift. "We were using a bunch of old DoD heritage military equipment that was difficult to set up and difficult to use," says Elston. "We said, 'We could make a commercial version of this.'"
The company started with an autopilot system, SwiftCore, before moving into full unmanned aircraft systems (UAS). "We sold those for two or three years until we realized that most of our overhead was getting eaten up by support," says Elston. "As you can imagine, it's not a simple thing to teach somebody how to install an autopilot system into their aircraft."
An early project for NASA involved developing technology to measure soil moisture from above ground, and that required more precision than an off-the-shelf drone. "One of the things that came out of that was very strict requirements on the aircraft as far as not interfering with the instrument," says Elston. "We ended up designing the entire aircraft around that sensor. That's what became what we call the S2 now. It's one of our workhorses. It's a 10-foot wingspan composite aircraft that has a swappable payload. We can fly a number of different things on it."
Black Swift released the S2 to the commercial market in 2017, followed by the E2 and S0. The E2 is designed with industrial inspections in mind. "It started out with a need from a customer in Spain," says Elston. "They were doing wind turbine inspections for Siemens Gamesa. They needed a custom platform to do that, one that didn't have Chinese components integrated into it. Because it was an inspection platform, they wanted the ability to look up and down."
The S0 is capable of vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL). "The S0 is a smaller, fixed-wing aircraft that originated with a contract with NOAA to provide a tube launch capability out of their Hurricane Hunter, where it'd fly over a hurricane, drop these out in a tube, and they'd deploy wings and fly around in the hurricane and provide data back to them for about an hour and a half," says Elston.
Black Swift's UAS products -- with prices starting around $28,000 -- now bring in more revenue than its SwiftCore units. Customers include surveyors, federal labs and agencies, and agricultural users. Elston says the company's aircraft can navigate in harsh weather -- a prerequisite for chasing tornadoes -- and are easier to operate than competing products.
"We really try to simplify things," says Elston. "From our past experience with working with military heritage autopilots, you could do all sorts of things, but you were just overwhelmed with information constantly, so we distilled it down to only what the user needs to see at one given time."
To build its UAS products, Black Swift leverages a national network of composites shops and contract manufacturers, then assembles its products at the company's 3,000-square-foot facility in Boulder.
"We do mainly design work, assembly, and quality control here, as well as customer support," says Elston. "Almost all of the manufacturing is done by somebody else. We have the capability to do some prototyping, but most of our aircraft involve custom molded composites for things like wings."
Black Swift's revenue jumped from about $1.1 million in 2018 to $1.6 million in 2020. "I'm fine with maintaining that 47 percent we had over the last two years -- too much growth and things start to get very complicated," notes Elston.
Challenges: Zeroing in on the right opportunities. "We have a pretty diverse portfolio of technologies under our roof, a few irons in the fire," says Elston. "Finding the right one and focusing in on it -- because we certainly don't have enough resources to do all of them at once -- is always tricky."
Opportunities: The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) opening up the airspace for unmanned aircraft would be a big catalyst for the industry. "That'll definitely open up a lot of different markets for us that are not available now," says Elston. "Methane detection is one of those."
Beyond its work measuring soil moisture, Black Swift has already supplied NASA and the USGS with UAS to monitor volcanoes and other outgassing events, and the technology translates to the commercial market.
"We're starting to get more involved with trace gas measurements and soil moisture measurements in a commercial capacity," says Elston. "The soil moisture one, obviously there's an agricultural application there, but there are also public safety applications. If you look at the water content underneath a railroad bed, you can tell when it might derail just based on movements in the track."
He adds, "We have some of the best algorithms to go and efficiently characterize a gas leak. A lot of that came from the work we did with volcano observation." The S2 can handle the sensors as a payload, he adds, and the target for a commercial release is summer 2022.
Needs: "We're always on a search for highly skilled employees," says Elston. "It seems we always have more work to do than people to do it."