The Path to Complete UAV Platforms: The Inspired Flight's Journey

Exploring the evolution of drone platforms, AI advancements, cost considerations, and prospects of autonomy with Adam Bilmes.

Yuliya Sychikova
COO @ DataRoot Labs
30 May 2024
12 min read
The Path to Complete UAV Platforms: The Inspired Flight's Journey

Inspired Flight was formed around the idea that Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) and drone technologies will shape the future. Founded in San Luis Obispo, CA in 2017, its U.S.-based team manufactures and supports highly capable and agile UAS platforms for both commercial and government applications. Their thoughtful hardware design and willingness to engineer tailored solutions for specific requirements are some of the many reasons why agencies turn to Inspired Flight for their UAS programs. Inspired Flight's collection of UAS is ideal for the most demanding applications including aerial photogrammetry, surveying, thermal inspection, and more.

Yuliya Sychikova [YS]: I'd like to start by discussing Inspired Flight Technologies' journey and its commitment to American manufacturing. Can you share more about the journey from manufacturing UAV components to designing complete UAV platforms, and how your commitment to American manufacturing has influenced this trajectory?

Adam Bilmes [AB]: The inception of our company stemmed from the lack of customization options available in the drone industry around 2015-2016. At that time, we were exploring innovative drone applications that are now becoming more standard. Dissatisfied with the quality of off-the-shelf components, we ventured into manufacturing our own drones, with an initial focus on motor technology. However, we soon realized that solely focusing on components wouldn't be a scalable business model. This prompted us to transition towards building complete drone platforms, while leveraging our component expertise.

Our commitment to American manufacturing was rooted in our founding principles in 2016. Little did we anticipate the geopolitical shifts that would occur later, such as the introduction of NDAA Section 848 in 2020-2021, which restricted the use of certain Chinese technologies in federal UAS work. Our early commitment to an American supply chain provided us with a competitive advantage, allowing us to adapt swiftly to these regulatory changes. This foresight enabled us to establish a domestic supply chain ahead of our competitors, giving us a significant edge in the market.

[YS]: That's quite a journey. Inspired Flight Technologies seems to offer a wide range of integrated solutions for various industries, including customizable payloads for drones. How do you go about selecting the sensors and cameras integrated into your drones, especially considering the diverse needs of your clients?

[AB]: Ensuring a comprehensive solution for end-users is a top priority for Inspired Flight. This entails not only providing the aircraft but also integrating various components seamlessly. We've identified key areas of focus for Inspired Flight, primarily within the industrial and commercial sectors, including energy and transportation infrastructure, surveying, and mapping.

To achieve this, we thoroughly evaluate the market to determine the most suitable technology that balances performance and cost-effectiveness. This approach allows us to offer fully integrated solutions tailored to specific needs, such as mapping, inspection, and public safety applications.

Moreover, our aircrafts are highly modular, allowing for the integration of custom payloads and accommodating research and development projects. This flexibility extends to incorporating additional autonomy features and sensors to meet evolving requirements, even beyond what we initially offer in our product lineup.

[YS]: Your comment on cost and technology balance, makes me want to ask the following question. In light of recent events in Ukraine, how do you perceive the strategic trade-offs between cost, technological sophistication, and research and development investment, especially within defense applications?

[AB]: The war against Ukraine has significantly altered the landscape of drone technology and unmanned aerial systems (UAS). We've witnessed a shift in how we perceive these technologies and their associated costs. Unfortunately, there have been instances of high-priced systems sold to the Department of Defense (DoD) and deployed in Ukraine that have failed to deliver effective results. This has prompted a reevaluation of the equipment we use and its cost-effectiveness, particularly in defense applications.

Conversely, in less demanding environments, such as commercial settings, there's a focus on high-quality sensors tailored to specific industrial and commercial needs. This highlights the importance of matching the capabilities of drones and UAS with the requirements of various applications, whether it's for surveillance, reconnaissance, or industrial use cases. The evolving conversation around cost and functionality is reshaping the priorities in both defense and commercial sectors within the drone industry.

The evolving conversation around cost and functionality is reshaping the priorities in both defense and commercial sectors within the drone industry.
Adam Bilmes, Sr. Director of Business Development at Inspired Flight

[YS]: How does AI contribute to the functionality of Inspired Flight's drones, particularly in enhancing autonomy and mission capabilities?

[AB]: AI is becoming increasingly integral to our solutions at Inspired Flight. While we're not an AI company per se, our focus is on building highly advanced flying robots. Many of our customers collaborate with us to incorporate additional onboard computers and AI capabilities into our platforms, enhancing their autonomy significantly.

These advancements enable a wide range of applications, including fully autonomous inspections of physical assets, automated delivery services, and advanced threat detection for perimeter security, particularly in defense environments. Our customers are leveraging autonomy capabilities directly on the aircraft, integrating them seamlessly with our systems to enhance operational efficiency.

AI plays a pivotal role in the capabilities of unmanned robotics worldwide, and our platforms are designed to complement these advancements. We aim to empower our customers by providing a versatile platform that seamlessly integrates with evolving AI technologies, allowing them to leverage the latest advancements for maximum value and effectiveness.

IF8000 with the Gremsy VIO by Inspired Flight Technologies

IF8000 with the Gremsy VIO by Inspired Flight Technologies

[YS]: I'd like to delve into some specific features of your drones, such as the Gremsy VIO F1 payload. How do advanced features like AI tracking and laser rangefinders improve the functionality of your drones in complex missions?

[AB]: Our Gremsy VIO F1 payload indeed boasts advanced features like AI tracking and a laser range finder, which greatly enhance the functionality of drones, especially in complex missions and challenging environments. Primarily used for intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and public safety operations, this dual thermal and optical payload is equipped with an NVIDIA computer that enables various autonomous and AI capabilities, offering significant value to users.

The AI tracking feature, in particular, allows pilots to focus on fewer tasks simultaneously. By automatically tracking specific targets, it relieves the pilot of this responsibility, enabling them to concentrate on piloting the aircraft, coordinating with team members, and executing mission-critical tasks. This enhanced focus enhances operational outcomes, ensuring greater efficiency and success in achieving mission objectives. Overall, these AI capabilities serve as invaluable aids to end-users, facilitating smoother mission execution and optimizing overall performance.

[YS]: Do you think we are nearing full autonomy when it comes to drones?

[AB]: We're just at the beginning stages. While there are impressive autonomous capabilities currently available across various industries, we're only scratching the surface of what AI can offer. Many tasks still require manual intervention, and we're in the process of developing tools to automate them further. The next few years will bring significant advancements in autonomy, but we're still early in this journey.

While there are impressive autonomous capabilities currently available across various industries, we're only scratching the surface of what AI can offer.
Adam Bilmes, Sr. Director of Business Development at Inspired Flight

[YS]: What are some of the most interesting autonomy applications have you seen in the space so far?

[AB]: One of the companies we collaborate with specializes in underground mine mapping. They utilize drones equipped with a range of autonomous sensors, including LIDAR and radar, to create detailed maps of underground cavities without the need for GPS.

These maps are invaluable for areas where human access is restricted due to hazardous conditions. This application highlights the significant value drones bring across various industries, from research to business, defense, and environmental studies.

By autonomously navigating hazardous environments, drones not only enhance safety but also improve efficiency by replacing outdated and inefficient methods. This underscores the immense value drones offer in modernizing operations and safeguarding personnel.

[YS]: Inspired Flight also offers heavy-duty drones IF 1200 Tomcat. Have you had the opportunity to test these drones in real-world missions, particularly in defense applications?

[AB]: While our focus has primarily been on serving commercial and home defense applications, we've recently begun shipping our heavy lift aircraft, the IF 1200, to Ukraine, marking our initial foray into that environment. While we're still gathering data and gaining insights into our performance in this context, we anticipate obtaining valuable information over the next few months.

While recent developments have prompted us to explore additional capabilities to better serve such scenarios, the majority of our attention remains directed towards serving domestic defense and military applications, as well as various commercial endeavors.

IF1200 with the Phase One iXM-100 by Inspired Flight Technologies

IF1200 with the Phase One iXM-100 by Inspired Flight Technologies

[YS]: Another area of focus for Inspired Flight is disaster management, such as wildfire response. Can you share some examples of the solutions you've developed for these missions?

[AB]: One standout example I'm particularly fond of involves our collaboration with a U.S.-based company called Drone Amplified, which developed the Ignis system, an aerial firefighting capability. This system releases small balls upon impact with the ground, igniting into flames. It's incredibly effective for prescribed burns, backburns, and containing wildfires by creating controlled perimeters.

Witnessing these applications firsthand has been truly remarkable. Drone technology plays a pivotal role in these scenarios, eliminating the need for risky helicopter flights and reducing personnel requirements. This not only enhances efficiency but also ensures the safety of personnel.

Moreover, drones prove invaluable in various other domains such as disaster response and emergency management. They enable swift aerial surveillance for public safety departments, aiding in post-disaster mapping efforts to expedite infrastructure restoration.

These applications underscore Inspired Flight's commitment to leveraging drone technology for impactful solutions. Overall, drones and UAS technology offer indispensable tools across a spectrum of critical tasks.

Given the increasing usage of drones, particularly in the upcoming decade or so, what are your thoughts on addressing other bottlenecks within the United States that, if resolved, could significantly expedite the widespread adoption of drones across various industries?

One significant challenge facing the drone industry, especially in contexts where Chinese components are restricted, revolves around radio technology. This includes issues related to operating in GPS-denied areas and mitigating the effects of jamming technology. Currently, the cost and scalability of defense-focused radio systems pose obstacles to widespread adoption. Collaborative efforts among industry leaders are essential to enhance radio technology and make it more affordable.

Additionally, navigating legislative and bureaucratic hurdles remains a constant challenge, particularly in the United States. Issues such as obtaining waivers for beyond visual line of sight operations and implementing unmanned traffic management systems present ongoing regulatory challenges. Uncertainty surrounding evolving government regulations underscores the importance of providing industry stakeholders with clear insights into forthcoming regulatory changes. While progress in this area may be gradual due to the nature of government processes, increased transparency regarding regulatory developments will enable better planning and preparation within the industry. Ultimately, a cohesive industry effort to advocate for favorable regulatory frameworks will be crucial for the continued success and advancement of the drone industry.

Collaborative efforts among industry leaders are essential to enhance radio technology and make it more affordable.
Adam Bilmes, Sr. Director of Business Development at Inspired Flight

[YS]: Looking ahead, what's next for Inspired Flight Technologies? How do you plan to continue innovating and staying ahead of the curve in the drone industry?

[AB]: Our primary focus at Inspired Flight lies within the medium and heavy lift drone sector. Currently, our strength lies in crafting high-performance, reliable aircraft and maintaining a capacity for high-volume manufacturing.

Over the past 18 months, we've embarked on a journey of integrating advanced sensors into our drones, a venture that has only just begun. Moving forward, our trajectory involves enhancing the capabilities of our 2 main aircraft lines. This entails augmenting autonomy levels and refining user experience to optimize data extraction and value delivery.

Expect Inspired Flight to remain dedicated to scaling up manufacturing while prioritizing performance and reliability. Our commitment to the medium and heavy lift niche remains steadfast as we continue to innovate and elevate our offerings in the drone industry.


Yuliya Sychikova
COO @ DataRoot Labs
Yuliya is a co-founder and COO of DataRoot Labs, where she oversees operations, sales, communication, and Startup Venture Services. She brings onboard business and venture capital experience that she gained at a leading tech investment company in CEE, where she oversaw numerous deals and managed a portfolio across various tech niches including AI and IT service companies.
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