Copter Express, a resident startup of the Skolkovo Foundation, has taken second place in the Global Mobile Challenge, a major mobile app competition held in partnership with the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona this week, for its system for using drones to look for missing people.
The Copter Express team at the Global Mobile Challenge in Barcelona, with Ponfilenok in the centre. Photo: Copter Express.
The company, a resident of Skolkovo’s space cluster, has developed a system in partnership with Russian mobile operator Beeline and Liza Alert, a volunteer organization set up to find missing people, to use drones to look for people who have got lost in forests and other outdoor spaces.
“I think this is a good result, especially for our first time taking part in an international competitions on this level,” Oleg Ponfilenok, the company’s director, wrote on Facebook.
The Global Mobile Challenge is part of 4YFN (Four Years From Now), the entrepreneurship event within the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, one of the world’s biggest mobile industry events.
Drones are already used in search and rescue operations, but Copter Express believes they can play a much bigger role, and developed the Wings for All project inspired by the case of the little girl who prompted the formation of Liza Alert.
“The story I’m about to tell you should have never happened, but it did,” said the team, presenting their project.
“Six years ago, five-year-old Liza got lost in a forest near her country[side] home. Five hundred volunteers from social media were searching for her day and night ... They found her – but it was too late.”
The company estimates that 120,000 people a year get lost in Russia alone, and has designed drones equipped with machine vision technology, thermal video cameras and first aid packages weighing up to 1 kilogram that can be used alongside volunteers searching for missing people.
“Our drones help those people. The drone can find the person and show their location 10 times faster than a human,” says Copter Express.
To overcome the problem of the limited flying times of drones, the company has designed charging stations that allow the drones to hop from one charging station to another across the search area. Copter Express says its partnership with Beeline would enable it to use rooftops and GSM towers to power the charging stations.
The system could cover an area the size of Barcelona for $50,000, and would reduce the cost of one drone flight from $100 to just $1, said Ponfilenok during the pitch.
Taking second place in the Global Mobile Challenge, in which 10 finalists were selected from thousands of entrants, entitles Copter Express to acceleration support in Madrid. In addition, the company found some partners in Barcelona, Ponfilenok told Sk.ru.
“Copter Express is one of the most promising teams working on unmanned aerial vehicles in Russia,” said Valery Komissarov, the project’s personal manager within Skolkovo’s space cluster.
“The cluster has supported the company’s development with a minigrant of 5 million rubles (($85,000), we support the company’s development strategy, and there is no doubt that very soon Copter Express will take off on the international market too. This excellent placing in a major international competition is confirmation of that.”
The startup began life in the city of Syktyvkar, capital of Russia’s northern Komi republic, focusing on quite a different use for drones: pizza delivery. The company hit headlines in June 2014 when it launched its delivery service.
From an economic viewpoint, however, the project was flawed: the cost of delivering a pizza was 1,500 rubles ($25) – compared to 100 rubles for regular delivery methods – because the drones had to be controlled manually, Ponfilenok told Sk.ru. The company also had a couple of runs-in with the local prosecutor’s office, which fined the company 5,000 rubles for unlawful incursion into the airspace. A second fine of 50,000 rubles, however, was overturned by a local court, he said.
The pizza delivery experiment proved to be a useful lesson for Copter Express, and it set to work on the creation of automated drones.
“We’ve made good progress in the creation of a fully autonomous drone,” Ponfilenok told Sk.ru. “The system is almost ready, and is in testing mode. We’re now taking pre-orders, and plan to start delivering the drones to clients from this summer.”
Copter Express became a resident of the Skolkovo Foundation last year after winning a prize at the Startup Village outdoor tech entrepreneurship festival last summer. The company also makes educational kits that allow school students to build and programme their own drone.