The story of SkySquirrel Technologies is a story of two immigrants in rural Nova Scotia, a medical device company and the development of an unmanned aerial vehicle that could save lives.
Though very much in its infancy, SkySquirrel is a company that’s already creating buzz at support agencies due to its potential in both software development and manufacturing from its base in Cheticamp, Cape Breton.
The company proposes to make unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, mounted with real-time, heat-sensitive cameras, and their first application will be to assist in search and rescue operations.
Its co-founders are now preparing for an initial round of seed funding to perfect their prototype and finance their testing.
“This is an emerging market,” Richard Van der Put, co-founder and research director, said in an interview.
“The military market (for unmanned planes or drones) has taken off, and big companies have captured that. … Our research tells us we should really focus on the search and rescue market.”
The story began three years ago when Van der Put, a Dutch engineer, immigrated to Nova Scotia to work at Halifax Biomedical Inc. of Mabou, which makes 3-D, X-ray scanners that give surgeons an immediate picture of how an implant is taking hold in an orthopedic patient.
A year later, another immigrant engineer, Stephane Sogne from France, joined Halifax Biomedical. They struck up a friendship and jointly developed their own UAV as a hobby, converting it into a nice little business that took aerial photographs for customers.
After talking to people in the startup community, Van der Put and Sogne realized the potential of their company, so they brought in Tim Stekkinger to serve as president and take care of business development.
SkySquirrel’s product is a “multicopter” — a helicopter with four to six rotors — that carries a video camera equipped with infrared thermal imaging. The team has a prototype that can take off in mild winds, scan a two-square-kilometre patch and land again.
One of the technologies they are developing is an aerodynamic system that will allow the craft to operate in high-wind conditions.
This device is designed to improve results and save money when people are missing and believed lost in the woods. Most search and rescue missions begin at night, when family members of missing people grow frantic and contact the authorities, but many helicopters don’t fly at night.
Ground search crews armed with a SkySquirrel UAV could benefit from its ability to perform a quick scan of large sections of the search area. This would increase the chances of finding the missing person early and alive, and hopefully before a helicopter is needed.
A copter flight costs up to several thousand dollars an hour, so the SkySquirrel system can save governments money.
“We’ve talked to search and rescue teams and they are extremely positive about it,” said Van der Put. “And we saw a potential to assist them in their work.”
The plan now is to raise money and to partner with search teams in Atlantic Canada as early adopters.
Halifax Biomedical CEO Chad Munro likes the application and supports the two engineers in trying to finance their startup, said Van der Put.
They hope to develop software and manufacture the UAVs in the Cheticamp area, and to diversify into applications other than just search and rescue.