Switzerland Leads Boston in an Exploration of the Drone Frontier

The drone industry has experienced an explosion of innovation, growing from $40 million to over $1 billion in the past 5 years alone. As humankind continues to explore the possibilities that exist in airspace, swissnex Boston, in collaboration with the Swiss Touch campaign, invited experts and members of the public to an immersive discovery of drone technology at HUBweek, Boston’s “festival of the future.” Together, they transformed the city’s open innovation platform, District Hall, into a playground for drone enthusiasts and showed attendees why Switzerland is the “Home of Drones.”

Tiny Whoop drone from Brandeis University’s MakerLab landed on the Swiss Touch table © swissnex Boston

In October, the Swiss Touch table traveled to Boston to facilitate another series of innovative and future-facing discussions, this time focusing on the potential of drone technology. Along with swissnex Boston, Swiss Touch brought together more than 40 exhibitors from Switzerland, the United States and beyond — from petite drones the size of a dragonfly to a gigantic wind machine powered by hundreds of small fans called “wind pixels.”

Home to over 80 drone-related startups as well as world-class research programs at top universities such as EPFL, ETH Zürich, and the University of Applied Sciences Zurich (ZHAW), Switzerland has pushed ahead as a leading country in drone technology. The explosive growth of drone innovation prompted swissnex Boston to create Aerial Futures: The Drone Frontier, a program series that highlights key players at the forefront of drone technology and the major societal shifts that could come as a result of the growing drone industry.

During the two days of Aerial Futures: The Drone Frontier @ HUBweek, visitors were invited to join some of the world’s foremost drone innovators to get a sneak peek at a variety of new and imaginative applications for unmanned aerial vehicle technology. Among the highlights was a crew of Boston-area academics with an astonishing diversity of racing drones. Across the hall, the “FlyJacket,” developed as part of EPFL’s interdisciplinary project called The Symbiotic Drone, attracted a large crowd with its virtual drone flight over the university’s beautiful campus in Lausanne.

FlyJacket, part of EFPL’s Symbiotic Drone Project, allows you to pilot a drone with your own body © swissnex Boston

Though the demonstrations dazzled crowds of all ages with exciting and engaging experiences, it was clear that drones are much more than just fun and games. A majority of the exhibiting startups sought to develop innovative solutions to real-world problems. Dronistics, an EPFL spin-off, showcased its PackDrone, designed to ensure safe last-centimeter package delivery. The drone’s lightweight and foldable structure, not unlike an origami lantern, reduces weight and addresses space issues to make the device easily transportable.

Dronistics’ PackDrone is a human-friendly foldable drone for last-centimeter deliveries developed by an EPFL spin-off startup house at NCCR Robotics © swissnex Boston

Dropcopter, a California-based agricultural startup, focused their demonstration on aerial pollination. The artificial Worker-Bee guarantees that crops are pollinated, overcoming environmental factors such as wind or cold and boosting crop set by 10% — a real game changer for farmers.

A different set of innovators concentrated more on the issues drone operators encounter in operating their devices. Most drones are difficult to navigate and land with precision — which could lead to a major time delay in rescue missions or deliveries. The IDSIA Swiss AI Lab developed a new drone interface that allows operators to control drones by pointing gestures. Connected to a wristband with sensors, the navigation becomes much more intuitive and looks almost like wizardry to an observer.

Boris Gromov, from the Swiss AI Robotics Lab, demonstrating a gesture-based drone piloting and landing system © swissnex Boston

A real pioneer in the Swiss drone industry is Dario Floreano, director of the Laboratory for Intelligent Systems at EPFL and of NCCR Robotics, which has the objective of developing new, human-oriented robotic technology for improving the quality of life. In his keynote speech for the exhibition’s closing reception, he stressed the importance of studying nature to improve drone technology. “The idea is not to copy nature,” he said, “but to take the principles of nature and translate them into something that can actually be manufactured and applied in everyday life.”

Over the course of two days, hundreds flocked to District Hall to learn, network, present or interact with the Swiss and American drone ecosystems. Nicola Mona, the CEO and founder of Lugano-based energy startup Skypull, was delighted to find such a vivid and enthusiastic startup scene in Boston: “I discovered Boston as a clean tech hub for startups, for crazy ideas with lots of support and lots of facilities, so I might come back and look into opportunities in the city in more detail.”

“This is the first time we’ve exhibited in the U.S.,” said Guillaume Catry, cofounder and CEO of Geneva-based WindShape, an intelligent system for testing drones in a variety of flight conditions. “Previously, I felt there was a bottleneck trying to break into the U.S. It’s not the same to meet with someone over the phone or on Skype — you really have to come here to make a meaningful connection. For us, it has been really valuable to meet with the attendees, but just as importantly, with the other exhibitors.”

WindShape is a wind wall that allows to safely test drones in real-world weather conditions © swissnex Boston

The event was facilitated by the Swiss Touch campaign, which was present at the event with the Swiss Touch table, an interactive installation that has traveled across the U.S. to spark meaningful discussions about innovation. The table features media, games, live social media feeds and more, but its most important feature is the interactions that take place around it. “Of course, people are looking at the demos, but then from time to time they come around the Swiss Touch table and they look at the material and that’s where the conversation happens,” said Christian Simm, CEO of swissnex Boston.

As Switzerland continues to expand its efforts in research and innovation, efforts like Aerial Futures: The Drone Frontier and Home of Drones connect the Swiss drone ecosystem with other major innovation hubs across the globe. During this public exploration of the drone frontier in Boston, expert inventors, researchers, and curious members of the public collaboratively imagined how technology could create an aerial future and we hope they will continue to engage with Switzerland as its innovators continue to take this industry to new heights.

Drones Land in Boston — Aerial Futures: The Drone Frontier @ HUBweek © swissnexBoston

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