Open Skies

SkySpecs in Ann Arbor is one of the first companies to automate drone inspections.


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Working with utilities, Tom Brady and Danny Ellis developed automated drones that inspect wind turbines more safely than human inspectors who rappel from the top of towers.

Rapidly ascending from startup status, SkySpecs in Ann Arbor develops software that enables drones to autonomously inspect wind farms and help owners collect, analyze, report, and predict the longevity of wind turbine blades.

SkySpecs is occupying its fifth address since founders Danny Ellis and Tom Brady earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in engineering from the University of Michigan earlier this decade. With more than 20 employees — some recruited from the same aerospace engineering class that gave Ellis, Brady, and co-founder Sam DeBruin their start a decade ago — the company is finding global demand for its aerial services.

Originally created as a senior design project, Ellis believed drones would evolve into a commercial product that he was confident “someone was going to pay us for.”

SkySpecs was officially launched last year, and it has conducted 3,700 inspections of wind turbines throughout North America and Europe. “I still don’t think we’ve really made it,” says Ellis, the 30-year-old CEO, “but we’ve had some milestones that were huge for us,” including a challenging drone launch “off the back of a boat in the middle of the Baltic Sea.”

More work is booked in Europe and Australia this year as the company ramps up sales, marketing, and operations, while advancing engineering and software development.

Brady, the 29-year-old CTO, says nearly every aspect of SkySpecs’ service is automated, from inspection to data-collection.

“What we’re trying to do is use robotics to replace procedures that are either dangerous, expensive, or time-consuming,” he says.

SkySpecs is so focused on differentiating itself across the wind energy value chain that intellectual property is a fluid concept. So far, no one
approaches the inspection of wind turbines and blades with SkySpecs’ efficiency and speed — which the company claims is eight times as fast as other inspection methods.

After a human operator turns on one of SkySpecs’ drones, the unmanned aerial vehicle plans its own flight path, makes its own data- gathering decisions, and returns to the ground and turns itself off. Total time elapsed: 15 minutes.

“Our biggest competition in the industry is other  inspection methods,” including manually piloted drones that “try to fly close and take pictures and try to not crash,” Ellis says. “They have a challenge of getting repeatable, measureable data, which is one of our key differentiators.”

Before getting real customers, Ellis and Brady traveled traditional startup roads: incubators, accelerators, and fundraising road shows. A turning point came when they won the $500,000
Accelerate Michigan Innovation Competition in 2014. “That was a ‘Holy Cow, we can survive the next few months’ moment,” Ellis recalls. “We were going to miss the next month’s payroll if we hadn’t won that money.”

Most of the prize augmented the company’s seed-stage funding. Although Ellis traveled 75,000 miles to pitch the business, ultimately Ann Arbor-based venture capitalists led the Series A funding round in 2015. Last year’s Series B round was led by investors from Chicago and Germany.

“We’re on the venture-backed trajectory,” Ellis says. “We’re going to keep growing as far as we can. Who knows what that turns into?”

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