Saudi Drone Startup Firnas Aero To Cut Down Time And Resources Required To Inspect Airport Runways
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The rising accessibility of drone technology has presented limitless opportunities and use cases for safe, cost-effective solutions, ranging from data collection to delivery. According to PwC, the emerging global market for business services using drones is valued at over US$127 billion. However, with few and constantly changing regulations, the drone industry in the MENA region remains nascent. Saudi entrepreneur Tariq Nasraldeen, founder and Chief Executive Aviator of Firnas Aero, wants to bring the industry to the next level by exploring an untapped avenue- the use of drones on airport runways.
Foreign object debris, or FOD for short, consist of anything lying on the ground on taxiways and runways that shouldn’t be there. Plastic bags, misplaced tools, stray suitcases and even coffee cups can cause aircraft engine damage, which Boeing has estimated to cost the aerospace industry $4 billion a year. This particular aspect proved the turning point for Nasraldeen's move into launching Firnas Aero- in 2015, while working in the airside operations department at the King Abdulaziz International Airport, Jeddah, the entrepreneur saw firsthand how the detection and removal of FOD was done manually several times per day, and learnt how it was a decades-long practice in airports globally. “I quickly realized that driving on a 5,000-meter runway with an SUV and looking out the window for small objects that might have fallen on the runway and removing them was very inefficient,” Nasraldeen remembers.
It was also during this time that he was experimenting with drones, and that’s how he envisioned “flying a drone over the runway” to scan it for FOD and give their precise locations at a faster rate. He understood how an airport’s most important commodity is time, wherein when one flight is delayed, it creates a domino effect that can have an impact on a whole day or a week’s schedule, and eventually, cause millions of dollars in losses locally and globally. This deep understanding of these correlating factors gave Nasraldeen a strong indication of the feasibility of his idea. Testing it out with a drone and flying over the runway was out of the question, so Nasraldeen did some experiments in a remote location on empty backroads, mimicking a runway environment. “The initial results not only had regional potential, but global as well," he explains. "Because all airports function pretty much in the same way under similar regulations, and FOD runway inspection is a multibillion-dollar global pain point for airlines and airports alike."
It should be clear by now that Nasraldeen’s entrepreneurial streak has been ignited from his passion for aviation and interest in technology. Born and raised in Jeddah, the entrepreneur moved to the United States after high school, became an FAA certified commercial pilot, and later received his BA in Airline Management and MBA in Airport Management from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. Additionally, he also received his MA in Transpersonal Psychology with a specialization in Creativity and Innovation from Sofia University, and he’s currently seeking to earn his PhD in autonomous flight systems. Though his fascination with aviation started from an early childhood (“from dragonflies to cartoons, like Astroganger and movies like Star Wars”), Nasraldeen counts his late father as a key catalyst in his journey, and thus, being his biggest entrepreneurial role model. “I was always amazed by his ability to start businesses, of which many have failed, but he had a remarkable ability of starting again and again no matter the obstacles," Nasraldeen says, while adding that he inherited tenacity and aptitude from his father. “He was always tinkering around the house to ‘fix’ things. This DIY mindset also shaped the way I interact with the world around me, and in a pre-YouTube tutorial era, pulling electronics apart and experimenting was the method of which I eventually accumulated the skills that led me to build my first drone in 2016.”
His background as an aviator became a crucial foundation for his comprehension of the industry. “Many people who want to fly drones do not realize that the skies are divided into layers of airspace and many ‘highways’ and ‘zones,' each with their unique set of regulations and requirements, and having a small robot buzz around in the sky aimlessly is both dangerous and disruptive," he explains. "This deep understanding gave me the clairvoyance to plan ahead and anticipate what will be possible, and what will simply not work.” He also had the advantage of having one of his closest friends, Sariah Aljefri, who is an industrial engineer by training and has worked at P&G and McKinsey & Co., join him as a co-founder at Firnas Aero. As someone who’s had a venture before, Aljefri also brings the learnings from his previous entrepreneurial experience. The duo have always wanted to start a venture together, but it wasn’t until launching Firnas Aero that their plans finally aligned.
As FOD presented a universal concern in the aviation industry, initially, the team wanted to focus on airports, but they soon saw the huge potential in other domains, and they soon moved from flying drones manually to making use of artificial intelligence to operate them. “We had no flight planning software, and cameras were add-ons, so you had no way of controlling it from the ground or seeing what the camera is capturing until you actually landed, and to top that off, batteries lasted 10 minutes max.” Today, however, Nasraldeen says he can use an iPad to fly a multitude of drones, simultaneously, performing a diversity of tasks on pre-planned routes. The company uses 95% of the same hardware and software for all clients, while the 5% difference is factored in the AI models that is specifically designed to each case. While one client might be looking for heat dissipation on heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) units or for corrosion in pipelines, another might be looking for intrusion detection- both problems for which the startup can provide a customized solution.
Firnas Aero provides an autonomous drone-in-a-box (DiaB) turnkey solution that is comprised of three main components: the software, the drone, and the station. The team considered that the unit will face harsh weather and immense heat in the MENA region, so the “box” is designed to protect the drone from harmful elements, and it also has an HVAC system to keep the electronics at a cool temperature. It has a weather station, cameras, and fail-safe layers- all managed by a software designed for regulating the charging of the drone or battery swapping, opening and closing and monitoring all the vitals. There’s also a software that plans the flight route for the drone, live feed, and where to take pictures, as well as its altitude, speed, and fail-safe parameters, which are based on the scope of the client’s requirements.
The DiaB is then placed on the client’s premises, where it can be monitored and controlled by Firnas Aero remotely, or programmed to do a certain daily task- like “fly a certain route every two hours, or take a picture of a specific object every 30 minutes, and then the images are pushed to the AI to create status reports or an alert." And how accurate is it? Nasraldeen notes that it “starts off at 50%-70%, but ends up in the 90%-95% within 5cm accuracy.” To get better results, the team tests over a period of eight weeks on average, and once they reach a sufficient level of accuracy agreed with client, they start the project. “This is because machine learning or deep learning improve over time with more data training,” explains Nasraldeen.
Like any other startup, Firnas Aero has had its own share of stumbling blocks too- one of the startup’s biggest hurdles was finding good local talent, as well as getting all permits and licenses required. Regulations were still in early stage then, with Nasraldeen recalling the lack of framework to deal with their requests. The startup has since made strides- originally launched with initial funding from Nasraldeen’s own personal savings of $150,000, it has gained a $5,000 prize from the MIT Enterprise Forum, followed by an additional $250,000 of convertible notes from the KAUST Innovation Fund. It has also acquired a $100,000 grant by winning the first place in KAUST’s TAQADAM Startup Accelerator program in 2019. The team regards their experience of being accepted and actually winning a worthwhile pursuit, because it created an environment for bold ideas and unexpected learnings within the enterprise. As Nasraldeen notes: “You must be comfortable with the unknown and not let it stifle you.” Currently, Firnas Aero is part of the accelerator program by 500 Startups and Sanabil Investments, and it even has an ongoing collaborative project with KAUST Smart for "a smart home with a built-in drone delivery launching pad, and integration with the smart home system.”
Source: Tariq Nasraldeen
And so far, Firnas Aero’s usability and incredible potential can be seen with its array of case studies. Catering to B2G and B2B clients and offering inspection, surveillance and delivery applications, some of its projects are with Dubai Electricity and Water Authority, KAUST, and Medina Municipality. A significant project that they are working on is with The Red Sea Development Company, which needed an environmental assessment to see the impact that construction will cause on the ecosystem, as well as on the trash that has been accumulated over many decades on the islands. The startup scanned the islands and generated high resolutions maps, with its AI model analyzing numerous images and pixels, and highlighted the trash, categorized it, and gave its geo-location coordinates for the team to clean up. “We used a lot of the learning from the FOD runway sweeping, and I can say that walking down a beach aimlessly looking for objects is not cost effective.”
This highlights the startup’s USP- Nasraldeen points out that the enterprise’s only competition right now are conventional methods, not drone service providers. With the market being still in its infancy, there are only a few players, and high barriers to entry due to regulatory requirements. “We are much faster, more accurate and efficient, and we aim to empower the client,” claims Nasraldeen. “Our secret sauce is doing things from within your creative soul and leaving a part of that in everything that you do.” Autonomy is, as pointed out by the founder, the startup’s significant advantage. “The drone is autonomous, the software is autonomous, the analytics and reporting are autonomous, and our goal is to help the client be autonomous as well, trusting that our drones are doing their job effectively every single day.”
As for the future, in 2021, the team plans to perfect its DiaB system, increase brand trust and awareness, and grow its team, with it constantly being on the lookout for people who are “problem solvers, have intellectual humility, learn fast work hard, and want to change the world into a better place.” Nasraldeen dreams for Firnas Aero to expand across GCC, MENA, globally, and even to space. As NASA successfully propels a drone on Mars (representing the first powered, controlled flight by an aircraft on another world), the entrepreneur aspires the same. “I envision Firnas Aero, which might be called Firnas Astro at that time, to participate in such projects that will serve humanity, and this will start by developing ingenious autonomous drones that can do intricate tasks effectively and carry cargo and people safely," he says. "This will give us room to participate in the expansion of the collective consciousness of humanity by thinking imaginatively about progress and delegating routine tasks to our marvelous machines.”
Source: Firnas Aero
‘TREP TALK ME: Tariq Nasraldeen, founder and Chief Executive Aviator, Firnas Aero
How did the company adjust its business models to ensure its survival through the COVID-19 pandemic? “I can truly say that the pandemic had a positive effect on our startup. Yes, quarantine times were challenging, but we got our first project done during that time, just because of the need for alternative methods of doing business that did not require a lot of people. Also, we took that time to iterate our product and experiment with different models. Having a positive mindset, instead of the fear mindset that was widespread, was a key factor. It was a difficult time, but in hindsight, this is a fraction of time, and startups should look beyond that. Our value proposition was autonomy, and those times proved the need for such services. Cashflow was an issue of course, but the main bottleneck was that everyone was reluctant to take any steps, and everyone wanted to wait and see, which is an expected reaction in times of uncertainty. We try not to talk about the pandemic or use it for profiteering. Our plans are long term, and the current situations are not a significant determining factor in our future plans.”
What would be your advice to fellow and aspiring entrepreneurs?
1. Know who to get advice from
“Only seek advice from people who actually did the thing that you are asking advice about multiple times, better the ones who have failed than succeeded. It is very similar to how we do not take our workout advice from someone who has never been to the gym.”
2. Know how to filter through noise
“Beware of confirmation bias, if you do not know what that is, you are probably doing it. The internet is designed as the optimal confirmation bias tool, so make sure you are not only looking at evidence that only supports your ideas online and offline, and make sure you explore ideas from all angles. You may end up making the same choice, but at least you will be informed and know the alternatives.”
3. Trust your gut
“Look at the best data available, but lead with intuition. You will eventually make mistakes, that doesn’t mean it was a bad decision, it means you were meant to learn this lesson, so be grateful and move forward. Your inner voice knows the way, ignore all advice, including this one."