At WeWork Berkeley, there’s an office decorated with empty beer steins, and another occupied by a massive beanbag chair. In yet another, mannequins sport colorful bridesmaid dresses. But Queen B Robotics still manages to make their workspace stand out.
“Most of the time it looks like a mad scientist’s lab,” says founder Chris Blower. There are wires and pliers covering the desks, and five spider-like drones wait, ready for flight, in a corner.
You wouldn’t know it, but merely a year ago Queen B was barely even a larva. Blower was in Washington, D.C., finishing up a PhD in unmanned aerial vehicles at The George Washington University. The lifelong aviation lover (“Put me in an airplane and fly me around in circles all day and I’m happy,”), he was particularly fascinated by the rapidly burgeoning drone industry. Eyeing the activity in Silicon Valley, Blower decided to move across the country and get into the game himself.
Queen B was born shortly after, and now has three full-time employees with a fourth coming on board soon. The company develops software that allows a fleet — or a “swarm” controlled by one human queen bee, hence the name — of drones to communicate with one another. The idea is that when companies like Amazon send hundreds of vehicles up into the air, they won’t collide, and they will be able to self-adjust their pathways by detecting the locations of other drones.
The team has a functioning prototype and has started some flight tests. Theirs is a “plug-and-play” model, meaning the hardware can be connected to any drone made by 3D Robotics, one of the biggest drone manufacturers, which is located not far from Queen B, in West Berkeley. The product will be in beta by the middle of September.
Queen B is moving quickly, as it needs to if predictions prove accurate. While the Federal Aviation Administration works out rules for commercial drone use, the commercial sector is plotting to take advantage of all that open airspace when they can. So when will the skies become crowded enough for collisions to truly be a risk? “We’ll see it becoming more of a reality in six to nine months,” Blower predicts. Business Insider recently predicted a 19% growth in drones by 2020.
Blower and team know that many people view the rise of drones with trepidation, if not outright fear. Part of Queen B’s mission is to combat that perception.
“We can make drones have a better reputation and be a lot safer,” Blower promises.
After collision prevention, the next task is to get the drones to work collaboratively. Blower envisions a swarm of communicative drones completing a search-and-rescue mission in a fraction of the time and cost that one helicopter would take to do the same. Likewise with data acquisition. Here, the communication network developed by Queen B will come in handy, Blower said. The drones won’t have to be programmed individually because they will be able to divide up the land to cover.
Blower cryptically says he is “in talks” with potential clients who are excited about Queen B’s work. Some of them work alongside the team at the downtown Berkeley branch of WeWork, the international network of coworking spaces. [Berkeleyside has its office at WeWork.]
The coworking set-up has been ideal for the team, which grew one by one after Blower rented a four-person office. The engineers are self-admitted workaholics who clock 12- to 14-hour days. The glass walls allow them to see the light of day and they enjoy the social contact with their fellow WeWork occupants, who range from programmers to lawyers and a life coach.
The room-full of robots certainly attracts the most curious of the coworking folk. In addition to the heavy-duty drones (they run tests without the propellers so as not to annoy their neighbors), Queen B is in possession of a Styrofoam toy drone. It won’t perform a search and rescue, but collisions are luckily not much of a concern when the engineers fly it around the room for laughs.