Sky high: Westporters hope drone development firm takes flight
Updated 6:17 am, Saturday, April 23, 2016
WESTPORT — After 20 years working on Wall Street as an equity analyst, Roger Freeman felt unchallenged and looked for a change. That change proved to be truly uplifting, as Freeman and his wife Rory O’Neill founded FreeBird Flight, a business marketing an “aerial utility vehicle,” or drone, of their own design.
During the summer of 2014, the Westporter, a self-described "tech nerd," took time off and purchased a drone for recreational purposes. A short time later, as he was flying the drone, it was buffeted by a gust of wind, causing it to flip and crash, breaking one of the device’s arms. Frustrated by the hunt for replacement parts that were out of stock, Freeman employed his recently purchased 3D printer and printed out his own parts for the damaged drone, or unmanned aerial vehicle.
"It occurred to me that these things have a lot of potential beyond just taking pictures and playing around in the back yard," Freeman said of the devices. "I thought it would be a very significant technology and as I looked around there didn’t seem to be a lot that was either affordable or that was safe or that had very advanced functionality with respect to frame."
Freeman noted that many drones on the market have free-spinning blades that have the potential to do serious damage or inflict serious injuries. So Freeman decided to take it upon himself to devise a large 3D frame that would enclose the drone’s blades, improving its safety.
Through trial and error, Freeman taught himself how to use the 3D printer to make parts, and the FreeBird One took shape. FreeBird’s first model features a 3D-printed SurroundFrame that includes a three-foot diameter carbon fiber frame that can carry a 20-pound payload and structurally enclosed blades allowing it to bump into objects without causing extensive damage from the blades. The 14-pound FreeBird One boasts flight times of up to 30 minutes, speeds up to 70 miles per is designed to withstand inclement weather, such as rain, snow and wind.
Because Freeman makes the drones on a 3D printer, they also can be customized.
O’Neill, who met Freeman while the two were working on Wall Street, had a career in the financial services field herself until in 2010 she left to focus on raising the couple’s four children. In 2015, O’Neill realized her husband needed help starting the business and came on board as the director of sales and marketing.
"He was figuring out the design, but there’s so much other stuff you have to do in the meantime — you have to go find a patent attorney, we need to put up an LLC," O’Neill said. "All the stuff he doesn’t have the capacity to do, and I actually like doing that stuff."
"She’s good at all that stuff," Freeman noted.
Last summer, when the product was a "mid-stage prototype product," according to Freeman, the couple sought out state resources to help small businesses and one of them, Connecticut Innovations, suggested the couple seek support for FreeBird One on Kickstarter, an online funding platform for new projects and products.
Although on Kickstarter FreeBird Flight’s target audience is hobbyist buyers, the couple plans to try their hand in the commercial arena — such as industrial, municipal, fire and police uses, touting its safety.
While ruling out military use, the FreeBird owners have garnered interest from a number of businesses. One is a wireless services company looking to deploy a fleet of drones to complete tasks like inspecting cell phone towers. A mining company in Canada asked them about the possibility of having drones survey over 300,000 acres of wilderness.
One aspect Freeman has been trying to fine tune is increasing the device’s flight time.
"But that’s a lot of space and they know these things have a limited flight time,” Freeman said of the wilderness survey. “So they’re thinking how can we get this thing to be able to survey that whole area." He has been working with the company on ways to navigate above the vast terrain.
Since their inception, drones have been surrounded by many questions about privacy and safety issues. The Westport couple, concerned about those matters, contends that going forward, "Safety is going to be a big part of our message."
"We promote safe use, but beyond that we want to make it as safe as possible to use. We want to be part of that discussion — drafting best practices and with respect to things like safety and flying over private properties," Freeman said.
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