LANSING — One mid-Michigan entrepreneur wants to fill a need in the rapidly growing market for unmanned aerial vehicles by catering his products to educators and students.
Mario Swaidan, a recent graduate of Michigan State University’s neuroscience program and owner of Lansing-based AerBots Inc., plans to market quadcopter drone kits, so named because they are propelled by four rotors, as educational tools that students can assemble and fly safely.
“Anytime I have a drone with me, the people that I see the most reaction from are kids,” Swaidan said. “I wanted to bridge the gap and make it a safe, educational alternative. Then that became my niche market.”
While most drones currently on the market leave their rotors exposed, AerBots’ design features enclosed rotors, which increases the safety factor for students.
Moreover, Swaidan believes his drones will find a home in the market based on their modularity and ease of repair. Many manufacturers of similar drones are “not transparent” when it comes to understanding how they function and how to repair them, he said.
“If you have multi-rotor drone, you’re guaranteed to have it fall,” Swaidan said. “If it’s just the propeller, you can replace it. But most of the time, something internal is going to be damaged and you’re not sure of the circuit or part that is damaged, so you don’t know how to replace it. You have to globally throw it out and buy a new one.
“That, to me, is the value proposition of my product. If anything goes wrong, you exchange the individual component instead of the entire craft.”
Swaidan became interested in drone technology while studying electrophysiology as part of his undergraduate degree in neuroscience. After successfully repairing a broken remote control helicopter he purchased at a garage sale, he decided to make his own quadcopter.
“I thought if I can bring something like this back to life, I can build something of my own,” he said. “I decided I was going to build my own multi-rotor drone. As I went through the steps of actually doing it, I realized how difficult it really was.”
Swaidan began working on the project a year ago and built his first prototype drone from wood he purchased at a Jo-Ann Fabrics and Crafts store. From there, he caught the attention of Spartan Innovations, MSU’s entrepreneurship incubator, which provided initial funding that allowed him to form his company and apply for the university’s Conquer Business Accelerator program — which AerBots was accepted into this month.
Startups accepted into the Conquer Business Accelerator program are granted $20,000 in exchange for a 5-percent equity stake in the company, and they participate in a 10-week program with access to mentors and other resources to develop their products.
Swaidan has made several improvements since his first wooden prototype and plans to make the final product from injection-molded plastic.
TAPPING A GROWING MARKET
While the market for educational drones is still in its infancy, experts predict the demand for commercial drones overall to surge in the next decade as companies use the technology in everything from agricultural surveys to deploying mobile, solar-powered internet hotspots.
The commercial drone market, which includes all UAVs not used in military applications, is expected to increase from $500 million in 2014 to more than $2 billion by 2022, according to Grand View Research, a San Francisco-based market research group.
Purchases of drones from local and state governments for law enforcement, surveying and other applications, as well as from the agricultural sector, are expected to drive the majority of commercial drone sales, according to the report.
Despite the growth in the commercial UAV sector, researchers expect that drones used for defense will continue to generate the majority of sales, driving the industry as a whole to nearly $13 billion by 2024, according to a report from Business Insider.
For his part, Swaidan hopes to sell 100 units by the time the MSU Conquer program wraps up in mid-August.
While he’s still working on a price point for his drones, Swaidan hopes to keep it much lower than the quadcopters on the market today, which can sell for upwards of $1,200 a unit or more, he said.
In the near-term, Swaidan said he will use the $20,000 from the Conquer Business Accelerator for marketing and research and design purposes.
Should AerBots find a market among consumers, Swaidan plans to invest in technology that would allow operators to fly the drones via smartphones instead of using a standard transmitter, he said.
Going forward, Swaidan wants to continue his education by pursuing a graduate school in the science field while still managing AerBots.
“Sometimes I think, ‘Wow, I can’t believe I’m launching a business with the backing of a Big Ten university,’” he said.
Sidebar: Made in Michigan: Lansing-based startup AerBots Inc. will aim squarely at the education market with a drone kit that students can assemble themselves and fly safely. Because AerBots’ drones are modular and easily repairable, owner Mario Swaidan hopes his product will stand out among current offerings, which often are unfixable if they break. AerBots was awarded $20,000 this month from Michigan State University’s Conquer Business Accelerator program in exchange for a 5-percent equity stake in the company.