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Alan Erickson -
The sky is no longer the Limit

14.12.2018

The vast potential of the drone industry has been held back for a simple reason: when drones fail, they fail badly. Any safety parachute lines would invariably get tangled and the drone would lose control and crash, causing danger to the humans and properties below. The Alaska-based company Indemnis has now found the solution.

With their Nexus recovery system, drones can now gently float to earth thanks to the power of Dyneema® Composite Fabric. Developing this new technology did have its challenges: particularly how to weld the seams without sacrificing on strength. We spoke to Indemnis co-founder and chief technology officer Alan Erickson about the hurdles involved in achieving his dream.

What do you do and why do you do it?
Indemnis was founded to solve the problem of unreliable parachute systems on drones. A typical parachute system will not work on a drone during a real failure because when a drone fails it will roll or tumble.

This tumble scenario almost always causes the canopy and lines to entangle and wrap up into the drone during the deployment of the parachute. No system on the market was able to overcome this problem until Indemnis developed a solution we call the Nexus. 

I am very passionate about the work we do at Indemnis. When most people see our product, they think about it in terms of saving a drone. But our number one priority is protecting life and property on the ground in the event of a critical failure on a drone.

The inability to fly over people, and in some countries even the ability to fly near people, due to the inherent safety risks presented by a 20- or 50-pound object falling out of the sky has been a major roadblock to the growth of the drone industry.

What led you to seek out a Dyneema® fabric to use in the Nexus recovery system?
We needed an ultra-strong lightweight material to make our inflatable objects from. Materials such as nylon aramids were not going to cut it for our application, so I did a bit of Googling and was led to Dyneema® Composite Fabrics.

How have you incorporated the fabric?
We use Dyneema® Composite Fabrics for the primary physical components of our Nexus parachute recovery systems. Both the Nexus tube and the parachute itself are made from welded Dyneema® fabric.

Can you describe the R&D process? How long did it take you to find and develop this solution into a marketable product? Tell us about the failures and successes – and that remarkable success of figuring out how to weld seams without sacrificing on strength.
When I first connected with the team at DSM I asked how I could I weld it while maintain-ing the strength of the material. I was told that no one had really ever done that before.The problem is that welding processes all generate heat, and Dyneema® fiber begins to lose its strength around 300 degrees Fahrenheit. 

To generate a strong weld, you need to use heat that is above this temperature, and as a result, the material close to the weld is damaged. The strength of the base material and the weld itself both have to be very strong because we inflate our products in milliseconds, placing a lot of stress on the weld seam. 

This bonding issue was a big problem for us, because no other material was as strong, light or thin enough to work for our application. This was the problem that we had to solve. My co-founders Mack, Warren, Zack and myself spent the next 18 months figuring out to how to weld Dyneema® fabric without compromising its strength. 

This took a lot of long frustrating days and nights, but in the end, we were able to figure out how to weld Dyneema® Composite Fabric to the point where the weld seam was actually stronger than the base material. Now that we could weld it without compromising its strength, we were able to move forward with creating our products.

“We were able to figure out how to weld Dyneema® to the point where the weld seam was actually stronger than the base material.”

What does Dyneema® Composite Fabric specifically add to the recovery system as opposed to other existing solutions?
When I was working in the TV industry we tested many different parachute systems on drones as a means of reducing risk to the cast and crew. We never got a parachute system to work reliably without it entangling into the drone in a deployment reactive to a failure. 

With existing parachute technologies, the parachute is mounted on the drone such that the parachute line is attached to the drone body. When a drone fails, it can roll and tumble very fast and the parachute will either entangle during the deployment or pull the lines and parachute back into the drone before the parachute canopy can fully inflate. 

We realized we needed a way to prevent this from happening. What makes Nexus work is that when it is deployed the Nexus tube inf lates rapidly into a rigid object launching the parachute and moving the attachment point of the parachute line away from the body of the drone and its propellers, so the parachute can’t become entangled in the drone when it is rolling and tumbling.

Without Dyneema® Composite Fabric our product would not be possible. No other material is light enough and strong enough to do what we need.

Can you share a personal experience of losing a drone?
About nine months after I first came up with the concept for our original product I was doing flight checks on a rather large and expensive drone before a shoot the next day. Ten minutes into the test flight the drone just shut off. We watched it roll and tumble all the way down until it cratered into the ground.

One of the cameramen present joked to me, “If there was only a solution that could have saved that.” I was definitely not happy seeing 20,000 dollars of equipment smashing into the ground. That day left me more determined than ever to get our product done!

Aside from safety reasons, the end-goal of Indemnis is a much bigger one. Can you elaborate on the bigger picture you hope to achieve and what your next steps forward are?
The Federal Aviation Association – the FAA – forecasts that there will be between 450 and 718 thousand commercial drones in the sky by 2022. Enabling safe regulated flight over people is our number one goal. 

The ASTM F3322-18 standard for parachutes for Small Unmanned Aerial Systems (sUAS, aka drones), which Indemnis was the technical lead on, was just published at the end of September. We are now working on complying with that standard and enabling flight over people, which would enable the expansion of the drone industry.

Our next steps are OEM integration of the Nexus into different drone platforms.

Please give us an insight into what the process is like when working with a material as fabrics with Dyneema®.
Working with these fabrics can be very challenging; the process involves a lot oftesting and trial and error. But the end result of all that hard work is a product that wouldn’t be possible with any other material.

What other possibilities do you see for a material with such specific properties?
With the ability to weld Dyneema® Composite Fabric without compromising its strength there are a lot of interesting inflatable applications that are now possible. You’ll just have to wait and see.

Learn more about Indemnis