Calfornia-based Volansi is looking to offer drone payload and communications relay capability for Skyborg, one of three U.S. Air Force Vanguard programs to speed the fielding of advanced technologies, including artificial intelligence (AI).
“We got introduced to the Skyborg program [in 2020],” Volansi CEO and co-founder Hannan Parvizian said in a telephone interview. “The way we looked at it, especially since it was talking about manned-unmanned teaming and AI or enabling higher levels of autonomy in drones, we were super interested. The way we approached it is that our Volansi platforms–Voly C10 and 20 or the ones that we have in our pipeline or a variant of that–could be a component or key piece of the puzzle in terms of providing logistics support or comms relay support or any sort of manned-unmanned teaming support.”
Parvizian and fellow engineer, Wesley Zheng, co-founded the company in 2015 in response to inventory and supply chain problems at Tesla, where Parvizian once worked. The men met at a drone club at Stanford University and began to explore a vertical take-off and landing (VTOL] drone solution to mitigate spare parts delivery bottlenecks. The company’s name stems from the Latin word for flying, “volans,” and the Google translate word for battery in Latin–“atilium.” Six months after the company’s founding, Parvizian said the company realized that it should pursue hybrid power instead because of the limitations of battery-powered VTOL in meeting payload and range requirements.
“I live in San Francisco, and Tesla’s factory is in Fremont so I used to take the BART train back and forth,” he said. “One day in 2015, as I was on BART, I was reading about the Amazon drone delivery program, and I just laughed to myself thinking that it was kind of ridiculous. But as I continued to think about the drone solution, I realized it was really applicable to Tesla’s problem.”
Last February, Volansi hired Daniel Buchmueller as its chief technology officer. Buchmueller is the co-founder of Amazon PrimeAir.
Part of the reason Amazon PrimeAir has faltered, Parvizian said, is that it has yet to make the business case for the drone delivery of routine, consumer goods. By contrast, Volansi has focused on the delivery of critical supplies, he said.
Last month, the Air Force awarded more than $76 million to Kratos [KTOS], Boeing [BA], and General Atomics to build Skyborg prototypes and fly them in teaming with manned aircraft (Defense Daily, Dec. 7).
The Air Force said that it expects to receive the first prototypes by next May for initial flight tests and to begin experimentation in July, yet Parvizian suggested that those dates are likely only for Kratos, Boeing, and General Atomics.
“I don’t know what the deadline is going to be for us, or when we’re going to be demonstrating,” he said. “I don’t think it’s that May/July timeframe for us.”
The Air Force launched Skyborg in May in an effort to field an AI-driven system to be a “quarterback in the sky” for manned aircraft. Skyborg is one of the service’s three “Vanguard” programs, which are the service’s top science and technology priorities and are meant to demonstrate the rapid viability of emerging technology (Defense Daily, Nov. 21, 2019).
Included in the Volansi portfolio are the Voly C10, which can carry 10 pounds of payload up to 50 miles, the Voly C20–capable of carrying 20 pounds of cargo or running Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) missions; and the Voly M20 drone, which can port 20 pounds of cargo and 10 pounds of sensors up to 350 miles at 75 mph cruise speed.
Over the next decade, Volansi plans to offer drones that could carry up to 200 pounds of payload, Parvizian said.
Since 2018, Volansi has been working with DoD. The company’s inaugural Pentagon program was using Volansi C20 drones to deliver medical supplies from ship to ship and ship to shore for the U.S. Navy, Parvizian said, and the company is now working with the Defense Logistics Agency, the Navy, the U.S. Air Force, and other DoD agencies.
DoD “has been accelerating a lot of technologies’ adoption historically, whether it’s GPS or the Internet or rockets, anything that’s high risk and has a lot more cost associated with it,” Parvizian said. “They are the greatest customer for us, in that sense, where they’re helping us with very challenging, complex problems that could then be transferred also to commercial applications, or the solutions we’re building in the commercial world are now very applicable to what they’re doing. The defense business is a catalyst for the commercial business, and the commercial business is a catalyst for the defense business. That’s a symbiosis that works really well.”
While Volansi has yet to expand its military presence beyond DoD to foreign militaries, Parvizian said that expansion is a possibility.
Since 2019, the company has secured $75 million in venture capital (VC) financing, and future VC financing and an initial public offering are options that are on the table, he said.