Taking flight: the rise of the Swiss drone industry

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senseFly’s eBee drone in flight in front of the Matterhorn [Credit: senseFly]

For more than 400 years Swiss watchmakers have developed and maintained a reputation for precision, excellence and innovation. Despite the upheavals of the 1970s when quartz watches surpassed their mechanical counterparts as the timepiece of choice, the level of craftsmanship developed by the Swiss ensured their products survived and flourished at the high-end of the market.

This long history of precision engineering and the associated expertise in measurement and materials science gave the Swiss a natural head start in the field of microtechnology that emerged in the 20th Century. The invention of the scanning tunnelling microscope by Nobel Prize winners Heinrich Rohrer and Gerd K. Binnig in Zurich in 1981 pushed the boundaries of engineering even further helping to launch the field of nanotechnology.

This expertise at the very smallest scales has translated into an economy driven by world leading capabilities in areas like microtechnology, hi-tech engineering, mechatronics, biotechnology and pharmaceuticals. Despite the popular perception that the country’s wealth is largely due to its well-developed financial services sector, its manufacturing and engineering sector is in fact a central pillar of the Swiss economy.

The Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs says mechanical and electrical engineering accounts for more than 35% of  visible exports, while a 2013 whitepaper from Deloitte identifies the machinery, electronics and metals (MEM) industry as the country’s largest industrial sector employing 330,000 people as of 2011 – 10% of the population.

Combined with a pro-business regulatory environment, a skilled workforce and high spending on R&D that has seen the country top the World Economic Forum (WEF) Global Competitiveness Index six years in a row, Switzerland has been chosen as an ideal location for research hubs by a number of high-tech multinational companies like IBM, Google and Disney.

Soaring ambition

With this background it is hardly surprising then that in recent years, the country has developed a leading position in one of the hottest new areas of technology – unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), or drones. A host of start-ups have popped up in the last decade led by aerial imaging drone manufacturer senseFly and UAV image processing software firm Pix4D, both based in Lausanne. The flourishing scene has already caught the attention of industry heavyweights and in 2012 French drone maker Parrot stepped in to take a controlling stake in senseFly and invest more than 2.4 million Swiss Francs in Pix4D.

It is no coincidence that both companies started life as spin-offs from the world-leading technical university École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL). Ask any of the new drone firms where this sudden surge in activity has come from and the first thing they will mention is the country’s strong academic background in robotics, control systems and mechatronics – the intersection between electrical and mechanical engineering – most notably at EPFL and Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zürich (ETHZ).

“Put it all together and it’s quite natural that they would come to UAVs,” says Jean-Christophe Zufferey, co-founder of senseFly. Now the company’s CEO, Zufferey started out as PhD student in the lab of EPFL Professor Dario Floreano, an expert in evolutionary robotics, who alongside a trio of robotics experts from ETHZ represents the genesis of Switzerland’s academic prowess in the field of UAVs. “These professors were very strong in mobile robotics, but maybe 10 years ago they started to think, ‘we’ve done a lot of wheeled or legged robots, or torsos or arms’, and they wanted to go into the air,” says Zufferey.

According to Floreano, director of the Laboratory of Intelligent Systems at EPFL, each of the professors brought their own expertise to the field: Prof. Roland Siegwart, who moved from EPFL to ETHZ in 2006, specialised in mechatronics, while Prof. Davide Scaramuzza was an expert in vision-based mapping and Prof. Raffaello D’Andrea was a world-leader in control systems.

A broad church

One of the great innovations of the Swiss watchmaking industry was a system of production that flourished in the Jura region in the 19th Century known as établissage, which referred to the assembly of watches from components made by outside specialists. In much the same way, Swiss academia has mastered each of the individual components that go into making drones. “We now practically cover the entire spectrum of technology for small drones: sensors and control, mechatronics, mechanical design, communication, and human interaction,” says Floreano.

It is this broad base of research that has laid the foundation for Switzerland’s nascent drone industry, according to Pix4D CEO and founder Christoph Strecha. “If you want to commercialise and have successful products a lot of aspects are important, not only the drones, for example the image processing part,” he says. “Switzerland has high standards in all these areas of research and the right people who can help and discuss and push new ideas to commercial products.”

ETHZ’s D’Andrea agrees, “I would say we are good across the board. If you look from vehicle design to vision based navigation to aerodynamics to high performance mechanical engineering I think you can find them in Switzerland.” But another important factor and one that spurred most of these researchers to shift their focus to drones was the fact that the process of technology miniaturisation had finally made working on them in the lab viable. “Doing small things is much easier and safer than doing big things.”

While credit for the academic leadership built up over the last decade must go in large part to these pioneering professors, the Swiss government has played an important role in the development of the field. The country is an outlier in Europe as one of the few countries that does not invest directly in private sector innovation, but this has not stopped it from consistently topping the European Commission’s Innovation Union Scoreboard in recent years.

Enabling not interfering

The Commission’s latest report notes that the country outperforms both the EU average and the United States in R&D performance and performs at twice the EU average when it comes to science and technology excellence. The report puts this down to a clear-cut separation between the public and private sector that allows Swiss policy to focus on providing the framework to foster quality public research and train skilled researchers.

This also leaves more money for public research and between 2000 and 2010, total higher education expenditure on R&D increased in real terms at an average annual rate of 5%. At the same time the share of new doctoral graduates per thousand of the population aged 25 to 34 years old increased from 2.7% in 2002 to 3.5% in 2011 – again twice the EU average.

For ETHZ’s Siegwart this hands-off approach to the private sector combined with solid funding for universities has been a major influence on the rise of Switzerland’s drone ecosystem. “It’s probably a better option for companies to keep more money and invest it as they think best, rather than politicians deciding to invest in nanotech today and then bioscience tomorrow,” he says. “At the same time universities have seen robotics and related technology as very interesting for research as there is a lot of potential for the future and it has a lot of potential for the Swiss economy. It really brings together high precision machinery with intelligence and I think Switzerland is good at that.”

A key plank of Swiss science policy is its network of National Centres of Competence in Research (NCCR) designed to carry out long-term, multi-institution, collaborative research into areas identified as strategically important to the country. In 2010 EPFL’s Floreano started NCCR Robotics – a 12-year joint effort between four Universities, 19 professors and over 100 researchers funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation.

The venture is focused on research in wearable and rescue robots, but it has had a major impact on the emerging drone scene too. “Flying robots have become one of our leading themes, and indeed Professor Davide Scaramuzza has been hired with the financial help of the center to reinforce Swiss research in flying robotics,” says Floreano. “Together with colleagues working on legged robots, we have identified multi-modal flying robots as one of the most promising technologies for the future.”

With two of the world’s leading engineering universities, there is plenty of scope for rivalry and most of those involved in the drone scene admit that it does exist. As a result, as well as providing extra funding and focus to the field of aerial robotics the NCCR plays an important role in fostering connections between the two institutions. Simon Johnson, curator of the DroneApps conference, says: “It gets labs from different universities collaborating and not competing.”

Tech transfer

While strong research acts as solid foundation for an emerging field like drones, getting ideas from the lab to the marketplace is not always easy. While the Swiss government has decided not to directly fund innovation in the private sector, it has put in place considerable support for technology transfer and coaching for start-up businesses. The Commission for Technology and Innovation initiated a start-up program in 1996 to offer entrepreneurs networking and coaching opportunities along with a quality label for their businesses and it has been instrumental in the development of the Swiss drone ecosystem.

The program has provided vital support to a number of the scene’s leading lights including indoor drone manufacturer Flyability, Pix4D and senseFly. The latter’s CEO Zufferey credits the program with really helping the company to take off. Combined with a healthy number of start-up competitions and a top quality incubator in the EPFL Innovation Park, which was established in 1991, means support for researchers looking to commercialise their ideas is well established. “I was at EPFL from 2001 and I’ve seen an improvement in all aspects of tech transfer,” says Zufferey. “Support for entrepreneurs and people who want to start companies has been really improving tremendously since around 2005.”

The success of tech transfer efforts in the Swiss drone industry is obvious. EPFL has spawned senseFly, Pix4D, Flyability and hyperspectral imaging and precision farming experts Gamaya. Spin-offs from ETHZ include UAV navigation firm Skybotix, autonomous drone maker Verity Studios, tethered drone maker Fotokite and Insightness, which has created a vision system ideally, but not exclusively, suited for drones.

Not everyone is looking to commercialise though. In 2009 ETHZ PhD student Lorenz Meier established the Pixhawk open-hardware project to explore the use of computer vision in autonomous drones. The open source volunteer development community has designed advanced autopilot hardware that is manufactured by 3D Robotics as well as the PX4 software that runs on it – a popular system used by drone operators around the world.

Unshackling innovation

While top quality research and a simple route from lab to market are essential, another factor that Switzerland has in its favour is a pragmatic regulator. The rapid emergence of drone technology has been met with a mixed response from officials around the world, but a worryingly large number have reacted with knee jerk bans their commercial use. “If you see what’s happening in the US, a lot of start-ups are not able to fly or sell for commercial use, because basically they have no access to the sky unless they go through a lengthy exceptions process,” says Zufferey.

Thankfully for Swiss drone firms, the Federal Office of Civil Aviation (FOCA) has taken a more measured approach. According to chairman of FOCA’s Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS) working group Markus Farner, rules were already in place governing model aircrafts and the body took the view that there was essentially little difference between flying toy planes for fun and the commercial use of drones.

For those who stick to the requirements that their UAV weighs under 30kg, is insured and is operated within line of sight, below an altitude of 150m and no closer than 5km to an airport then there is no need for any form of registration. Last summer an additional requirement to stay 100m from crowds was added. Anyone who wants to operate outside these restrictions can apply for authorisation and is assessed on a case-by-case basis by the working group, which includes experts in a number of relevant fields such as engineering, airspace, certification and piloting.

For Farner the approach taken by more restrictive regulators makes no sense. “The companies need to fly to get experience and we need to have experience as well. You can do like some countries where maybe you block nearly everything so no one gets experience or you try a more liberal approach like the UK or Switzerland until you get the experience,” he says. “We have a clearly risk based approach. It’s a holistic approach, it’s very Swiss, every departmental section contributes to the decision explicitly looking into each other’s silos.”

The working group is taking an active role in global efforts to harmonise rules on drones and Farner is confident that other countries will see the logic of their approach. For the sake of the global drone industry sensefly’s Zufferey hopes he’s right as he says firms like his would have struggled without such a friendly regulatory environment. “It was a smarter, smoother process and it helped sensefly and a lot of other companies to do tests and keep going,” he says.

Looking to the future

So with a solid foundation of world leading research, innovation friendly government policy and a supportive regulator Switzerland’s drone industry looks well set to continue growing. “You have world class facilities for research, you attract the best people in the world to come and do research here, we have an environment where the universities support start-ups and there’s good angel support. Really all the ingredients are there, I think it’s a promising place to be,” says ETHZ’s D’Andrea.

His colleague Siegwart agrees and believes Switzerland has a decent claim to the number one spot when it comes to global hubs of drone excellence. But when you’re at the top there’s only one direction you can travel. East Asian countries are quickly piling into this emerging market and China’s DJI has already established itself as the world leader in the high-volume manufacture of low-cost UAVs. And despite being suffocated by the Federal Aviation Authority’s restrictive regulations, the US’ technological prowess and more importantly deep pockets could see it swiftly build an unassailable lead in the market.

“What is probably missing compared to the Silicon Valley or Boston area is the high risk investment needed to move the field forward. I worry we don’t have the people willing to invest,” says Siegwart. “Personally I think we can learn from California, probably not going to the extremes when it gets to gambling, but I think we should have more people willing to take the initiative.”

But despite the challenges, there is optimism across the community and a sense that Swiss pragmatism and the country’s tradition of excellence in whatever they do will only see the industry grow. “We have successful start-ups across the spectrum of the ecosystem,” says DroneApps’ Johnson. “The fact is the Swiss are very good a filling a niche. They’ll never do the Facebook’s of this world but in terms of having the best product in a category there are quite a few success stories.”