Cleo Robotics' drones fly into tight spaces to gather data

Flying drones already can go many places that humans can’t–at least without the aid of their own flying machines–but drones do have some limitations. For example, they are not easy to control in tight interior spaces and can easily be damaged in those environments.

That has limited their appeal somewhat to outdoor use cases, such as surveillance and aerial inspection applications, and increasingly, as has been demonstrated during the Russia-Ukraine War, offensive, defensive, and humanitarian applications in and around battlefield zones. If drone technology companies could design machines that are easier to control, less damage-prone, and equipped with new features like data-collecting sensors, a much broader variety of use cases and applications could be unlocked.

That is what Boston-based Cleo Robotics is focused on doing. With its Dronut, the company has taken a decades-old concept–ducted aerial vehicle technology, which itself historically has been difficult to control–and improved upon it with patented thrust vectoring technology to create a bi-rotor ducted drone that is small, easy to control, and has no exposed propeller blades as tradition quad-copter drones do. This makes the Dronut ideal for tight, enclosed spaces and especially those that are unsafe for humans.

Cleo Robotics, co-founder and CEO Omar Eleryan told Fierce Electronics that the Dronut was inspired by his own experiences in the oil and gas industry and a personal interest in flying machines.

“I grew up in Calgary, Alberta, which is the oil capital of Canada,” he said. “I studied mechanical engineering there, and after college I did what pretty much every mechanical engineer there did, which was get a job in oil and gas. But I didn't study mechanical engineering to get into oil and gas. I actually did it because my passion has always been flying things, rockets, airplanes, that type of thing.”

While working in the oil and gas sector, Eleryan had occasion to inspect oil tanks buried 10-15 feet underground, and hazardous-enough environments that inspectors needed to wear masks, safety harnesses and take other precautions.

“I had to inspect several pieces of equipment that were pretty dirty, and hazardous types of environments, and I thought people shouldn't be in there,” he said. “Instead of sending people to these environments to carry the cameras and take pictures of everything, why not just send a robot? …Well, at the time [a flying robot] pretty much meant quad-copters, and to a large extent still they're not really well suited.”

Cleo turned to the ducted design, which does not include exposed (and very breakable) propeller blades, and added its thrust vectoring technology, which allows changes of direction in air flow to enable more precise control and stable operation in-flight. The ducted design allows for a smaller drone overall, and the efficiency that Cleo gained from that design and its upgrades to it

“The Dronut has advantages over other types of drones, like quad-copters because it is much smaller, and because it’s a lot more efficient that means it can carry more sensors to capture more data while getting into some tight spaces,” Eleryan said. “The problem [with ducted drones] was that they were too difficult to control, so we thought if we could actually figure that out, we would have something that's pretty valuable–and we did figure it out.”

As a result, Cleo has been able to ride its Dronut platform into several industrial markets, and also recently scored a major win in the military and defense sector. The company’s TacDronut was chosen by the U.S. Army’s Rapid Capabilities and Critical Technologies Office for a $2.5 million contract following an Army Innovation Day competition evaluation of disruptive and innovative technologies to address required critical capabilities.

The Dronut earned the win based on its ability to operate in GPS-enabled and non-GPS environments, with onboard intelligence and sensor payload that make it highly capable and reduce” the cognitive burden on the soldier,” according to a statement. This allows commanders to rapidly adapt to the challenges faced on a very fluid battlefield.

“The TacDronut sUAS project was selected as part of the Army RCCTO Advance Concepts and Experimentation (ACE) office’s Army mission to rapidly develop, test, and transition advanced technologies to address high priority items for the warfighter,” said Nathan Rozea, Army RCCTO ACE office project lead on the TacDronut effort. “This project’s goal is to improve air platform kinematics in support of indoor and outdoor short-range operations in complex environments to help mitigate operational gaps involving the clearing of buildings, potential tunnels, and other enclosed spaces that are incredibly challenging for our warfighters.”

There are clients in many commercial  industries that want to use the Dronut in different ways as well, Eleryan said. What they all have in common, from nuclear power plants to oil and gas companies to others in heavy industries, is that they want to use drones to collect, analyze, and process different types of data that otherwise could be very difficult or unsafe to collect. 

In fact, Eleryan said he sees Cleo not as a drone company, but “a hardware-enabled data capture company,” one that currently provides raw data to its clients, but aims to eventually offer its own data analytics software.

“There are a lot of great applications for drones in general, but we see huge opportunities in indoor, confined spaces,” he said. “A lot of our customers are really interested in using drones in factories, warehouses, and production plants. I think that the future is around human-robot co-existence and collaboration in the workplace. I think we'll start seeing more adoption of robots in the workplace, and we're very well positioned for that for that revolution.”