EPFL drones draw crowds in Las Vegas

The entrepreneurs and Nicolas Bideau, director of Presence Swiss present the EPFL drones at the CES Las Vegas © 2019 EPFL

The entrepreneurs and Nicolas Bideau, director of Presence Swiss present the EPFL drones at the CES Las Vegas © 2019 EPFL

This week, four EPFL-designed drones are being shown in the Swiss Pavilion at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. The spin-offs developing the drones are trying to follow in the footsteps of Flyability and Pix4D by establishing themselves in the international market. Americans may be more familiar with Swiss chocolate than with Switzerland’s “Drone Valley,” but US specialists are keeping a close eye on the technologies being developed here.

This week, every two hours, a humming noise can be heard at CES in Las Vegas – that’s when the drones come out at the Swiss Pavilion. Some onlookers are intrigued by the noise, while others have come specifically to see the 15-minute demonstrations, which are introduced by Nicolas Bideau, head of Presence Switzerland. The 200m² area around the stand is not large enough to accommodate all the spectators, some of whom stand on their tiptoes in the aisles to catch a glimpse of the action. In each demonstration and subsequent Q&A session, it’s clear that these aircraft – most of which were developed at EPFL – are attracting interest from professionals looking for potential collaborations or investment opportunities.

For US specialists, Switzerland – with its “Drone Valley” – is not necessarily a country they associate with aerial technology. However, as Romeo Durscher, the director of Public Safety Integration at multinational drone specialist DJI, says: “The real experts know what’s happening, and they like the positive, professional and visionary approach emerging in Switzerland, in particular around its elite universities.” Some Swiss startups are meeting with success in the US, like Flyability -which comes from the Laboratory of Intelligent Systems and supported by the NCCR Robotics, as Dronistics and FlyJaket- and Pix4D, two EPFL spin-offs that have forged strong positions in the American market. Flyability’s drones, in their protective frames, can bounce off obstacles and continue on their way, while Pix4D’s mapping and measurement software is widely used by industry professionals.

Intuitive piloting

While EPFL has spun off around 12 drone-related startups so far, a number of other aerial technologies are currently being honed in its laboratories. If they can be turned into practical solutions, they may one day be turned into business ventures as well – a good example of this is Flyjacket, which came out of EPFL’s Laboratory of Intelligent Systems. Flyjacket’s Carine Rognon says that “events like CES not only raise our profile but also allow us to bounce our technology off a large number of specialists, so that we can position ourselves more effectively in the market.”

Timothée Peter and Arthur Gay, who founded the startup MotionPilot before they had even completed their studies, are visiting the stands of potential partners at CES and presenting their joystick, which makes piloting a drone more intuitive. “For the 60 years that drones have existed, the market has been dominated by conventional remote controls,” says DJI’s Durscher, a Swiss native who has been living in the US for 20 years. “The new applications we are seeing, along with the foldable, haptic-feedback joystick that could work with drones, are in keeping with the market trend towards more intuitive ways to fly drones, particularly for rescue missions.”

Durscher is also enthusiastic about Dronistics, which is developing drones that fly inside a light, foldable cage. They could become the standard solution for traditional, short-distance parcel deliveries, just as email has replaced letters.

Getting to the starting blocks at the right time

By attending CES – with the help of Presence Switzerland and Switzerland Global Enterprise – and taking part in other programs set up by both public- and private-sector organizations, Swiss startups can learn more about the US market and start meeting people. But this second phase needs to happen very quickly: speed is of the essence in the US, even more than in Switzerland.

According to Durscher, however, the race should not start too early in a company’s life cycle: “It’s better to take full advantage of all available financial assistance and build a solid project before going to market. It’s not easy to convince investors, including in Silicon Valley, and it’s best to arrive with a well-developed technology and a clear message.” As soon as a company hits the starting blocks, the race begins. For Christian Simm, who served as CEO of Swissnex San Francisco for a decade and is now CEO of Swissnex Boston, companies shouldn’t be afraid to knock on doors and get back in touch with the contacts they have made. “After a meeting, it’s almost standard practice in the US – and particularly in Silicon Valley – to get a follow-up email before you’ve even made it back to the office,” he says with a smile.

The element of surprise

Finally, the fact that the US does not regard Switzerland as a leading player in drone technology – at least, not yet – can sometimes be an advantage. The element of surprise can make a crucial difference according to Simm, who often hears comments like: “Why didn’t we know that you had this level of technology in Switzerland?” Maybe one day Switzerland will be more famous for its drones than for its chocolate and watches.