Ascent’s Coaxial Drones, Now with Exyn’s LiDAR-Enabled Mapping Software

coaxial drones

Partnership to join Ascent’s coaxial drones with Exyn mapping capabilities

By Jim Magill

A partnership, which marries Ascent AeroSystems’ coaxial unmanned aerial system technology with Exyn Technologies’ LiDAR-enabled mapping software, is expected to provide a new solution for customers seeking to operate drone systems in confined spaces and in GPS-denied environments.

The partnership, announced in August, will equip Ascent’s Spirit compact, coaxial aerial platform with Exyn’s LiDAR system and autonomous software stack, enabling the capture of 3D mapping data in environments inaccessible to other UAV systems.

The two companies had been working together for about nine months before announcing their agreement, said Paul Fermo, Ascent’s vice president of business development. Exyn’s software technology creates a three-dimensional LiDAR point cloud that allows operators to build a 3D picture in GPS-denied environments, he said.

“It’s a great technology that’s adaptable to our system, so you have all the benefits of the coaxial drone with the autonomous software stack and LiDAR that Exyn provides,” Fermo said.

He said the two companies hope to expand on the current partnership to develop new drone and software packages as the technology continues to evolve.

“We’re growing our fleet of systems to add both bigger and smaller form factors for the coaxial and I know Exyn is exploring other avenues for development of their technology,” Fermo said. “Our technologies are complementary to each other, so we’re always open to new and better operating capabilities.”

For its part, Exyn Technologies is working to expand its fleet of systems to better work with the new generation of coaxial drones that Ascent is developing, said Exyn’s Chief Technology Officer Jason Derenick.

“They produce state-of-the-art, ruggedized coaxial UAVs that are really built from the ground-up … This partnership reflects the bringing together the best of both worlds to produce something that’s truly unique and industry-leading,” Derenick said.

Making inaccessible data accessible

Founded in 2014 as a spin-out of The University of Pennsylvania’s General Robotics, Automation, Sensing & Perception (GRASP) Lab, Exyn’s technology is focused on “making inaccessible data accessible,” Derenick said. “We do that through two key technologies. The first is mission-level autonomy for autonomous aerial vehicles, as well as high-precision mapping, predominantly in GPS-denied environments.”

Exyn has developed a proprietary software stack, ExynAI, which is platform-agnostic and has been flown in about a dozen different aerial systems. The system is designed to support operations in unstructured environments, especially in environments where there are no persistent communications with the platform and where in many cases, the operators of the platform have no prior information about the environment that they’re exploring.

“It’s very much a self-contained software package that, when fixed to an aerial platform, gives it a high level of autonomy and mapping capabilities,” Derenick said.

Installed on autonomous drones, the Exyn software package is well adapted for use in the mining industry, where it replaces the need for sending human inspectors into potentially dangerous situations.

“Where our systems came in, we could provide two to three orders of magnitude more of information and we could effectively eliminate a person from having to go into these dark, dirty and dangerous cavities,” Derenick said.

The technology can also be employed in the commercial construction industry, autonomously generating high-resolution models of construction projects, which could be imported and compared against a building’s design plan, he said.

“Exyn brings next-generation aerial robotics systems for free-flight exploration of highly complex spaces with no necessity for fallback-ready human operators—at two times the flight speed and with richer data collection than previous standards,” Exyn’s Chief Operating Officer Ben Williams said in a statement announcing the partnership.

Coaxial drones: design increases lift, endurance

Ascent, which was also established in 2014, is the only manufacturer of enterprise-grade coaxial drones. Unlike more conventional multi-rotor drones, Ascent’s aerial vehicles resemble cylinders with two centrally positioned rotors.

The compact design provides the same performance within a much smaller footprint, compared with a multi-rotor vehicle, Fermo said.

“Without all the arms and external components, it’s a lot more portable, and it’s a lot more rugged,” he said of the coaxial design. The drone’s toughness and versatility make it adaptable for uses in military operations, search and rescue missions and other applications “where an operator might find themself in an austere environment or they might need a system that can overcome bad weather, heavy rains or winds,” he said.

The two large central rotors also provide more lift area than is achieved from four distributed rotor blades in conventional drones. This allows the vehicle to have more payload-weight capacity than multi-rotor vehicles in the same weight class.

“Your rotors spin more slowly, because you’re creating more lift, which means the system is quieter and also more efficient in terms of battery life,” Fermo said. “We also get much better air speed and much better range.”

Ascent says the vehicle can achieve air speeds above 60 mph, “but we’ve actually clocked it at 80 mph,” he said.

The Spirit’s design also increases the drone’s versatility, allowing payloads to be stacked both above and below the vehicle’s core. That gives operators the versatility to upgrade existing payloads or add new ones.

“The cylindrical form factor also gives you the opportunity for new launch modalities and methods: Tube launching, launching out of an aircraft, launching out of a sleeve or recovering with or without landing gear,” Fermo said.

In addition, because it’s narrower from wingtip to wingtip, the coaxial drone is well adapted for industrial applications that require flights within tight spaces, such as inspecting the underside of a highway bridge, he said.

Jim Magill is a Houston-based writer with almost a quarter-century of experience covering technical and economic developments in the oil and gas industry. After retiring in December 2019 as a senior editor with S&P Global Platts, Jim began writing about emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence, robots and drones, and the ways in which they’re contributing to our society. In addition to DroneLife, Jim is a contributor to and his work has appeared in the Houston Chronicle, U.S. News & World Report, and Unmanned Systems, a publication of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.