Company buys high-tech drones for civilian use

Daily Mail WV

The sky behind the former Bonham Elementary School was buzzing with flying devices Wednesday and Thursday as Metatron Unmanned Solutions, a local drone company, demonstrated its new line of commercial Drone Volt drones.

Metatron also held a reception to celebrate their new partnership.

Drone Volt, located in France, is a leader in civilian commercial drone development. Metatron has entered into an exclusive partnership with Drone Volt to sell, lease and service Drone Volt drones. Future plans include manufacturing the drones in the United States.

"We had been looking for the last couple of months where to get them built in the U.S.," said Daniel Roe, executive vice president of Drone Volt USA. "We made a trip here to meet with Metatron two weeks ago to finalize our partnership. We looked at a couple of schools here. We are looking for kids who want to get in this industry. We think now that to manufacture here in West Virginia might be the way to go."

About a dozen people looked on as Travis Snyder, Metatron's chief pilot and certified instructor, flew a Hercules H-2 drone and several other Drone Volt models.

"The H-2 was built following specs by the Department of Homeland Security," Snyder said.

The H-2 is being used by the military, ICE and other law enforcement agencies. Its commercial uses include pipeline, cell tower and bridge inspections; aerial thermal imaging and natural disaster monitoring.

Snyder also demonstrated the drones to two employees from Idaho Power on Wednesday. Mike Spengler wants to use drones to inspect power lines and to monitor wildfires. Brad Alcorn is a fisheries biologist employed by Idaho Power. Alcorn wants to use drones to monitor the spawning of Chinook (or King) salmon in the Snake River.

"King salmon are considered to be a threatened species. We are tasked to monitor how many fish are spawning. We do surveys of salmon redds [nests] in Hells Canyon. We used to do it by helicopter, but drones are cheaper and safer," Alcorn said.

Meanwhile, John Lopardo, a representative from California-based IXI Technology, is off to the side explaining how electronic warfare works. He's holding a "drone killer," an electronic device that looks like a gun. As drone technology advances, the need for anti-drone technology is also rising.

"Not all uses of drones are friendly," he said.

The IXI Drone Killer uses "microbursts of RF energy" to bring drones back to earth. RF stands for radio frequency; basically, the gun sends out waves that disrupt the device from communicating with the drone operator.

"Just don't say 'jam,'" Lopardo said. "The FCC doesn't like that word. We prefer the word 'mitigate.'"

In most cases, a drone with a signal that has been "mitigated" will either land immediately or return to the operator. But the drone killer also has the capability to interfere with a drone's GPS signal, which could cause the drone to crash.

"Range is approximately a half-mile. It has a 30-degree cone, so you just have to point it in the direction of a drone. They can take out a swarm simultaneously," he said.

Federal rules limit the sale of the drone killers to law enforcement agencies, Lopardo said.

Also part of the new partnership is a curriculum of in-depth drone pilot training, which Metatron is calling "Drone Volt Academy." Snyder, a graduate of Scott High School in Boone County, will be the instructor.

"It will be a two-week course, and it will make you a savvy pilot," Snyder said. "We'll cover photogrammetry and thermography applications, and the software systems that make these things fly. You will be more aware of what is going on within the system itself."

For more information about Metatron and Drone Volt Academy, call 304-896-1174. Travis Snyder can also be reached at tsnyder@metatronus.com.

Story originally published by Charleston Gazette Mail on July 26, 2019 by Robert Saunders.

Daily Mail editorial: How do you train for a job that doesn't exist yet?

In 1999, when Travis Snyder was 9 years old, it’s likely that few people imagined that 20 years later there would be a strong demand for civilian drone pilots.

Yet today, as writer Susan Johnson reports in the Daily Mail WV section on page 1D, some drone pilots are earning $100 per hour to pilot small Unmanned Aerial System devices (sUAS) for business and industry across the country.

As a school kid, Travis Snyder was bored, not knowing what he wanted to be. Today he is a drone expert, helping Metatron Unmanned Solutions company of Charleston design, build and fly drones for companies that are willing to pay top dollar for the services.

To begin, Metatron developed a drone that could inspect a cell phone tower in about 40 minutes. Traditional inspections had taken two days in the best circumstances. The drone can store and analyze the data, giving the cell companies a data base of previous inspections to compare for damage or deterioration.

Funny, it doesn’t seem that long ago that cell phone towers popped up around the country, creating new jobs for human inspectors.

Who knows what career opportunities await today’s grade schoolers that we can’t imagine today?

Like the human cell tower inspectors, some folks will be displaced from their current jobs as work evolves. Their best job security is in acquiring new skills.

That’s where West Virginia’s community and technical colleges come in. And that’s why Senate Bill 1, the “Last Dollar In” bill, the Legislature passed which could provide free tuition, will help high school graduates of any age.

“History tells us that technology creates more opportunities and jobs,” wrote Laurent Haug for World Economic Forum.

“The state of the world might look confusing and worrying, but it is not. Virtual or tangible, automated or humanized, work is changing in many ways, but the fundamentals remain: acquiring skills and doing things that people need.”

And we will add, not just doing things that people will need, but learning what people want and are willing to pay for, and figuring out how to create and serve that market.

The sky is the limit for the drone industry, as well as for anyone willing to learn and apply new skills for jobs that don’t yet exist.

Article courtesy of West Virginia Gazette. Read the article here

As drones grow, so do tools to take them down

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Psst. Want a hot stock tip? Think ECMs.

Suddenly drones are everywhere and not just the ones your kids keep crashing in the backyard.

Drones are buzzing over crowded public places and creating nightmares for law enforcement and private security personnel.

Days before Super Bowl LIII, the FBI reported that the sky above the Atlanta stadium was being “inundated with an alarming number of drones,” even though the airspace had been designated as no-fly zone.

More than alarmed

FBI agents at the Atlanta field office were more than alarmed: “When we look up into the air and see a drone flying in the air, we have no idea if it’s friendly, or if it’s someone who has nefarious plans and it’s weaponized,” FBI spokesman Kevin Rowson said two days before the big game on Feb. 3, after law enforcement had confiscated half a dozen drones.

The Super Bowl incident came just weeks after drone spottings at two major airports caused flights to be canceled and air traffic controllers to scramble.

UAS, meet ECM

Andy Morabe believes we should be worried. Very worried. Morabe is director of sales and marketing for a company called IXI in Orange County, California. His company has devised an ECM (Electronic Counter Measure), otherwise known as the Drone Killer. Metatron Unmanned Solutions in Charleston wants to market it.

The drone industry is expanding, and anti-drone technology is trying to catch up. IXI’s device, the Drone Killer, which is a registered trademark, works differently than most jamming devices. It sends an electronic signal that interferes with the motherboard of the drone and either disables it or sends it back to its origin.

It is a relatively small handheld device that emits its disrupting electronic signal in a cone. A law enforcement agent can simply aim the device at a suspicious drone and fire.

Caught napping

When it comes to unmanned aerial systems, Morabe believes law enforcement has been caught napping. “Until last year only the Department of Defense, Secret Service and certain units of the FBI could operate such a device,” he said in an email. Morabe wants that to change.

He and others are pushing for an expanded use of electronic counter measures. “The best of all worlds would be to extend these permissions to local law enforcement SWAT teams and first responders,” he said.

He believes these groups are already well-trained in the use of firearms when it comes to shoot/no-shoot situations.

Of course, all this means changes to current state and federal legislation, but those wheels tend to turn very slowly. “In fall of last year,” Morabe said, “the FAA Re-Authorization Bill had verbiage in the Emerging Threats Act (drones) that extended the use of counter measures for all of Department of Justice, Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Energy (protection of nuclear power plants and transportation of nuclear weapons).”

Who can kill a drone? These agencies are collecting information on various types of ECMs. But they also are just beginning to address the question of who should be able to handle devices like the Drone Killer and what the rules of engagement should be.

The Federal Aviation Administration, or FAA, governs the use of drones in all 50 states:

If you operate a drone as a hobby, you are governed under the model airplane segment of the FAA rules. To be a drone hobbyist one must:

Register the drone or UAS with the FAA. (The FAA provides an online site for this.)

Fly for hobby or recreational purposes only.

Follow a community-based set of safety guidelines.

Fly your drone within visual line-of-sight.

Give way to manned aircraft.

Provide prior notification to the airport and air traffic control tower, if one is present, when flying within 5 miles of an airport.

Fly a drone or UAS that weighs no more than 55 pounds unless certified by a community-based organization

To operate a drone for commercial purposes (non-modeler) one must:

Register the drone or UAS with the FAA as a “non-modeler.”

Obtain an FAA Remote Pilot Certificate or 107 Pilot license.

Follow the operational requirements for UASs, which are listed in a 3-page document on the FAA website at www.faa.gov/uas/media/Part_107_Summary.pdf.

However, new developments in the use of drones are causing states to look at more regulation. According to a September 2018 post on the National Conference of State Legislatures website, “So far, 41 states have enacted laws addressing UAS and an additional three states have adopted resolutions.”

West Virginia has enacted two: House Bill 2515 enacted in 2015 prohibits hunting with drones.

HB 4607 was passed last year and requires drone operators to obtain permission from the state park superintendent to fly in any of West Virginia’s state parks.

One development that has state agencies worried is the practice of using drones to drop drugs and other contraband into prison yards. States are looking at legislation to give law enforcement greater latitude to use ECMs for public safety.

Article courtesy of West Virginia Gazette. Read the article here

Sky is the limit in drone opportunities

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When Travis Snyder left Scott High School in 2007, he was “done” with public school. So it’s a little ironic that the 29-year-old tech “genius” (as his boss refers to him) spends his workdays in a classroom at the former Bonham Elementary School.

Snyder designs, analyzes, builds and customizes some of the world’s most cutting-edge, sophisticated small Unmanned Aerial Systems (sUASs), better known as drones. He works for a Charleston-based firm called Metatron Unmanned Solutions. Metatron occupies most of the former grade school near Sissonville, now called Bonham Business Plaza.

State-of-the-art systems

Despite the snazzy name, the building still looks like a grade school, and the room in which Snyder creates his magic might be any makerspace in a typical high-tech vocational center. It’s anything but typical. In this former classroom, Snyder is developing a state-of-the-art system the company hopes to market for around $30,000.

The system will allow businesses and public entities to customize their payload (up to 25 pounds) and operate with encrypted data that is impervious to sabotage or data thievery.

“It uses a technology called photogrammetry that essentially stitches together photographic imagery,” he explained. It can be use for applications as varied as accident reconstruction and volumetrics.

‘All they showed me were walls’

Back in high school, Snyder never imagined his dream job even existed.

“I was bored,” he said. “I needed to be shown doors, but all they showed me were walls.”

He muddled through the academic curriculum, eschewing vocational school for various reasons.

“I probably should have been in vo-tech,” he said, “but back, then there was a stigma attached to the kids who attended the technical school. I remember them saying they only took those classes because they got to be on a bus for an hour a day.”

Looking back, he realizes that’s exactly where he should have been.

Snyder tinkered with amplifier systems. Got into hockey. After high school he deferred college, instead pinging from job to job, excelling in anything related to computers, electronics, mechanics and telecommunication. His talents were quickly recognized by a drone company, GeoRhea. Those contacts led him to the right place at the right time.

Cousins with a vision

But first, some background: In 2009 two cousins — Charleston businessmen Bill Ellis and John Skaff — saw the potential for the commercial development of drones. They set up shop in a building on MacCorkle Avenue until 2015, when they realized small unmanned aerial vehicles (sUAVs) could revolutionize cell tower inspections. All they needed was a tech nerd.

Along came Snyder.

“I joined the firm in 2016,” he said. “I loved it right off the bat. Here was a job where I could grow and explore without limits.”

He loves the challenge of solving knotty problems.

“Once, I was asked to develop a drone that could carry out a burner inspection using night vision, record the data onboard, and fit in the palm of your hand,” he said. “I did it, with the help of drone racing technology.”

Another time, he fastened a Garmin onto a GoPro with Velcro to create a device that could detect a methane leak on a bridge.

With Snyder on board, the cousins were off to the races.

They also hired 37-year UPS operations veteran Rod Shuck, originally from Sissonville, as chief operating officer and moved to a more remote location at the former Bonham Elementary.

“That gave us more space to fly and test drones,” Shuck explained.

Last year, they changed their named from Global Professional Drone Service to Metatron Unmanned Solutions.

“It had a better ring,” Shuck said.

Unimagined growth

It turned out Ellis and Skaff were right about cellphone towers. The company developed a drone that could inspect a cell tower at any location in any weather in about 40 minutes. Traditional inspections typically took two days. It could store and analyze the data, giving the cell companies a database of previous inspections to compare for damage or deterioration.

In no time, Metatron grew from a couple of customers to over 35. With Snyder’s genius and Shuck’s drive, the company has adapted drone capabilities to do a wealth of tasks.

They can accurately analyze the size of a coal pile to determine severance taxes. They can reconstruct an accident scene. They can inspect a gas pipeline for vegetation encroachment, as well as leaks, in a fraction of the time it takes humans to walk the line and cheaper than piloted aircraft can fly over it.

The company has worked on a film for a German filmmaker. They’ve inspected flame stacks without having to cut off the flame. They have developed a network of over 800 private drone pilots around the country with whom they contract for various jobs in 20 states.

Uniquely positioned

Snyder believes West Virginia is uniquely positioned to be a leader in sUAVs in the coming years. “For one thing, we have lots of remote spaces, like former strip mines, where drones can be tested and developed. That’s one reason why we moved out of town.”

The relative scarcity of airports in the state is another plus.

“Drones cannot operate within five miles of airports,” he said.

He sees the drone industry continuing to grow exponentially.

“In 10 years, we will see drones using more and more AI [artificial intelligence] to assist in things like collision avoidance for driverless cars, forest fire detection and searches for lost people,” he said.

He even foresees drones that can wirelessly power themselves from power lines.

At one time, Travis Snyder was only shown doors. Now the largely self-educated drone genius sees nothing but wide open spaces.

Article courtesy of West Virginia Gazette. Read the article here

Managing Destruction From Natural Disasters Using Aerial Drone Technology

The survey process for natural disasters like hurricanes used to involve putting other human beings at risk in an attempt to save lives and property. And while the human element will always be required for search and rescue efforts, aerial drone surveying provided by Metatron offers the life-saving technology that gives rescue crews a comprehensive sitemap of the devastation caused by natural disasters. 

The process involves utilizing aerial drones to capture high-resolution images and video of the disaster sites from bridges to buildings and a host of other structures. The end goal is to determine the integrity of the structure for a future search and rescue mission. When the drone is surveying the area, the footage can be viewed in real time by members of the rescue team. Essentially, aerial drone technology acts as the first wave of the rapid response team in search and rescue efforts. 

After search and rescue have been completed, surveying the real cost of damage begins. Again, Metatron can provide a comprehensive visual report for insurance inspections ensuring that no individual is harmed in the inspection process and accurate figures can be attained. 

The end result is time saved and potential lives spared. And the proof has already been demonstrated across the world. Several countries including the United States have utilized aerial drone technology for rapid response rescue. Following a natural disaster, the survival rate falls by up to just 7% if trapped and/or injured survivors are not found in the first five days, according to Wired Magazine

Our network of dedicated, well-trained, and certified drone operators can mobilize to be on a rapid response unit within just a few hours depending on the location. We are FAA certified and have a long history of providing structural integrity evaluations using aerial drones. 

Company offers drone flights with industrial applications

By Andrew Brown

Over the next year, the federal government estimates that 1.9 million more commercially-operated drones will be added to the country's skies. Some local business executives are positioning themselves to take advantage of that 21st-century technology.

Debra Rohrer, president of GEO-RHEA, and John Skaff, director of strategic development at Metatron, have been trying for five years to set up a multifaceted business, based in Kanawha City, that would use unmanned aerial vehicles.

At a time when business giants like Amazon are experimenting with drones, and the technology is being adapted for a range of profitable uses across the country, the two Charleston-area residents are planning to market their services to what they believe is a relatively-untapped market: the industrial sector.

Rohrer and Skaff want to make it easier to inspect and maintain bridges, rail lines, cell-phone towers, power lines, pipelines, power stations, chemical plants and many other industrial sites that are mandated to meet federal standards for safety and maintenance.

The two entrepreneurs aren't alone in realizing the business opportunities that could exist for companies specializing in drone operations. The Federal Aviation Administration has already registered more than 4,800 drone services across the country since the agency began accepting applications at the beginning of 2015.

But Rohrer and Skaff believe their professional backgrounds and broader business strategy, which will also include back-office data analysis and engineering consultations to its customers, will allow them to provide services that most drone operations aren't offering.

Skaff, one of the founders and former board members of the Mid-Atlantic Technology, Research and Innovation Center (MATRIC), compared their business proposition to radiology. Not only will they take the X-ray - the drone footage - they will also review that imagery and provide an opinion from trained professionals, which in their case, will often be civil engineering consultants.

"We know these drone applications are going to be paramount in the industrial world," Skaff said.

Like many other companies taking part in the fledgling industry, the joint operation also offers services to people who want to rent their drones and licensed pilots to capture professional aerial footage for weddings, a new construction project, marketing campaigns or a piece of real estate that is for sale.

They just got done shooting a video of the New River Gorge Bridge for a German group that is creating a documentary on the world's most amazing bridges, and when the Yeager Airport's runway overrun collapsed last year, a local television station got GEO-RHEA to fly over the site - even though the company couldn't get paid for its services at that time.

But the real market Rohrer and Skaff are looking to capture involves more sophisticated work, like visually inspecting cell towers, a job that is usually done by two-man crews that throw on harnesses and physically climb the steel structures, which can reach hundreds of feet into the air.

By hiring their pilots to regularly inspect cell towers, Skaff said companies will be able to save time and money. A tower, which can take a crew more than a day to physically check, can be inspected down to the inch in less than two hours by a drone pilot standing on the ground.

That visual inspection then allows the crews to pinpoint where maintenance work needs to be done, lessening the chance of injury or death, which can cost companies large amounts of money. "You are never going to take away people climbing," Skaff said, "but what you are going to do is minimize their exposure."

Those applications can be adapted to any number of industrial uses, Skaff said, including inspecting flare stacks at chemical plants, where gasses are burned off at extremely high temperatures.

In the past, those flares have had to be inspected during planned plant outages so that they could cool off, but Skaff foresees the inspections being conducted by drones while flames are still leaping from the pipes. They can then be repaired more quickly during shutdowns.

All of those practical examples fit with Rohrer's mantra. "If it's dirty, dangerous or dull," she says, "use a drone."

Rohrer, a former employee of NiSource, which split off into Columbia Pipeline Group, became a player in the world of commercial drone operations in 2011, after losing her job at the natural gas transmission company.

Using her 11 years of experience in working with NiSource's geographic information systems, Rohrer recognized quickly that there could be an opportunity to utilize drones and adapt some of the knowledge she picked up in her previous career.

She quickly got to work with others developing the technology and systems needed to calculate the size of coal stockpiles in the hills of West Virginia and around the world using geospatial images taken from cameras attached to the bottom of drones.

Charles Craig Davis, one of the companies' licensed pilots, who is also an Air Force veteran, flew the roughly three-and-a-half pound, military-grade drone over acres of coal, taking photographs, which would later be pieced together into topographic or contour maps.

The technology, which was shown to be more accurate than the traditional process of surveying the stockpiles from the ground, quickly proved to be a valuable tool for coal mine operators, Rohrer said.

Since coal companies are required to pay severance taxes once the minerals are unearthed, accurately calculating the volume of those coal stockpiles are extremely important. If you overestimate the size of the pile, the company ends of paying more in taxes.

As a result, Rohrer's calculations taken from drones, at times, ended up saving coal companies hundreds of thousands of dollars. In one case, at a large coal stockpile in McDowell County, which she and her pilot affectionately named "the beast," GEO-RHEA was able to show that there was actually 30,000 cubic yards less of coal than what they surveyors had estimated previously.

"They were paying more severance tax based on the manual process than doing it with the drone," Rohrer said.

As the global coal markets have declined, however, so too have calls from coal companies that are seeking the company's services. But that market shift hasn't been the only roadblock that they have hit.

When Rohrer and Skaff started out, both had trouble finding lenders willing to finance their proposed business strategies. With little collateral, many of the banks in the region, at first, were averse to lending to companies that were seeking to commercialize drone operations.

"Drones were very new technology in their application and the banks couldn't see it," Rohrer said.

At one point, a deal that would have allowed Skaff to purchase a cell-phone tower construction and maintenance firm from Pittsburgh to compliment their planned drone operations fell through because he couldn't find a lender willing to complete the deal in time.

That failure stopped him from moving that operation and its 53 jobs to Charleston, he said.

That hasn't stopped Skaff and Rhorer. They still believe there is a huge opportunity to grow their business in West Virginia and surrounding states.

"We are taking the risk," Skaff said. "My goodness, we are developing an industry that is still in its infant stages here in West Virginia and nationally."

They only have four full-time staff members currently, including themselves and two trained pilots, but if they can find recurring industrial clients, they expect to hire more pilots, professional engineers and other technical staff in the future.

"The goal and the hope is that we will have people to employ in West Virginia," Rohrer said. "If you can learn, if you are technically inclined and you've got the right attitude, we can teach you how to do it."

Reach Andrew Brown at andrew.brown@wvgazettemail.com304-348-4814 or follow @Andy_Ed_Brown on Twitter.