On a sunny September afternoon, Michael Beiro, Chase Coble and David Schul gathered on a tennis court at Chesterfield County’s Huguenot Park to do some drone flying.
This was more than a hobbyist flight, though. Beiro, the founder of a startup company called Beirobotics, and Coble and Schul, owners of a drone service business called RVA Aerial, were testing a drone system they call Linebird, which could help utility companies better monitor the integrity of power transmission lines.
The trio strung a cord across two sides of the tennis court fence to serve as a simulated power line. On the drone, they installed some guide wires and an ohmstik, a tool made by the company Sensorlink for measuring electrical resistance in power lines.
Coble and Schul, both certified drone pilots, then started up the Matrice M600 drone, which soared up above the tennis court. They carefully steered the hovering drone over the wire, then lowered it to position the ohmstik directly on a spot corresponding to where two segments of a real power line would be connected.
“Our goal is to hit that splice in the middle,” Coble said.
The idea is to use the specially equipped drone system to measure electrical resistance in the lines, to detect possible failures before they happen. The system is designed to go beyond current drone technology by enabling power companies to detect what is happening inside power lines.
Since founding Beirobotics in 2018, Michael Beiro has been working to perfect the system, which he thinks utility companies around the country would find useful for monitoring power lines more safely and at a lower cost compared with current monitoring methods.
“Right now, you have to put a lineman up in a bucket truck with a long stick to reach the line,” Beiro said.
If the power lines aren’t accessible that way, “you have to do it from a helicopter,” he said, and that’s an expensive proposition.
Beiro, 24, wasn’t expecting to become an entrepreneur when he was a student at Virginia Commonwealth University, but his startup company is a natural outgrowth of a lifelong passion.
“I have been interested in robotics and automation for almost as long as I can remember,” he said. “I think I was about 8 years old when I decided robots are the coolest thing ever, and that is what I want to do with my life.”
Beiro’s family moved to Virginia when he was about 9 years old, but in his early life they lived in Edison, N.J., named for the inventor Thomas Edison of light bulb and phonograph fame, whose main laboratory had been in the Menlo Park area of the township. Beiro said his mother, Lesley, took him on numerous trips to the Edison Memorial and Museum there.
“She helped foster my curiosity and creativity,” Beiro said.
In Virginia, Beiro attended Maggie Walker Governor’s School and then enrolled at VCU, where he studied mechanical engineering. His senior year, he decided to pursue an independent studies course in robotics, specifically in how to further develop drone technology for practical applications.
Advisers at VCU helped connect Beiro with local professionals who could identify engineering-related problems he could tackle, professionals with experience in unmanned aerial systems such as Steve Eisenrauch with Dominion Energy and Lee Corbin with E.J. Wade Construction, who encouraged Beiro to work on further adapting drone technology for power line monitoring.
“The university has really transformed into a great hub for innovation and entrepreneurship,” said Beiro, who finished at VCU in summer 2018.
Encouraged by the results of his independent studies work, he decided to take the entrepreneur’s leap by founding Beirobotics soon after graduating.
“It is the perfect example of how students can get interested in something and start their own company,” said Ravi L. Hadimani, an assistant professor of mechanical and nuclear engineering at VCU who taught Beiro mechatronics and advised him on his independent studies project.
“It is not that he started a company without any product in mind already, just because he wanted to start a company,” Hadimani said. “He started a company because he had a product in mind that could fill a gap in the market and that can be commercially exploited.”
Not that being an entrepreneur with an early-stage startup has been easy. While working to hone the drone system into something commercially viable, Beiro has been scrambling around for money and grants to support the startup, mostly raising funds from family and friends so far.
He got married in May, and his wife, Bethany, “has been wonderfully supportive,” he said, “I could not pull the kind of crazy hours or put the work into it that I do without her help.”
Beiro also got help from advisers with the Richmond chapter of SCORE, a nonprofit that utilizes a network of mostly retired business owners and executives who volunteer to provide free advice to small-business founders and entrepreneurs.
To develop the drone technology, Beiro has partnered with Coble and Schul, who founded RVA Aerial as a side business three years ago, to pursue business opportunities in drone technology. They have been using drones for such projects as 3D mapping of buildings for structural engineers.
“We are very excited to see drones used as a tool and come out of the toy environment,” Coble said.
Beirobotics is in the process of changing the company’s name to Linebird, for the drone system.
In September, the team did a presentation of the drone system in Massachusetts for the Electric Power Research Institute, a nonprofit that does research and development in the generation and delivery of electric power.
Dominion Energy has been using drones since 2015 through a third-party service provider to do structural inspections of power lines. So far, the company has done more than 15,000 inspections.
Beiro’s drone system takes the capability a step further, said Steve Eisenrauch, who manages electric distribution contractor resources for Dominion.
“What Michael is doing is innovative,” Eisenrauch said. “We see that as a potential opportunity for us moving forward, to be able to use this method as needed, as opposed to having to use a bucket truck or put a helicopter in the air.”
“As it becomes easier to do and less expensive to do by a drone, there is a good chance the demand for it will increase,” he said.
Beiro believes that drone monitoring of power lines can help prevent disasters like the deadly 2018 Camp Fire in California, which investigators concluded was caused by power line failures.
“If we can improve the delivery of repairs, we can really make a difference in the world,” he said.