Amassed at the starting line of the 121st Boston Marathon on April 17, there will be an estimated 30,000 runners, up to 1 million spectators and, for the first time, two surveillance drones hovering over it all.
The Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency struck a deal with Danvers-based CyPhy Works to fly a pair of the company’s “Persistent Aerial Reconnaissance and Communications” (PARC) drones overhead for extra security. CyPhy Works would not disclose the terms of that deal.
That doesn’t mean hobbyists with their own drones can lift off, too. The entire route of the Boston Marathon will be a “No Drone Zone,” according to the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency. But MEMA will float two CyPhy drones over the starting line in Hopkinton to supplement the security team at the race, which already includes more than 5,000 law enforcement officers.
“We have a very dense population of people between [The Athletes Village] and the start line,” said MEMA Director Kurt Schwartz at an April 5 press conference on marathon security. “They will not be over spectator areas, and they will be providing live video feeds into public safety command centers.”
This year's marathon will be the fourth following the 2013 bombings that killed three people and injured hundreds more.
CyPhy’s PARC drones are not free-flying like the battery-powered, remote-controlled consumer drones popular among photographers today. Instead they’re tethered to a power supply and computer system on the ground with a thin cable encased in Kevlar. Once in the air they stay within a 15-foot radius. The hard-wired power supply means CyPhy’s drones can stay in flight for days at a time, in any weather, providing what Ryan Williamson, the company’s director of partner strategy, called “persistent over-watch.”
“Our secret sauce is really in that tether,” said Williamson. As with a hard-wired computer connection, Williamson said, it’s much harder to hack. And the continuous power supply makes CyPhy’s long-flying drones a perfect fit for extended uses, like all-day surveillance at the Boston Marathon starting line. While battery-powered drones typically have to land to recharge their batteries after about 20 minutes, CyPhy has logged over 200 continuous hours of flight on its drones in laboratory tests.
At CyPhy’s headquarters in an industrial office park in Danvers, half a dozen drones await their next spin in the company’s “Flight Lab.” In a windowless room rigged up with a motion-capture camera system, two desks sit behind mesh baseball nets—backstops to prevent an errant drone from crashing into its operator. Beyond the makeshift barriers there are two areas boxed off with caution tape. One has a drone strapped to the floor, so engineers can test it at full power while keeping it from flying away. The other is empty, but for a circle of black scuff marks where the last drone took off and landed.
CyPhy’s PARC drones look like gray domes, notched vertically to keep them from overheating, with six arms extending out in a circle below. The underside is where clients can attach whatever “payload” they want, said Williamson, from 360-degree cameras to 4G broadband transmitters.
“We’re a platform,” said Williamson. “We’re a pick-up truck in the sky.”
So far the U.S. Army is their biggest customer, deploying CyPhy’s eyes in the sky at forward operating bases in conflict zones. But their drones could also be used to create temporary communications networks, Williamson said, or even as portable radio broadcast signals.
“It’s amazing the variety of things you’d want to put in the sky,” he said.
In September CyPhy completed a pilot test for UPS, carrying a two-pound package nearly three miles across open water to uninhabited Children’s Island in the Massachusetts Bay. Rather than compete with Amazon for drone delivery of household goods, Williamson said, their hope is to one day do urgent shipments of emergency items. That drone wasn’t hard-wired to a power source like CyPhy’s main products.
Everything the tethered PARC drones can do could be done with a physical tower or pole. But Perry Stoll, CyPhy Works’ vice president of product and software, said using drones is faster and cheaper than building a structure.
“You can throw this in the back of a truck and be ready after a 5-minute setup,” he said.
With battery life being perhaps their biggest selling point, Stoll said a revolution in battery technology could undercut CyPhy’s business. But he doesn’t think that will happen anytime soon.
“I think the day that arrives is so far beyond the horizon,” he said.
In the meantime, CyPhy is focused on expanding from their core business with the military—starting with the marathon on Monday.
Editor's note: This story was updated on April 14, 2017, to reflect Ryan Williamson's latest title.