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OpenOptic is a fascinating look at the potential fiber brings to the Grand Valley. Read the original story here:

OpenOptic — A Revolution in Communication

By Cecily Whiteside

Each revolution starts with an idea. In the world of tech, there are industry shifts that innovate on existing technology, there are evolutionary changes that take something in existence and make it better. And then there is a shift so profound, so groundbreaking, so revolutionary that it will change not only how things are currently done, but open the way for things that are beyond what we can currently imagine. Like the telephone in the beginning of the last century, or the internet in the late 80s, like the switch from dial-up to DSL to Wi-Fi, Colter Lovette of OpenOptic is set to revolutionize the way we connect to one another. Growing up in the Valley and now a local tech entrepreneur, Colter has designed a fiber based software that will bring end-users and fiber infrastructure together in a whole new way. His company, OpenOptic, looks to place the power of data connection and choice into the hands of the people.

Fiber is the new conversation in the world of internet connectivity. The question becomes how to implement the switch from current technology. It will take all of the players working together to bring fiber to each household in such a way that we don’t simply go from one monopoly to another, gaining little over where things stand today.

Right now, the internet service provider (ISP) has a monopoly on the way data reaches you, and the way you can manipulate it for every aspect of your life; education, business and entertainment. Imagine a two lane road from the internet to your house. One of a handful of companies owns that two-lane road and therefore controls the flow of data to and from you. You are stuck using it. If you want to change providers, you have to build a new two-lane road, bearing the entire cost of building it, but even then that new provider now owns that new road. They may or may not be better. Add to this the fact that others are sharing the road, increasing traffic and slowing flow speeds, and still others may be parked along it, trying to intercept what you are sending or receiving for nefarious purposes.

“We are conceiving of a whole new reality,” says Colter. “This is about the end user gaining control over their own data flow. The public needs to own the fiber. By partnering with municipalities, OpenOptic aids in building a public fiber network. “We survey an area of proposed build-out and run some numbers that tell us how many people will begin using the new fiber on day one. We then budget the construction around those elected users that will translate into a per-subscriber monthly build fee of less than $15 a month.”  Users that choose to switch later will enjoy the same low-cost monthly build fee, but will have an initial install fee as well. The key here is that the fiber is, and remains, publically owned.

In other municipalities, there has been an attempt to share the construction costs with existing ISP providers like Charter and Century Link. “The trouble is that you now have a new monopoly with fiber instead of DSL. The city or county is paying with taxpayer dollars, and there is no choice for the end user,” Colter explains. “The taxpayers have a huge upfront cost and are left no better off, stuck in long-term leases to a single provider.” None of these test markets have won as a result of ‘public-private partnerships’ putting in fiber. What Colter envisions is a paradigm shift in the way fiber is owned and operated, and therefore opens the door to innovations in the way that it’s used.

Rather than committing to building out the fiber infrastructure all at once, and choosing one company to move it forward, perpetuating the monopoly and saddling the city with a huge bill upfront, OpenOptic plans to take small areas, build them out, learn from the process, and then tackle the next area.

“We’ve tentatively divided the City of Grand Junction into 12 zones,” says Colter. “Each zone is about one square mile with around 2,500 residences. We would like to build one zone every six months, so we’d have fiber throughout the entire city in six years. The key here is learning as we go and allowing the public to decide which areas should be a priority.” Zone 1 is proposed to be downtown, from 1st Street to 12th Street, Ute to North Ave. Zone 2 is yet to be determined and will depend on clusters of early opt-in premises.

But it gets better than just intelligent construction. Once it’s built and because the fiber is publically owned, OpenOptic will enable every user of that fiber to control every aspect of it with wonderful simplicity. Imagine if you could connect directly to your bank or school without having to mix into the data flow that is the internet now. Or you could link your home office to the main office for a dedicated, secure connection. Even take it a step further and also add a second internet service just for the home office, isolating your work from those bandwidth-hungry children.  To put it in Colter’s words: “Current internet providers have a very manual way of creating links like this today, but it costs several hundred dollars a month and takes forever for them to do it. OpenOptic makes setting up these connections a 30-second occasion at a month’s cost that rivals your daily lunch. We take all the power of fiber infrastructure and puts its capability into a single dashboard that everyone can use with amazing ease; it’s literally click, create and go. “

With all this power comes the need for capacity capable enough to handle it. Let’s take a look back to the beginning of the last century; telephones were just becoming commonplace. At first, most people had a party line. You could pick up the phone and call anyone, but your neighbors could lift the handset in their house and listen in — just like hackers or even ISP’s themselves can “sniff” data from the stream that flows into and out of your home now. If you wanted to make a call, but Mrs. Thompson up the street was on the phone, you had to wait. In the same way, you now share bandwidth with your neighbors. While you pay for a certain “up-to” speed when they convince you to sign up for their service, in reality, it is much different than advertised. If I am streaming a video, and the neighbor is streaming one too, we will have to share that bandwidth. Now multiply that by all the people on Netflix in my area. I am on a party line. With OpenOptic’s platform, it’s as if I get my own phone line. I have a dedicated fiber connection to my house and my house alone. I have that full gigabyte all to myself. I, as a member of the public, own the data flow.

“So the city owns the fiber, but this is where it gets really interesting.” Colter leans forward, pauses for a dramatic moment, and says, “Once construction finishes, this is where the real value of OpenOptic comes in: Providing software that creates an easy-to-use control panel and service store for the user.” This store means instant access to several different service providers at the same time. Users can switch between them in seconds with the ease that likens buying an app in a popular App Store on smartphones. “We think what OpenOptic provides will mean a more diverse field of service providers. Even local companies can create services on the platform with sincere simplicity, inciting competition that is levied at customer service instead of static monopolistic market share.” The idea that my ISP would no longer have me over a barrel is worth that $15 per month, and so is mitigating the fights between my kids about who is taking up too much Wi-Fi (when it’s actually all the neighbors added together that’s slowing things down). “The cost of the service will be far less than it is now,” Colter says. “Competition will keep it that way.”

The city is set to spend on this fiber network project over the next few years one way or another. According to the City Councilman Rick Taggert, each major road construction project planned for the next three years includes laying fiber within the scope of the work. “They are spending the money already,” says Colter, “it’s important that we structure it so that it’s spent with the public owning that fiber, but also just as important, an easy way for everyone to control and use it.”

But there is more at stake here than just internet connectivity. “We don’t know what could happen once we have fiber available. There are applications that we can’t even conceive of now,” Colter says. Put yourself in 1940, with a telephone in your hand. Would it ever occur to you that information could be sent along the same line as a voice? Someone conceived of that because the phone existed. Faxes were invented. From there someone conceived of a wireless phone — we got the enormous brick-like car phones of the 80s, then a cell phone, just a few years later. “This is a platform for innovation,” Colter insists. “OpenOptic is about connections, not just internet. We make connections easy and that kind of power in that kind of form could change the world around us.”

As the city works on ideas to make fiber a reality, each of us can make our voice heard. By opting-in, we can increase the property value of our home or business. “It’s about a 3.1% increase in value if fiber runs to the premise,” says Colter, citing a study by Analysis Group discussing the increase in GDP in communities that have fiber gigabit broadband. “Basically, property owners will realize this increase in value as soon as the fiber to their premise is lit,” he adds.

“We will have a demo lab at a few different places each time we build an area so people can come see what it would be like to use OpenOptic,” says Colter. “It’s going to be easy enough for our grandmothers to use, but have the possibilities for future scalability.” While Colter is excited about the company he has founded to operate as an interface for end users and ISPs, his primary concern is to make sure that this publically owned infrastructure resource is available to anyone with an innovative idea and the willingness to put it into motion.


The Sky’s the Limit

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This Launch series has given me the opportunity to learn about some amazing things going on in the Grand Valley, and throughout western Colorado. Stay tuned for more great innovators.

The Sky’s the Limit

DragonflyAI, a Division of HRL Compliance Solutions, Inc.

By Cecily Whiteside

DragonflyAI is disrupting the oil and gas industry, and now stands poised to do the same in industries across the board. By melding drones and survey techniques, Joshua Lloyd, Chris Putnam and Carey Wheeler have created something new, something unique, something that may change the way we see the world.

Joshua Lloyd has always been an entrepreneur; from the age of ten when he sold worms to bait shops in Colbran. After growing up ranching, he ended up in the oil fields, first fracing, then drilling, and finally in oil field services. Chris Putnam, who met Joshua when Chris was a pipeline environmental inspector (EI), is a proponent of perpetual optimization, constantly looking for ways to increase efficiency. Both are outside-of-the-box thinkers who have shaken up the oil and gas surveying industry with their vision.

“We had this idea of doing inspections virtually,” Chris says. “As an oil field EI, I would go out into arduous terrain, marking data points to find the right place to put a well pad or an access road. If they changed their mind about where the road was going to go, they’d have to send someone out again and again. I thought ‘there has to be a way to do this better, cheaper and faster.’”

That was the question that drove Joshua and Chris together in 2014 to form DragonflyAI: How can we do this better? How can we increase efficiency? They scraped together all their resources to fund the start-up, creating a company that does what no one has done before. Using drones to survey and image large swaths of land, they bypass the standard method of feet-on-the-ground surveyors to generate a science-fiction-level solution in a real-world industry. But it’s their manipulation of that information that is truly unique.

“With traditional survey techniques,” Joshua explains, “you can end up with about a hundred data points for a certain area.” He demonstrates with an image of a quarter-of-an-acre plot in Palisade where a building is being planned. “When we fly over it, we create a data point cloud.” Over ten million points of data create a virtual map of the area. “It’s not a photo,” he is quick to point out. “It’s data points. Because of this we are able to manipulate the data for whatever application the customer needs.”

“They are geospatial coordinates tied to survey points,” Chris adds. “There are sensors on the drone rather than a camera. We can create a 3-D visual model using our proprietary software to manipulate the information. We do one flight, then we can adjust and readjust to find the best building site or hone in on the best route for an access road. We save [our customers] months in the planning stages of a project. We create simple solutions to complex problems.”

But that was only the beginning for DragonflyAI. In 2015, they brought Carey Wheeler on board. Carey’s background in the army as a geospatial intelligence imagery analyst gave him specialized skills for which there are few industry applications. “We replace estimation with calculation,” Carey says. “The client has a request, but they may not even be sure of what they need. We fly with the drone to collect the data, and then use propriety methods to exploit that data.”

When aerial photos are taken, the image is flat. While this can be useful for determining location of items on the ground, there is limited application, particularly in remote areas or when the client needs a 3-D map. Data point clouds are three dimensional maps of an area which can give vital information such as grade aspect and line of sight without having to send people into the field. “A pixel is worth a thousand surveyors,” Chris says.

“Other drone companies can capture an orthomosaic image, which is a series of photos stitched together to a make a high resolution picture,” Joshua says. “They can also create a data point cloud. But we go further to exploit and utilize the information contained in that data.” It’s the way that they manipulate their data with the proprietary algorithms that gives them a unique position in the developing field of unmanned aerial systems (UAS).

The sensors on the drone know not only GPS coordinates and height during a flight, but pitch, speed and other factors that create an incredibly accurate measurement of the terrain being surveyed. “When you look at a location on Google maps,” Chris says, “the resolution is typically about one and a half meters. Our orthomosaic image is accurate to three centimeters. It’s a measurable picture. Then click on any point to apply a 3-D value.”

One application has been in grade mapping. Like contour lines on a geological survey map, the accuracy of the grade measurement can help determine things like erosion control costs, construction costs and answers the question “Can we send people and/or vehicles here?” Grade aspect is also key during revegetation. Seed mixtures may be different for north-facing slopes versus south-facing slopes, and elevation or run-off patterns can impact which plants will grow in a certain area.

A growth area for DragonflyAI is in this area of revegetation. “Vegetation analysis and precision agriculture use near-IR, or multispectral sensors,” Chris says. “They are hyper-spectral, or beyond the visible. It’s still being pioneered, but can be used to isolate plant species in a certain area. Right now, the standard practice is to go out into an area with a hula hoop. You throw the hula hoop, and wherever it lands, you count the number of each plant inside it. Using that information, you estimate the total number of plants for the entire area. Then you walk a bit and do it again. Our sensors can create bands of interest. Using the wavelengths that certain plants give off, we can create an accurate map of native plants versus noxious weeds. We can determine what the preexisting species in an area were.” This process demonstrates Carey’s statement: “We replace estimation with calculation.”

Another key component for using this data point cloud is determining line of sight. The map looks like a cutting edge video game. “We could make Call of Duty, Palisade,” Chris quips. The digital surface model, however, has some beneficial real world applications. By knowing what can be seen from which points, companies can reduce the impact their construction will have on nearby land owners. High walls may make for good neighbors, but building to remain invisible to the neighbors is even better.

Their sensors can also determine thermal data varying from 450 degrees to negative 40 Fahrenheit, with .2 degree accuracy. For an underground mine fire, a drone flying over, measuring hot spots to find where it’s venting, is a vastly safer and more efficient method than sending people out into the field with thermometers.

The applications are as unlimited as the imagination of the DragonflyAI team. And their clients. “Every job is custom to that client,” says Joshua. “They ask ‘what are you going to give us?’ and our reply is ‘What do you want?’” Chris adds, “We don’t have standardized products. We customize according to what the client wants. It’s your world, how do you want to see it?”

Just a year and a half after founding the start-up, Joshua sat down with local consulting firm HRL Compliance Solutions, Inc.. He and Chris knew their product was sound. It was go-to-market time. He got a face-to-face with HRL and set out to convince them that DragonflyAI could bring value to their organization. What he thought was a pitch to consult on projects soon became something completely different. A few minutes into their first meeting, HRL president Herman Lucero interrupted. “We don’t want to hire you, we want to acquire you.” Within three months, papers were signed, and DragonflyAI became an autonomous division of HRL.

“It came at a great time,” says Joshua. “At the same time that we were working on this purchase, our other jobs were laying people off. Chris was working out of town for years, now he can come home.” “I get to sleep in my own bed every night,” Chris agrees. “I can go to my kids’ baseball games and football games.”

While HRL Compliance Solutions, Inc. works largely in the oil and gas industry, they are excited for DragonflyAI to expand into new and untapped applications. “This acquisition was due to the uniqueness of DragonflyAI’s hardware and software applications,” says Maurice Foye, Executive Vice President of HRL Compliance Solutions, Inc.. “Having them [as a division of HRL] has allowed us to procure government contracts that others can’t even bid on because they don’t have the ability to do the work.” DragonflyAI has become a valuable resource to the company, while maintaining its distinct personality of pushing the limits in a field that did not exist just a few years ago.

“As we get established in oil and gas and mining, we hope to shift focus to other projects,” says Joshua. One that he finds intriguing is the area of historic preservation. “I want to map the Oregon Trail,” he says. “The trail is disappearing; time and erosion. But we could preserve it digitally forever.” Another area is foliage penetration sensors. Seeing under dense canopies like the Pacific Northwest to the terrain below has multiple industry applications. It can also have justice department applications for crime scenes and cold cases, among other things.

“We work with the companies who are developing these new sensors, drones, software; these new technologies,” says Carey, “we test them and give them feedback.” “It’s a symbiotic relationship,” adds Chris. “We have valuable information to give back to these producers so we simultaneously move forward.” Joshua finishes: “They recognize our unique capabilities. They want to harness us as much as we want to harness them.” The excitement is palpable as they talk about their forward momentum.

As DragonflyAI grows and develops, they provide opportunities for the Grand Valley as well. Because what they do is such an innovative concept, there are few places for civilians to train. Joshua says, “We want to employ veterans who trained in the army in geospatial analysis. We need people with that skill set. It’s a perfect fit for us, although it’s hard to find a niche for their skills in other industries.”

They also look for computer science interns, and hope to partner with CMU to find young people with the pioneering spirit that defines DragonflyAI. “We’d like to see an advanced tech department, maybe an advanced degree at the college,” Joshua says.

For such a young company, their achievements to date are impressive. The possibilities for the future? Quite literally, the sky’s the limit.


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