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How AI-based solar system inspector AirProbe was built, got acquired

When Ganesh Shankar, founder of Bengaluru-based FluxGen, conducted a course on Industrial IoT (IIoT) at his alma mater Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bengalooru, in January 2017, he had clear goals. He wanted his students to solve industry-level problems and have marketable Industrial Internet of Things products by the end of the 14-week course. 

One of the incubated ideas that came out of this classroom was that of smart solar panels. He was convinced that solar panels, when equipped with sensors, could be made efficient. 

Ganesh took up the problem statement of the solar panel efficiency and decided to solve it, co-founding a new company called 14 Weeks Technologies or 14W Technologies, which they later called AirProbe. 

Founded by Aditya Bhat, Kaustubh Karnataki and Ganesh Shankar, AirProbe was recently acquired by US-based intelligent aerial imaging company DroneBase for an undisclosed amount. 

As part of the aerial data management platform for high-value infrastructure company DroneBase, AirProbe uses drone-based thermal imaging to detect faults in solar cells and uses artificial intelligence (AI) for improving their efficiency. 

“At the end of the day, we’re looking to produce cheap, green electricity, which is important,” says Aditya. 

Teaming to pilots

Ganesh previously founded FluxGen Engineering Technologies, an AI and IoT-based end-to-end water management solution. The company, which initially started with solving water and solar energy related problems, over time had pivoted to focus on water. 

Recalling the initial days, he reveals how he interviewed around 10 candidates for the role of co-founder. In the end, he decided not to pick any one of them. 

Instead, he found a perfect match in his nephew Aditya Bhat, who was interning at IISc at the time while pursuing his final year at RV College of Engineering, Bengaluru. 

Aditya then got Kaustubh Karnataki, Ganesh’s former employee at FluxGen, on board as co-founder. Kaustubh was pursuing his master’s in electrical power engineering from KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Sweden, and was staying in India as an exchange student for his final semester as he worked on the company. 

However, there was another challenge. Putting sensors on each solar panel to monitor them was not economically viable. 

“We wanted to see how we can have scalable solutions and that’s where the discussion on drone-based thermal imaging popped out,” informs Kaustabh.

In college, Aditya had worked on unmanned aerial vehicles(UAVs) as a part of a student club –Vyoma, which helped the three of them to come up with a solution with their combined understanding of UAVs and solar technology space. 

Now, the solution was an intersection of solar technology in terms of efficiency and aerial technology in terms of scalability, in which,  “Instead of putting different kinds of sensors on panels, we put one sensor on the drone–like a thermal camera–and scan the surface for problems,” says Ganesh. 

This would bring the cost down to one-fifteenth of their original plans, they realised, consulting with Mehul Raval, an expert in the field. 

Pilot project 

In January 2018, AirProbe did their first pilot at the rooftop of a company called Green Turn, which dealt with solar power systems. 

“Then, we did an inspection there, in terms of a jugaad drone–like a wedding drone,” Kaustubh recalls. “At one end, we somehow mounted a thermal camera, which was really expensive. So, that was the jewel arrangement we had made.”

They flew it on the rooftop and collected the required data while seeing the images in real time. Mehul also helped them understand what different data sets indicated. 

Getting the first customer

During an event in March 2018 at IISc, Aditya met Arul Shanmugasundram, Chief Technology Officer of Tata Power Solar, to whom he pitched the idea. Aditya was keen to gauge Arul’s interest in the product AirProbe was creating, and if it would be useful to improve efficiency of solar panels in Tata Power Solar.  

Arul believed the technology could help Tata, but needed AirProbe to be ready to use/deploy the product within 15 days. The team at AirProbe pushed their timeline from what would have originally taken them two months, and landed their first big customer  – Tata. 

“They (the team at Tata Power Solar) pushed us, giving us an opportunity for a big project,” says Kaustubh. The project, based in Rajasthan, was an 87 MW plant. This was major, as compared to the startup’s initial pilot of 220 kW. 

“We were actually not ready to directly get the complete project of  such a huge asset in those days, but it was do or die,” adds Kaustubh. 

Kaustubh and Aditya, the operating members of the team at this point, offered to first do a 5MW pilot and proceed further based on the feedback.  The duo stayed in the field, operated the drones, and analysed the images. 

When AirProbe gave the report to Tata, “they were happy with the results and converted that into an entire project,” reveals Kaustubh.

“That’s what gave us the confidence that this solution is actually working for the industry. This boosted our credibility in pitching to other clients.,” he adds.  

Both Aditya and Kaustubh were first time entrepreneurs, and the win helped them understand what customers wanted and what they could do to improve it. 

“That one project gave us a very big kickstart for the journey,” remarks Kaustubh. “It also gave us a good capital, wherein we could invest on better equipment because the entire project was done through a drone.”

The evolution

 From here on, AirProbe got clients like ACME Solar and ReNew Power. 

The startup could now work with advanced drones, cameras, sensors, which could be auto programmed. 

Although Ganesh, by this time, wasn’t involved in day-to-day operations, he helped AirProbe scale up. AirProbe’s team has now expanded to 25.

Over time, AirProbe used the huge data generated to develop deep-learning models to categorise the thermal images into different faults in solar plants, and localise it in each environment. This reduced the turnaround time. 

From January 2019, the team at AirProbe has been aiming to scale by automation in drone operation, data analysis and developing a digital portal to generate reports instead of sending these files to clients in PDF formats. This also enabled stakeholders to have a transparent way to take corrective measures. 

The acquisition

The company started targeting international clients from Australia, Europe, and Mexico in 2019, which helped them develop their understanding of global markets. 

AirProbe’s exposure to international customers also helped them connect with DroneBase as a customer, which later–in December 2021– acquired them. The deal helps DroneBase to extend into different geographies where AirProbe was growing. 

As a part of DroneBase, AirProbe will now be delivering the complete value proposition of both companies. AirProbe’s founders will work from Bengaluru and handle Asia-Pacific operations for DroneBase. 

“The goal is to build a big headquarters here in India, for our engineers, where we can build cutting edge AI, where we can really work towards the forefront of technology across all sectors,” says Aditya. “We will be looking at all the verticals which DroneBase is a part of, which specifically is focused on renewables being a very big portion of this business.”

They will be hiring to match the scope of the work they plan to do in the next year and the engineering team will be building products globally. 

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