Meet Elizabeth Hunter, Chief Operating Officer and co-founder at Treeswift. Treeswift is a company using drones to build the next generation of forest monitoring systems. The startup is fairly young, having just last month announced a seed funding round of $4.8 million (bringing its total funding to $6.4 million to date). But it’s rapidly growing both in terms of company size and client base. Customers include commercial forest company Molpus Woodlands Group.
We caught up with Elizabeth Hunter, who told us about Treeswift’s position in the drone industry and its growth plans, as well as a look at her long history with robotics (including building a bionic arm). Hunter received her PhD in Robotics from the University of Pennsylvania, and was named to the Forbes 30 Under 30 list in Science.
Do you know an awesome drone girl I should profile? Contact me here. This interview with Elizabeth Hunter has been edited for clarity and length.
Drone Girl: Before we get to Treeswift, I am extremely fascinated by a project you worked on called the Titan Arm. That was essentially a bionic arm. I’m personally curious because — as most of my readers know — my other passion besides drones is powerlifting/Olympic weightlifting. I want to know more about super strength!
Elizabeth Hunter: Yes, wow, that was about almost a decade ago, when I was only just scratching the surface of getting into the robotics industry. I was interested in all sorts of robotics, from wearable robotics to microscopic robotics. Titan Arm was my senior capstone project at the University of Pennsylvania, which ended up developing into a much larger technology project.
For the Titan Arm project, I — along with three of my friends (and classmates) — designed what was a wearable, robotic exoskeleton that essentially aided and enhanced mobility for folks that have limited range of motion that would prevent them from being able to perform everyday tasks.
We were looking at using wearable robotics as a medical device, such as being able to recover from injuries. While we were working on the project, we received inquiries from all sorts of potential users who ranged from people suffering from debilitating injuries after car accidents to a woman who suffered from a shoulder sports injury which prevented her from lifting a cast iron pan.
The applications were really far-reaching, and included mobility assistance to perform everyday living tasks all the way to a physical therapy and rehabilitation device.
Drone Girl: So how much weight could that arm lift?
Elizabeth Hunter: The initial prototype gave the wearer an additional 40 lbs of strength on top of what you could normally lift. So if, for instance, you normally could lift 50 lbs, this would enable you to lift 90.
In terms of the progress that’s been made in the last decade or so on wearable robotics, it’s really stunning. Especially given this aging population and an increased need for the number of caregivers, wearable robotics really fills that caregiver gap.
DG: That’s awesome. Where did the idea come about?
EH: Before that I was working on research in biomechanics, so I’ve always had this fascination with how robotics work with natural and nature-based systems, and how we can take inspiration from what already exists in nature for robotics applications in medicine, ecology, agriculture and more.
DG: I could talk about this super strong robot arm all day, but we need to talk about drones! But you didn’t get to drones just yet after Titan Arm.
EH: From there, I started working on robots that are much smaller than the Titan Arm. In fact, I started working on robots that were the size of a single red blood cell all the way up to caterpillar-sized robots. Robots of this size are called microrobots.
DG: It seems like you’ve touched every sort of robot there could be! Or at least, a good amount of them.
EH: I have this pattern as a technologist of leaping into different projects and exploring more interests, which is why I fell in love with microrobotics.
DG: The drone industry is fascinating because you end up meeting people from all sorts of backgrounds, whether it’s aviation and a history in piloted aircraft. Then I meet people like you, who are experts in all sorts of robotics. What drew you specifically to drones?
EH: Prior to Treeswift, I did work with flying robots in my PhD. I was trained in the lab of Vijay Kumar, (who is now the Dean of Penn Engineering), which is known for its autonomous UAV work. I studied swarm robotics, and how to get multiple robots to work together to perform specific tasks.
DG: So now you’re the Chief Operating Officer at Treeswift, back using drones. Tell me more about the company!
EH: Treeswift was founded with the mission to create a data ecosystem for the natural world. Right now, we’re building forestry’s robots – or drones. Treeswift is deploying the first-of-its-kind under canopy drone to collect forest data at-scale. When people think of remote sensing technologies to collect nature’s data, they often think about getting a 2D image from a satellite or overhead plane, or measuring several square meters of area with a terrestrial scanner. Treeswift’s technology and approach fills this gap by using robotic drones to see the entire forest from above and below canopy at unprecedented scales. Our drones are collecting data at a scale that was previously impossible. It’s not enough to measure just 1 acre of forestland, but we’re focused on developing solutions which enable measurement of millions of acres of under canopy data.
Robotic drones are a really elegant solution to collecting nature’s data. We’re able to penetrate the forest canopy with our custom sensor payload and cover forests up to 10x faster than if we were collecting this data by hand. Treeswift’s drones are not only accurate, but very efficient underneath the canopy.
DG: What kind of people use Treeswift technology?
EH: Our current users are primarily in the forestry industry, specifically timberland owners and managers. What’s really interesting about forestry is that data has been captured using trusted manual methods for a century. This data is used for everything from measuring the volume of timber to estimating wildfire fuels to predicting an estimate in the amount of carbon sequestration in the forest.
Now, drones are collecting that data, which is used across many different applications which drive decision making on forest management policies.
DG: That’s a lot of data!
EH: Yeah, it tells them everything about what is in the forest. Data around timber volumes is used to estimate what is currently on the timberland and how the trees will grow in the future.
The forest represents 30% of natural resources that cover the planet. Forests represent a real opportunity for nature-based climate solutions. The more we know about our forests, the more we can leverage them to mitigate the climate crisis.
Timberland owners are very interested in the value of forest beyond traditional timber; they are looking to carbon. We’re focused on making our technologies the best at monitoring and verifying the carbon stored in the forest, so that carbon offsets that are sold in carbon markets can be as verifiable and credible as possible.
DG: I think a lot of people are interested in that environmentally-friendly component that drones can offer.
EH: The sensors these drones carry are specific in showing a transparent and verifiable view of natural ecosystems. What’s exciting is that our product is really helping to fuel a nature-based climate solution as a first line of defense in mitigating climate change.
DG: As COO of Treeswift, what is a normal day in your life like?
EH: One of the things that I love about being a founder is that — in growing a company — it’s different every day, and I’m working on everything from hardware to software to the overall business operations and strategy. I can deep dive into each of these to build our product and operational processes.
Most of the time, I’m working in our office in Philadelphia, but I really love going to the woods and showing our customers our technology at work. Foresters have been measuring trees the same way for a very long time. I really enjoy learning from foresters about how our technology can help them, while teaching them about robotics and how it can help them in their day-to-day job.
One of the amazing things about being a founder is seeing how the technology that we really developed as a group of PhDs is now touching the lives and work of many different foresters and groups across the country — and eventually around the planet.
DG: I know some industries can be slow to adapt, especially to something as unique as drones. How has the forestry industry received them?
EH: The industry has been receptive and excited about drones. This industry is very technology-forward. In fact, there are actually a lot of amateur pilots and drone hobbyists in forestry already.
Some foresters have actually taken it upon themselves to go out to get their Part 107 pilot’s license to be able to use a commercial drone to survey some of the area.
DG: So clearly the forestry industry wants drones!
EH: Exactly. A huge part of a forester’s time is simply traveling from forest to forest. It can be a multi-hour drive. So when they get there, they want to ensure that the time they’re spending there is as efficient as possible.
With drones, they can manage their business more strategically and with modern technologies, and clearly they’ve already independently sought it out and had an appetite for drones.
DG: Treeswift just raised its seed funding round. Where do you go from here?
EH: We are actively hiring across all parts of our business, from operations to engineering. We are even hiring drone operators.
DG: Ah awesome! I know that’s a dream job for many people reading this!
EH: In fact, our headcount has tripled since we closed the round. Pre-seed, we had fewer than 10 team members, and now we’re at about 30.
DG: And where do you go with all the new hires?
EH: This time last year, we were deploying drones and collecting and processing data as a proof of concept. Now we’re growing our infrastructure and expanding our technology efforts to really go to operational scales of tens of thousands, and ultimately hundreds of thousands of acres to deploy our product.
DG: Circling back to your history of having your hands in all sorts of robots — including that literal robotic hand — which one is your favorite?
EH: I’ll be honest. This is a hard choice. I love robots of all kinds. But I will say that really my favorite are the microrobots. When I was doing my PhD, I worked on small robots that could even work with dentists to clean teeth.
What I’m super excited about is how we can incorporate microscale robots and miniature sensors into complex and messy environments. These robots have a lot of impact, such as detecting a disease or an environmental pathogen.
Of course, I know I’m biased because I’m also the inventor of a lot of these robots by way of my PhD, which was a labor of love.
Drone Girl: Let’s not forget the delivery robots too. If you could have a delivery drone bring you anything right now what would it be?
Elizabeth Hunter: I’m from Cleveland, and I’m always missing things from home since now I live in Philadelphia. There’s this local chocolatier in Cleveland that I love called Malley’s Chocolates, and I actually served it at my wedding. I’d love for a drone to come make a last-mile delivery to my house in Philly.
This interview with Elizabeth Hunter was edited for clarity and length. Do you know an awesome drone girl I should profile? Contact me here.
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