Local engineering geniuses build drone technology business

Published 9:25 am Friday, February 16, 2018

Local engineering geniuses build drone technology business

Local CEO Conor Ferguson attaches a part to the drone he built and manufactured.
The Panolian photo by Myra Bean

By Myra Bean
Drone technology sounds like something they do in the big cities.
Not anymore.
Locals Conor Ferguson, 27, and Austin Ratcliff, 24, have bought the technology and manufacturing to Batesville.
Both are efficient in hardware and software. That is a hard commodity to find, according to Ferguson.
Based out at the Panola Airport, the two along with a few more employees are getting Autonomous Industrial Solutions D.B.A. WISPr Systems up and running.
The idea for their senior project in electrical engineering came from their time as summer interns. They admittedly were sitting at their desks kind of bored, when Ferguson looked at Ratcliff and said he knew what they were going to build.
The drone they built is based on how internet service providers get a signal. They get on ladders, climb houses or poles or trees to get the best signal.
This drone will go up and take the readings while the technicians control it from the ground, safely.
“No, it will not replace human jobs,” Ferguson said. “It will help them use their time wisely.”
The thought that drones would replace jobs has people skeptical of what Ferguson is selling, especially in the agricultural world.
While a technician has to take 20 to 30 minutes or more climbing and trying to take a reading, this drone technology can go up and take the reading in one-and-half minutes, leaving the technician with more time to increase the areas he has cover.
“It’s not really going to put anybody out of a job,” Ferguson said. “By law you have to have someone operating it. If you have some autonomous system and it does all this stuff on its own, you still have to have somebody operating it within a clear line of sight. Instead of taking jobs, we are just giving technicians the opportunity to do more with their time.”
The best part, he has plans to keep his company in Batesville for a long time.
“We want to be a Mississippi company,” Ferguson said. “My brother Lucas and I were talking about it. All the best talent in Mississippi just leaves. We want to have a business where the talent just stays here in Batesville.”
Ferguson does not think small.
“We want to go from a million dollar company to a $30 million dollar company in one year,” he said.
It seems there are so many drones out there and Ferguson admits they are. What separates WISPr Systems from everyone else is the software that runs it.
“The technology to build a drone is here,” CEO Ferguson said. “The technology to make it do what you want is here. It’s the technology for the software that is lacking. That’s why there’s not as many drone companies as it should be right now. They have a lot of uses but nobody knows how to run the software.”
They had a big cellphone provider company approach them about working for that company because they realize that big brain of Conor Ferguson was way ahead of who they have.
One company wanted them to move their company to Florida.
“I don’t want to live in Florida,” he said. “I like to visit and vacation there, but not live there.”
People who know Ferguson are pretty much aware of what he is capable. There are others who are surprised what intelligence he possesses.
Right now he and Ratcliff are already talking about 5G and saying it will be available in another five years.
This technology and software that will be powering his drone is what 5G will be based on. Ferguson believes 5G will probably leave fiber optics in the dust.
Ratcliff, the manufacturing manager, said Oxford is booming.
“We want to give back to the community,” he said. “They are starting to teach programming classes in elementary. If we were to one day be able to get a little spot on the square, we could have the kids come through. I want to see Batesville grow. Oxford is booming. If anyone comes to Oxford, they’re coming through Batesville. I want to see them stop here.”
The Beginning
The company started with Ferguson and Ratcliff
They have hired two real good programmers and developed the software to operate the drones and do what is necessary.
After this semester of school, Joey Cuddy will join the company as the head of software. Logan Smith is over the robot operating system. They are both 24 and from Mississippi.
“We have our manufacturing processes down,” Ferguson said. “Now we are just putting people in and training them. Right now we are at the hangar at airport. Eventually, we will have multiple places in Batesville.”
Their first product is the WISPr Scout. The scout is manufactured for wireless internet service providers when they go out to test signals. Right now, they go up in the bucket truck, move around the yard as needed, then do a testing. The Scout will do everything in a fraction of the time.
The first drone they built could lift only 10 pounds. The Scout can lift 60 pounds
There is also a tether drone where the customer can put in their own antennae.
The drones are water proof and can fly in the rain. Wind does present some problems for drones.
Ratcliff makes and develops the cases himself.
“We have the processes down now,” Ferguson said. “We just have to hire people so we can ramp up production.”
Investors are in place and the two have plenty of connections to get started on productions. They plan to start selling March 8.
“Some of the investors want to be more than investors,” he said. “They want to work for us, too. I think that will help us so we can meet the demand, focus more on engineering.”
The plan is to do 60 drones the first year.
“By 2019, we are going to ramp it up to where are selling at least 100 a month,” Ferguson said. “The demand is there now but we just have to get the people. I want the best customer support so if they ever have a problem they call us so we can help them out right then.
“I want to take the time this year to develop our manufacturing facilities where we can ramp up to where we are making a 100 a month. Right now we can make about 30 a month,” Ferguson added.
Their main market is wireless internet service providers. They have a fiber internet connection to a tower and they will wirelessly transit to houses.
“It makes the technician’s life safer,” Ferguson said. “He does not have to be elevated. They usually have one technician in each truck. They still need those two technicians. It tests quicker, installs quicker. They can get to more customers. It gives them the ability to make more money as a WISP provider. It makes it more efficient.”
The two graduated from Mississippi State. They had PhD professors who pushed them harder than anyone to get into the field.
“They said we needed to start a business now,” Ferguson said. “They know the industry.
“It was good but it was also bad,” Ferguson said. “They put their expectations way up here (holds hand above his head). It’s like when we started in the program our freshman year there were 600 people. When we graduated we were down to 12 people.”
Though he respects his professors, Ferguson told the story of when he was starting his design project that he was told to buy a drone and not build one himself.
“I didn’t listen to anything they said,” he said.
The two presented their design at Innovate Mississippi and placed second.

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