Honors Gallery

Advanced communications network from ORNL expands utility of remote-controlled drones 

Award: Excellence in Technology Transfer

Year: 2023

Award Type: National

Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL)

The problem being solved: Drones and other uncrewed vehicles are often used to supplement human skills for potentially dangerous conditions and scenarios, such as structural assessment of buildings or search-and-rescue operations. Existing commercial technologies often require one or more dedicated pilots to control a single uncrewed device via direct radio communication while maintaining a clear line of sight between the pilot and the device.   

The technology solution: The Multimodal Autonomous Vehicle Network (MAVNet) developed at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) uses radio, cellular and satellite communications to enable truly remote control of uncrewed vehicles. The network’s cloud-based connectivity and data storage allow multiple people to operate the system simultaneously and one person to control multiple vehicles—making it possible to remotely coordinate groups of uncrewed vehicles. Originally designed for tactical military scenarios, MAVNet also has potential commercial applications, including delivery services, search and rescue, building inspections and security threat detection.  

The tech transfer mechanisms: Because the technology was mature and the infrastructure requirements low, ORNL believed a small startup company would be able to commercialize it. When industry was not yet ready to adopt MAVNet, the ORNL inventors formed Horizon31 and licensed the technology. The startup signed an exclusive patent license agreement with ORNL in May 2020 and an exclusive copyright licensing agreement with UT Battelle (ORNL’s managing contractor) in May 2022.  

The tech transfer excellence: Investigator-led startups are rare at national laboratories due to the many legal, administrative and personal challenges involved. ORNL recognized that in this case, the inventors’ expertise and experience with the technology made them the best people to commercialize it, and the lab’s Technology Transfer Office took proactive and diligent steps to navigate potential issues, including plans for conflict-of-interest management and resolution. 

The outcomes: Horizon31 currently has more than a dozen products for sale, encompassing a range of equipment used to command, control, compute, and communicate with uncrewed vehicles and unattended systems. ORNL researchers are making further developments to the technology specifically to help locate missing people, motivated by a 2018 event in which MAVNet was used across a fleet of drones as part of a search for a lost hiker in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. ORNL scientists pieced together aerial photographs from the drones and assessed the pixels for colors corresponding to the hiker’s clothing. The hiker was found too late to be saved, but the technology’s potential impact in such situations was clear.  

Team Members:

Eugene Cochran, Andrew Harter, Mike Paulus, Brad Stinson, Steve Ventura

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