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Vibrant grows; Boeing taps Robotic Skies

Albuquerque-based Vibrant Corp. has expanded its facilities, technology capabilities, customer base and geographic reach for its manufactured-component testing services.

The company, a homegrown startup that launched in 2007 with backing from the Verge Fund and the New Mexico Angels, moved from a 5,500-square-foot facility to a 10,000-square-foot space this year near Alameda and Jefferson.

“We needed more room for our people and for building our equipment,” President and CEO Lee Hunter said. “We moved into about 60 percent of the new space last January, and we took over the rest in August.”

The move reflects rapid growth at Vibrant, which has appeared on the Journal’s annual Flying 40 list of fast-growing technology companies six times. It earned sixth place among firms with under $10 million this year after hitting just above $4 million in revenue in 2017.

Vibrant uses technology originally developed at Los Alamos National Laboratory that detects defects in parts by vibrating them. It then applies advanced software algorithms to compare the sound generated with that of a nondefective product.

Most other testing processes assess only surface irregularities. But Vibrant’s system provides precision readings of internal defects without damaging them to determine whether a part is good or bad.

It’s applied the process largely to aircraft part manufacturers and maintenance and repair operations, allowing them to get more use out of parts and save money. For example, Delta Airlines, in Atlanta, uses Vibrant’s system to test engine turbine blades and other components.

Now, the company is expanding to include customers in the automotive and power-generation industries. It’s also developed more applications for existing customers to test a wider range of parts. And it’s established a partnership with an Asian firm to provide services in the Far East.

Vibrant also operates a wholly owned subsidiary for testing services in Germany.

“We have more customers and more applications,” Hunter said. “We have one customer running 10 applications now. And we’ve expanded into more business markets.”

The company continues to upgrade its technology and capabilities.

It developed a completely robotic turbine-blade testing system. It built new robotic arms for loading and unloading parts for testing with assistance from Albuquerque startup Build with Robots. And a new new life-cycle monitoring system can now follow wear and tear on specific parts over time.

Last week, the company hosted its first users conference at its new facility, with customer representatives from the U.S., Mexico and Canada.

“It provided an opportunity for users to talk about their system applications and learn from each other and from Vibrant staff,” Hunter said. “It generated dialogue about how our process has helped solve issues and how it can be improved.”

Boeing partnership

Robotic Skies could gain a significant boost in its network of repair and service stations for unmanned aerial systems through a new partnership with Boeing, announced this month.

Robotic Skies, which launched in Albuquerque in 2014 and remains based here, has built an international network of 150 independently-owned and operated service stations in 30 countries where drones can fly in like manned aircraft for maintenance and repair. It’s working with 17 UAS manufacturers to develop customized maintenance programs for the vehicles they build.

Boeing Global Services, based in Dallas, provides aerospace supply chain management and maintenance-and-repair tracking for aircraft through its subsidiaries, Jeppesen and Aviall.

The new partnership will allow Robotic Skies and Boeing to jointly market their services for UAS manufacturers and operators.

“With a partner like Boeing, we can really increase our capabilities,” Robotic Skies President and CEO Brad Hayden said. “Apart from maintenance and repairs through our network, we can now supply parts through Boeing and offer a platform to track and alert customers about things like field upgrades for unmanned aerial systems when original manufacturers offer new components or capabilities. We can effectively provide a one-stop shop for UAS operators.”

The agreement will begin with joint marketing efforts and could, over time, evolve into combined services in things like regulatory compliance, ground support, training, parts distribution and vehicle retrofits.

“We’ll start with joint sales campaigns, but that could lead to more formal agreements that take advantage of our respective capabilities,” said Reggie Arsenault, Boeing director of business and general aviation flight operations. “Robotic Skies has done a great job of setting up its network. We can help ensure robust distribution for parts and software solutions to manage and navigate things.”

The Robotic Skies network is already servicing unmanned aerial systems operating under current Federal Aviation Administration rules, which allow licensed UAS operators to fly small aircraft of under 55 pounds up to 400 feet in the air. Operators must fly only during daytime, maintain vehicles within their line of sight, and avoid flying over people.

Despite the limitations, a broad range of commercial uses have emerged, such as inspecting remote infrastructure and industrial operations, mapping and surveying of real estate and construction sites, and aerial filming and photography.

Robotic Skies and Boeing are now preparing for when unmanned aircraft can fly beyond the line of sight.

“It’s hard to predict when we’ll get there, but we’re positioning ourselves for when that space opens up,” Arsenault said. “That includes our partnership with Robotic Skies.”

The Robotic Skies network focuses exclusively on commercial operations, rather than consumer or military customers, Hayden said. The company received a first round of venture seed funding last year from the Kickstart Seed Fund in Utah and Santa Fe-based Sun Mountain Capital.

First Balloon Fiesta Pitch

OneForNeptune CEO Nick Mendoza won $10,000 and a free ride in the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta mass acsencion for his seafood jerky startup at ABQid’s first annual Balloon Fiesta Pitch competition. (Courtesy of ABQid)

Santa Fe-based startup OneForNeptune won a first place $10,000 prize at the ABQid business accelerator’s first Balloon Fiesta Pitch competition Oct. 5.

The company makes specialty seafood jerky, and it can connect end users with fishermen who caught the fish, because OneForNeptune travels to seafood areas to buy product directly from producers.

Albuquerque startup Smartloop, which developed artificial intelligence for marketing and customer service, won a $2,000 second-place prize.

Nine companies participated: eight from New Mexico and one from Chicago. Nine investors representing venture firms that collectively manage about $2 billion in capital judged the pitches.

“All the participating companies got to meet and network with investors, which can lead to funding deals later on,” said Harold Lavender, ABQid director of finance and business development. “The judges also held a feedback session for companies to learn about positive, and potentially negative, things in their pitches to improve them.”

ABQid holds an annual Ski Lift Pitch every February at Taos Ski Valley, with 50 startups pitching to more than 30 investors since launching in 2015. It wants to offer more companies and investors opportunities to meet and network by converting the Balloon Fiesta pitch into a new annual event.

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