ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Imagine driving a car with no fuel gauge and no idea how big the gas tank is. You want to go as far as possible before filling up but not so far that you sputter to a halt. “That’s what it’s like to operate an electric plane or robot or other device that relies on a lithium battery,” said Albuquerque businessman Greg Walker. “I wanted a technology to show how much power such a battery has at any one time.”
Walker is the chief operating officer of Silent Falcon UAS Technologies Inc., which makes electric-powered drone aircraft. The company found four other small New Mexico businesses that use battery technology in everything from robots to motion picture filming, and joined forces to develop a way to monitor the health of battery packs for all kinds of unmanned vehicles. “Lithium batteries in aircraft and robots are very large,” Walker said. “Our challenge was to push the battery as far as possible but not crash.”
The group reached out to the New Mexico Small Business Assistance (NMSBA) program, a public-private partnership among Sandia National Laboratories, Los Alamos National Laboratory and the state of New Mexico that connects small business owners with scientists and engineers who give technical help.
They were teamed with Sandia electrical engineer Von Trullinger and materials scientist Dan Weskolowski who have improved the monitoring electronics and algorithms embedded in the battery hardware. Working over the past 18 months, they also improved software designed to communicate with device operators through a web or Ethernet connection. Users now can monitor battery condition and historical data and plan more complicated missions.
The companies, which have received $2 million in new investment and added nine employees since getting help from Trullinger and Weskolowski, were among 366 small businesses in 24 counties that participated in NMSBA last year. The program also contracts with the New Mexico Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP), the University of New Mexico (UNM) School of Engineering and UNM’s Management of Technology program at the Anderson School of Management, the Arrowhead Center at New Mexico State University (NMSU) and the New Mexico Tech Department of Management. NMSBA provided $4.77 million worth of assistance to New Mexico small businesses in 2015.
Silent Falcon’s partners in the Smart Battery Manager, all from a small-business cluster at the Alamogordo Science and Technology Park, include Emerging Technology Ventures Inc. and North Alabama Robotic Systems Inc., which make unmanned vehicles for land, air and sea; Motion Picture Marine Inc., which uses unmanned vehicles to create sequences for motion pictures like X-Men, Armageddon and Star Trek; and American Lithium Energy Corp., which makes lithium-ion batteries that power unmanned vehicles.
Walker said the battery management technology would not have been possible without Sandia’s help on software, hardware, programming and battery chemistry. “Everything about the technology is getting better,” he said. “We could not have pulled together a team like Sandia did. No single company has all that expertise in one place. Sandia does.”
Ten projects that achieved outstanding innovations through NMSBA last year were honored in May at NMSBA’s annual Innovation Celebration Awards event at Sandia Golf Club.
Silent Falcon’s Smart Battery Manager, along with Tibbar Plasma Technologies Inc. of Los Alamos, received the Honorable Speaker Ben Luján Award for Small Business Excellence as the honorees that demonstrated the most economic impact. Tibbar worked with Los Alamos National Laboratory’s Juan Fernandez to develop plasma-based AC-DC transformers that can significantly cut the cost of transmitting electrical power. Tibbar in 2015 received a $3.5 million contract from the Department of Energy (DOE) Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy and has hired 10 new people.
“NMSBA has been bringing small businesses together with scientists and engineers from Sandia and Los Alamos national laboratories for more than 15 years. This is a phenomenal way to assist small companies that don’t have the resources to do advanced research and development,” said Jackie Kerby Moore, Sandia’s manager of Technology and Economic Development. “National laboratory expertise helps these business people realize their dreams and stimulates our state’s economy.”
Other projects recognized at the Innovation Celebration:
- IR Dynamics of Santa Fe worked with Sandia to develop thermochromic materials to control infrared transmission, to be used as pigment additives for smart windows or pigment-based coatings in architecture, transportation and clothing. The company subsequently raised $600,000 in private equity funding and received a $1.95 million DOE grant.
- David Cook founded Right Sized Inventory to create a computer-driven analysis platform that would let businesses identify and maintain an optimal amount of inventory for any item in any location. Sandia made the software more accurate and dependable, allowing customers to refine their inventory analysis. The Albuquerque company has boosted revenues by $50,000 since rolling out the improved software.
- bioLime has developed a modern version of lime-based structural coatings, or “breathable skin,” that make modern buildings more energy efficient, healthier and longer lasting. Brian Cola, founder and president of bioLime, moved the company from Florida to Santa Fe and worked with the MEP to identify raw materials and techniques to manage its domestic partners and regional supply chain, saving about $25 million in investment costs.
- Luke Smith was an undergraduate accounting student at NMSU when he founded EcoSeal to bring NMX, an environmentally friendly pesticide, to market. He worked with NMSU’s Arrowhead Center to field test the product, leading to a $50,000 I-Corps grant to do more market research.
- Innobright Technologies of Albuquerque developed a software package that improves the speed and quality of computer-generated imagery by applying patented noise-removal algorithms. Owner Raghu Kopalle worked with the UNM Management of Technology program to identify the best markets for the product, and has since raised $330,000, attracted customers from around the world and hired six people.
NMSBA was created in 2000 by the state legislature to bring national laboratory technology and expertise to small businesses in New Mexico, promoting economic development with an emphasis on rural areas. The program has given 2,495 small businesses in all 33 New Mexico counties more than $48.5 million worth of research hours and materials. It has helped create and retain 4,863 New Mexico jobs at an average salary of $38,768, increase small companies’ revenues by $236.2 million and decrease their operating costs by $104.7 million. These companies have invested $97.6 million in other New Mexico goods and services, and received $87.2 million in new funding and financing.
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Sandia National Laboratories is a multi-program laboratory operated by Sandia Corporation, a wholly owned subsidiary of Lockheed Martin Corp., for the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration. With main facilities in Albuquerque, N.M., and Livermore, Calif., Sandia has major R&D responsibilities in national security, energy and environmental technologies and economic competitiveness.
Sandia news media contact: Nancy Salem, firstname.lastname@example.org, (505) 844-2739