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Venture fund backs St. Pete tech firm that uses data from drones to replace one of the most dangerous job in America

Margie Manning

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Photo by Jared Brashier on Unsplash

5×5 Technologies Inc., a St. Petersburg-based spatial computing company, has closed on the first tranche of funding in a $6 million capital raise.

Safar Partners, a Boston-based venture fund, is leading the capital raise and provided $3 million in equity funding.

That funding, combined with a Jump Start award from Amazon Web Services, will allow 5×5 to accelerate its core technology, integrating machine learning and artificial intelligence, said Anne Zink, CEO and co-founder.

5×5 works with drone operators to provide precise data to telecommunications carriers and cell tower owners about their assets. Those assets, such as telecom equipment and tower structural details, historically could only be measured by a worker climbing a tower to do a survey. But tower climbing ranks among the most dangerous jobs in America, according to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, responsible for between 13 and 15 deaths each year.

That’s one of the problems 5×5 can solve, Zink said. The company utilizes technology to modernize work flows that have a high degree of danger.

Images and data captured by a drone also are more comprehensive and more accurate than a human climber generally could provide.

Anne Zink

“The climber being on the tower actually skews the results. The towers are long and thin and designed to sway a little bit in the wind, so when they standing on it, the tower can actually lean as much as 10 percent. That will change the alignment quite a bit,” Zink said. “For the height, they drop a tape measure. Granted, it’s an industrial tape measure, but you can imagine if you are 200 feet in the air, or 400 feet in the air, and you drop a tape measure down, you can have a large number of challenges in terms of accuracy.”

Depending on the type of camera a drone is carrying, the data can be within one millimeter of accuracy, she said.

The drone-collected data also helps 5×5 customers do their jobs better. She cited an internal survey by one customer who asked employees to rate how the 5×5 data impacted their ability to do their jobs on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the highest.

“People from finance, to sales and marketing, to maintenance, to engineering, to operations, pretty much rated us in the 4.75 to 4.95 level because of the information they now had,” she said.

In another case, 5×5 was doing a demonstration for a customer, showing the customer a “digital twin” of the tower that had been developed from the drone-collected data. The customer suddenly asked 5×5 to zoom in on a part of the model

“There was a whole pile of coax [coaxial cable, a type of electrical cable] siting where a decommissioned antenna had been removed, but they never took the coax out. That’s weight on the tower that impacts how much the tower rating, and also carriers are often charged by weight,” Zink said. “From the tower owner perspective, they have a lot better idea of what’s on the tower and if it needs maintenance. The carrier gets all the information they need to go out and install something right the right first time.”

It also enables the tower owner to authorize new installations faster.

“One of the customers is shooting, when they get critical mass, to reduce the time it takes to approve a new installation, which means an increase in time of revenue, from 45 days to 48 hours,” she said.

Zink expects to expand 5×5’s focus from cell towers to other large critical infrastructure, such as bridges, oil and gas rigs, aircraft carriers and even cruise ships. That gives 5×5 a lot of market potential, said Arunas Chesonis, managing partner of Safar Partners Fund.

“We have been impressed by 5×5 Technologies and the progress the company has achieved even during these trying pandemic times. We are excited to lead 5×5’s Series B and join the Board of Directors to support the team through the next stage of the company’s evolution,” Chesonis said.

The Covid-19 pandemic has put the use of drones in the spotlight. The government has funded programs to accelerate drone-based deliveries of drugs and packages into areas hit hard by the pandemic, while the private sector held off deploying inspectors for activities that were not considered mission critical.

“In general, with everyone trying to keep employees as safe as possible, there’s been a move to leverage new technologies where they can, and drones are part of that,” Zink said.

5×5 Technologies has grown from 4 employees in 2018 to 17 workers currently. It has a remote workforce, with employees spread over 13 states. The pandemic helped the company staff up.

“We’ve been able to hire people who were laid off by the pandemic and we were able to bring them on because we’ve got a really solid training program for the people who help do the analysis of the towers. They don’t have to be CAD experts or structural engineers. We’ve taken people who were supermarket clerks and turned them into superstars,” she said.

Zink expects to finalize the ongoing Series B capital raise by the end of October.

In addition to Safar Partners, 5×5 has financial backing from SoftBank, a Japanese tech giant that invested $4.4 million in 2018.

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