When Douglas Kirk ‘14G retired from the U.S. Navy in 2009, pursuing higher education was his first goal. Becoming an entrepreneur was his second.
He has achieved both goals, founding UVS Technologies, a company that develops unmanned vehicle systems (drones), while studying at Lehigh.
Two weeks ago, U.S. Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.) made a fact-finding visit to UVS, which is located in the Baker Institute for Entrepreneurship, Creativity and Innovation’s student business incubator at Ben Franklin TechVentures on Lehigh’s Mountaintop Campus.
UVS develops software to operate unmanned vehicles autonomously. One program allows aircraft to scan agriculture fields and collect multispectral images to identify dehydration, fungus, disease and other crop stressors. To demonstrate this technology, the UVS team is targeting the wine industry, which can lose up to 50 percent of crops to such stressors per year, at a cost of $50,000 an acre.
Unmanned autonomous aircraft can fly lower than piloted vehicles and record and transmit information under challenging flight conditions, Kirk says. Applications go beyond agriculture to search and rescue, humanitarian and disaster relief, wild fire monitoring, first-responder situations, structural inspections and more.
“Whether a small aircraft or a high-altitude drone, we are developing artificial intelligence, which really is the key to bridge the gap into commercialization and widen the use of these vehicles,” Kirk said.
• View vehicle demonstration slide show
Kirk showed Dent a video providing aerial views from one of his unmanned vehicles as it buzzed a Pennsylvania vineyard, then descended to “vine-top” level for close-ups of individual plants.
Dent said he could see applications for the technology in Pennsylvania and nationally, from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to the food industry.
“Lehigh has always had a strong entrepreneurial culture,” added Dent, a 1993 alumnus of Lehigh’s master’s of public administration program who formerly worked in Lehigh’s development office. “It’s very encouraging to see this level of innovation and entrepreneurship on the Lehigh campus.”
Lehigh as the launch pad
Kirk served 22 years in the military, flying more than 6,000 hours as a P-3 Orion surveillance aircraft instructor and engineer. After retiring as a service-disabled veteran, he attended Lehigh Carbon Community College and Penn State Lehigh Valley, where he began developing the idea for UVS Technologies. He completed a Certificate in Corporate Entrepreneurship through Lehigh’s VENTURESeries entrepreneurship program in the College of Business and Economics, where he is an undeclared major in the master’s of business administration (MBA) program.
Earlier this year, Kirk won the Joan F. and John M. Thalheimer ’55 Grand Prize for Lehigh’s Eureka! Ventures Competition Series hosted by the Baker Institute. The award included $12,500 to help start his company and provide office space for a year in the institute’s student incubator. TechVentures is operated by Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Northeastern Pennsylvania, a nonprofit corporation with headquarters at Lehigh that provides companies with access to funding, university resources and business expertise.
As part of the award, Kirk also gained access to a team of Lehigh undergraduate Integrated Business and Engineering (IBE) students, who assisted with research and business development. The UVS team includes Kirk as president and founder; Thomas Ciesielka, vice president of operations; Danilo Bassi, vice president of engineering; Mathew Hoh, operator/pilot; and Steven Mathews, engineering adviser.
Lehigh’s VENTURESeries and Baker Institute’s Eureka! Competition and award, said Kirk, helped him hone his business plan and launch his company.
“The Thalheimer Grand Prize in the Eureka! Competition was the launching pad. Without it, we wouldn’t be able to get where we are today.”
Photographs by Christa Neu and Amy White