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Roll Call

Rook the Indoor Drone

Use Drone Technology to Patrol Your Own Home

By Aric DiLalla

The world's first consumer drone that connects to and is controlled over the internet will soon be available to fly around your home, but the pilot might be half way around the world. Developed by a group of Northwestern University students, the Rook will ship in January 2017 with features including a camera, voice-recognition software and the ability to be flown from anywhere in the world. Designed to be controlled using a "point-and-drag" smartphone interface, the remote pilot can both see and record as it flies. The Rook also includes security analytics and activity alerts straight to your phone, and its automated charging dock means you'll always be able to check to see if you left the stove on or attack a home intruder.

The Rook is the only drone that currently features all of the following: a camera, WiFi capability, live video, indoor stabilization, voice commands and cloud smart software. And perhaps most importantly, it will be affordable selling for just $99.

Programmable Keypad

But the price is not even the most impressive part. The Rook, which began to take shape in September 2014, was created by a bunch of college students. Jackie Wu, the CEO of Eighty Nine Robotics, started to recruit team members as he completed his Master's Degree in robotics at Northwestern University. With the help of The Garage, a Northwestern startup incubator that offers space and seed money to more than 50 projects, the team found a home where they could see the Rook come to fruition.

Indiegogo campaign that helped the company raise nearly $58K, the manufacturing, assembly and packaging will soon begin. But what challenges arise when a group of college students try to design and launch a product as they juggle classes and extracurricular demands? We caught up with Connor Regan, who leads the marketing efforts of the nine-person team, to hear more about the inner-workings of a college startup.

Programmable Keypad Programmable Keypad

How did the team originate, and where did you begin the ideation process?

"The team, in various forms, has been working on the idea since 2014. It actually started out in a completely different form that it's in today. It started out as Won-Won, and it was a pet monitor. It was very narrowly focused on people who had pets and wanted to know what their dogs and cats were up to during the day when they were at work or at school or whatever. The original idea came about mostly from an interest in robotics and drones. Fairly quickly, we pivoted to a broader scope in terms of what we thought the technology could be used for, and then also what we thought we could craft a compelling story around for potential customers."

Why did you decide to pivot from the pet monitor to a more general product?

"We interviewed many potential customers and iterated off of their feedback. We realized that tons of potential customers had interest in the idea but wanted to tweak it for their own unique purposes: home security, checking on the elderly, checking on pets or appliances in the home ("wait did I leave the stove on?") and that limiting the use case to just one wasn't the best move to provide value to them. We conducted dozens of in-person interviews with potential customers, and that's where this pivotal information came from."

What does the dynamic of the team look like, and how does CEO Jackie Wu, help to make sure the large team is successful while still getting a degree?

"Nine people is much larger than a typical "startup" should be. If we were out in the real world and were at the level of capital invested and product development that we're at right now with nine people, then we'd be done by now. So the reason we have nine people is we're balancing our student and entrepreneurial roles.

"Basically Jackie is working 100 percent of the time on Rook, and the rest of us are kind of functionally siloed. So I'm working on marketing and business strategy, but I'm doing so in a fairly non-collaborative manner and that's again a function of being a student. Getting nine people together at one time to do everything, like you would if you had an office space and you were sitting there 9-5, is difficult. The engineering team actually is much more collaborative, and that's for a number of reasons. Mostly because if you're working on app development, you need to be working closely with the person doing hardware engineering on the drone itself. You can't have one on and not the other. That's kind of how the team works. It's kind of remote, but we also do a lot of work at The Garage."

Could you describe how the crowd-funding process developed?

"Jackie had been in correspondence with a few friends who had launched their crowdfunding campaigns already, as well as with Kate Drane in Chicago. She's the Midwest rep for Indiegogo, and she gave some good advice backed with data she had access to as an IGG employee. We just started by creating drafts of each of the individual pieces of our story, which we later put up on a huge whiteboard wall to recompile and reformat into the most compelling narrative. As the person in charge of our brand and marketing, I led these story crafting efforts, but we did this exercise as a team so that people with expertise in specific areas could weigh in."

What services does The Garage lend to student projects, and how has it helped the Rook grow?

"The Garage has a number of successful entrepreneurs who use the space the same way as student members do. They're working on their own startups, real-world non-student startups. But they also set aside a pretty generous amount of time every week to sit down with student entrepreneurs, go over things they're struggling with. Before it existed, there wasn't a place where you could go and just walk up to someone and say, ‘hey, what are you working on?’ and know that they were going to talk about some cool idea they have."

Since you're refurbishing an existing drone, how do you make sure you're marketing that clearly to your consumers?

"Something that we've been dealing with a lot is how to communicate to customers the level of innovation that is taking place and that is being put into the product. We are taking an existing, off-the-shelf drone and basically retrofitting it with our technology. And so that's something that's done a lot in manufacturing, especially by small startup companies similar to us, who perhaps don't have the capital to go and do all their own tooling and get their own molds made."

Learn more about the Rook
Aric DiLalla is a Northwestern University graduate and freelance writer living in Denver, Colorado. When he's not writing about electronics, he's probably watching football highlights.