Pangaea: Crowdfunding Project Takes Autism to the Sky

There is a good bit of discussion these days around crowdsourcing, be it to acquire geospatial data from people in the field or to gather funding to develop new products and services. The convergence of crowdsourcing and emerging geospatial tech is an exciting one as noted in the March 5th issue of this newsletter. At the end of the article, information was requested from readers who have successfully pursued crowdfunding projects. Here is my experience.
Taking Autism To The Sky (the TATTS project) is a father’s effort to expand his son’s understanding of the world around him while also exploring the viability of the UAV market. TATTS is focused on bringing UAVs and aerial photography to kids on the autism spectrum to give them a concrete way to understand perspective taking through viewing the world from above. The project successfully raised just shy of $3,400 on KickStarter over a 40-day period in February and March of 2013. The 75 project backers included a cacophony of family and friends, those active in the autism community, and an extensive worldwide distribution of people active in the UAV space.
The project focuses on three key components: 

  1. Showcasing that the UAV market is not all about spying, invasion of privacy, or military air strikes. Nor is the UAV market just about the radio-controlled hobbyist out tinkering in the park on a Saturday morning flying a model airplane.
  2. The building, flying, and capture of aerial footage from a hexarotor.
  3. A short film we are creating that chronicles our journey in this process.

We estimate that to put a fully autonomous UAV in the air like what we are building can be done for as little as $1,600. The rest of our budget addresses additional equipment, spare parts, training, software, field trips, and expenses. For a full equipment list, check the project blog (URL below).
Essential to this project is leveraging the first-person-video (FPV) experience of the UAV so that the kids experience the act of flying in real time. We will do this by utilizing goggles that receive the video transmission direct from the UAV as well as a 9” battery-operated TV that all the other kids can view throughout the flight. We will also capture video in HD with a camera mounted on the UAV. Unlike traditional aerial imagery projects, real-time viewing of the imagery is as critical as archival capture. We are pursuing both the experience and the data. 
Other key outcomes we anticipate are:

  1. Developing foundational employment skills to give these children adequate time to learn and practice. Unemployment rates for people on the autism spectrum are significantly higher than the neurotypical population as well as other special needs populations.
  2. Promote geography awareness that helps bolster this community’s focus and growth.
  3. Lay the foundation for a business that could employ people on the autism spectrum either through building and selling drones or developing a service that, once available and legal through the FAA, could provide people on the spectrum with a way to support themselves.
  4. Provide a road map for other organizations to complete similar projects.

We’ve learned tips for crowdsourcing via KickStarter: 

  1. Put together a novel project with a unique hook. Depending on the tool you utilize to gather funds, ensure that your project speaks to that audience. Unlike other crowdfunding sites, KickStarter requires a creative element to the project.
  2. Choose your financial target wisely. With KickStarter, no one pays unless you hit your goal and you can raise an unlimited amount of money.
  3. Leverage social media extensively, such as bloggers and industry leaders who have large Twitter followings. A re-tweet is worth a 1,000 words!
  4. Offer rewards that motivate people to pledge at different levels.

The financial support for TATTS was split about 50/50 between family, friends, and colleagues and those who found the project through KickStarter, blog posts, and social media.

As a father of a boy on the autism spectrum and another with special needs, I am always looking for ways to engage them. In addition, I work professionally as a vice president of sales and marketing for Continental Mapping, a photogrammetry and mapping company in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin. As with many firms in our market, we are evaluating the application of drone technology in the industry as well as how it is redefining our industry. For more information on the TATTS project, see the project blog

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