Geoff Mullins is the Operations Manager at InDro Robotics. Geoff, an avid adventurer, who has a deep passion for the ocean, has merged his love for nature with the cutting-edge technology of drones. We had the opportunity to sit down with him and talk about some of the wild places his career has taken him, his work within the unmanned aerial vehicle space, and the lessons he has learned along the way.
“When I started out, as a teenager getting into tech, I was really passionate about science and the arts. I wanted to choose a career that would allow me to have technical capability, theoretical science and an aesthetic - it’s kind of been a theme throughout all that I’ve done. I didn’t feel the need to pick one over the other.”
Geoff, who completed his undergraduate degree in Engineering Physics, went on to pursue his Master’s degree, studying high temperature superconductivity. Late nights were not uncommon for him during this program. In fact, as he put it, “I often was working between 7 pm and 7 am - that was just the nature of the experiments we were running, they needed to be conducted at night.” It was on such a night that he was struck with a revelation.
“I was transferring a miniscule crystal of superconductor between a microscope and an experimental apparatus and it fell off the transfer device.”
“I spent about three hours looking at pieces of dust under the microscope to try and find the piece that I had been working on and I came to the realization that I really wasn’t interested in pursuing a lab-based career or lifestyle. It just wasn’t for me.”
Faced at a crossroads, Geoff had to evaluate what was important to him. He liked science, and was looking for a position that melted all of his interests together, but he recognized that a lab would not be the place for that.
Geoff loved scuba diving. He was passionate about the ocean and being out on the water, and he didn’t see why that passion couldn’t be combined with his science background to create a career that excited and inspired him.
He decided to pursue his Doctorate, focusing on sonar. Short for sound navigation and ranging, sonar uses sound navigation to map and explore the ocean using sound waves. He was fortunate to then meet Dr. John Bird, who would become a life-long mentor and friend, who was running the underwater research lab at Simon Fraser University. Through this research Geoff had the opportunity to work with NASA and the Canadian Space Agency on various projects.
“What was cool about that is that we were actually able to use the brand new sonar technologies we had been working on in the field which was, and continues to be, a priority to me.”
These projects, which have taken him across Canada and the world, working in the most obscure parts of nature, refocused his plan for his career. These experiences were truly transformative, and in his words, created a focus on “multidisciplinary engineering in the wild.”
He has been pivotal to projects focused on salmon research across the central coast of British Columbia, as well as worked in the glaciers of Squamish with volcanologists examining the geological record of the area. After transitioning to working with InDro Robotics, Geoff has had the opportunity to deploy technology in places he never thought he would even visit, much less work.
A particularly memorable project was one he did with Duracell and Maclean’s magazine, in celebration of Canada’s 150th anniversary. The Explorer150 program set the ambitious goal of flying a drone across Canada, capturing aerial footage of the diverse country. This was a truly unique project - some locations had never even been captured via aerial videography before!
For this project, Geoff flew up to some of the more obscure places to capture Canada from that perspective. He visited the arctic circle in Nunavut and got to fly drones over the tundra.
“That experience gave me a new appreciation & understanding of what ‘open space’ is. I mean, there are not many places in Canada where there is just absolutely nothing. It was amazing...some of the things you see up there are wild. We even found a human skull - it’s such a large, mysterious place up there with so much to discover.”
He went into further detail, “I worked on a project in Churchill, Manitoba looking at beluga whales and polar bears. Following that trip, we trained researchers at the Vancouver Aquarium to use drone technology for their research. As it happens, they also use hydrophones, (which are instruments that measures sound underwater) to look for clues about the relationships between the sounds/communications between the mothers and calves in comparison to the observations of the behaviors that recorded on the drone imagery and video. It’s fascinating. And this is just one application of the technology. The possibilities are endless.”
Drone technology can be incredibly precise and is truly enabling this area of work within the environment. In fact, Geoff’s line of work is a serious contributor to the strides being made within ecosystems today - drones can be leveraged to help wildlife and the environments in which they live.
“It’s amazing how much data can be gathered and used to truly understand these species, all while not interfering with their natural environment. In BC, wild killer whales are often monitored through the use of drones – their size, health, their location, all of that can be tracked in a way that doesn’t interfere with the pods. Drones are used to collect samples of the spray that comes out of a whale’s blowhole. By analyzing the samples researchers can understand more about these creatures and how we can better safeguard them and the ocean.”
Geoff wasn’t personally part of the latter project, but one can tell that his passion for the industry stems from his love of nature. He passionately explains the various ways in which drones are advancing marine science and conservation, and the knowledge yet to be discovered by using this technology.
Geoff has quite a few open projects on the go, and he hopes to be returning to Northern Canada sometime soon to deploy some of the technologies that he and his team have been working on.
It doesn’t end there. Geoff and InDro Robotics have worked on various environmental mapping and agricultural projects.
“Drones are exceptionally good at mapping - it’s a process called photogrammetry. We can also use multispectral cameras to look at plant health - we have used this a lot in agriculture, looking at crops that have been affected by blight or infestations. We’ve done this all along the Cascadia Corridor and even in California. It’s a useful way to gather and apply data quickly to solve problems.”
Geoff and InDro are particularly proud of their regulatory work with Beyond Visual Line of Sight Flying. This allows them to fly the drones quite a bit farther than they can see it. They are currently advocating this kind of technology, enabled by cellular drones, and assisting regulators in embracing its potential through rigorous safety testing.
“InDro’s founding principle is ‘Drones for Good’ and that mission, along with our roots in aviation, has truly separated us from other companies within this industry that are focused on building drones. My passion lies within the environment and those are the types of projects I like to be involved with, but this technology is vast, and the applications are constantly evolving. For example, we work a lot with First Responders - we can use thermal imaging to detect fires. We can help firefighters gain situational awareness and insight into where a large structure fire may spread.”
This technology has saved the lives of people in emergency situations, as well as the first responders who are on the scene. Geoff tells stories of firefighters who have been ready to crash through doors into buildings that look to be fine from visual cameras but have been proven to be engulfed in flames through the use of an onsite drone. Instances like this have saved the lives of many and will continue to do so as the scope of the technology improves.
With such a diverse range of projects and the opportunity to work on transformative initiatives, it’s difficult to isolate just one great perk of the job.
“If I had to pick, it’s the chance to go to amazing places and deploy cutting edge technology. It’s also quite interesting, InDro is at the cutting edge of the technology, but we are also at the cutting edge of the regulations. We work with the regulatory bodies in Canada to experiment with this tech and to do new things - projects that are first of its kind.”
When asked about his influences, Geoff spoke highly about Dr. John Bird, his supervisor from his Doctorate days, who eventually became his business partner, as well as always being a mentor, and a close friend.
“He taught me the value of measuring my words, and making each and every one of them thoughtful. It really taught me to slow down and be more intentional with my thought processes.”
My boss at InDro, Philip Reece, has really taught me about the value of seizing opportunities and to understand where to put your time and energy within complex projects. He has been very encouraging of me to notice opportunities and to run with ideas. I’ve learnt a lot about business and taking action from him.”
However, he remarks that these days, the most formative influence in his life, and the role that is most important to him, is being a father to his two kids.
“Watching them grow and embrace different technologies - that has really taught me a lot. Children are amazing because they are not intimidated by technology, they are not afraid to break something, or to fail.” He laughs, “Honestly, I’ve learned more from them than they have learned from me.”
“I’m fortunate to have a very loving and supportive partner and she has influenced me in a different way. She has really taught me the value of claiming my own space and building a sanctuary that fosters & builds creativity.”
We asked Geoff if he could go back to being twenty-one years old, what would he tell himself?
“1) Take care of yourself. When taken too far, self-imposed expectations aren’t healthy, helpful or conducive to living a good life. Set boundaries, create balance, and set yourself up for success by letting yourself relax and reflect.
2) Don’t be afraid to break things along the way
3) Get up on stage. Do things that scare you. Advocate for yourself and share your passions with others.”
Find out more about Indro Robotics here: https://indrorobotics.ca/