Vietnamese developers recently brought ‘Hera’ - an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) developed by a Vietnamese startup – on a tour in the U.S. where they showed potential partners just how impressive Vietnamese tech had become.
Despite it being small enough to fit into a backpack, Hera can carry up to 15 kilograms and be assembled in just a few minutes.
The very first order
Hera is the brainchild of Vietnamese engineer, Dr. Luong Viet Quoc, the founder and CEO of Vietnam-based RealTime Robotics Inc. (RtR).
Dr. Quoc and his team spent six years and hundreds of billions of Vietnamese dong developing Hera.
"It's really excellent," said JT Von Lunen, CEO of RMUS Inc. (the U.S.), who recently took Hera for a test flight in Colorado.
RMUS Inc. specializes in selling drones across the North American market.
Von Lunen shared that he was particularly impressed with Hera’s ability to carry such a heavy payload, as well as its hour-long flight capacity.
|The Hera unmanned aerial vehicle is a multi-purpose drone. Photo: C.T. / Tuoi Tre|
Given RAMUS’s experience in testing some of the best drones from around the world, Von Lunen’s praise for Hera is a testament that Vietnamese tech is capable of hanging with traditional global powerhouses.
RAMUS first developed a relationship with RtR after the two partnered to develop hardware and software for a specialized camera that could detect oil and gas leaks.
When RtR was ready to deliver the camera, they used it as an opportunity to unveil Hera.
RAMUS was so impressed with Hera that they signed a US$500,000 contract to serve as RtR’s distributor for Hera drones, each of which sells for $58,000 (VND1.4 billion).
The first product shipment RtR made to RAMUS was during the final days of 2022.
|Dr. Luong Viet Quoc and Hera. Photo: Quang Dinh / Tuoi Tre|
Made in Vietnam
RtR is headquartered at Saigon Hi-tech Park in District 9, Ho Chi Minh City.
The RtR team, which includes about 60 engineers, is split between departments that specialize in R&D, invention, machinery, and AI.
Phi Duy Quang, RtR's chief mechanical engineer, shared that most of Hera’s mechanical details were developed by the company’s young team of engineers, including its compact frame that folds when in the air and can support such heavy weight.
Of course, this success wasn’t without failure, and the team rejected dozens of prototypes before setting on their current designs for Hera.
The team at RtR also developed the batteries used by Hera in order to ensure the UAV could boast a longer flight time than drones operated by batteries currently available on the global market.
Currently, Hera can stay in the air for about an hour and travel up to 15 kilometers carrying its full payload of 15 kilograms.
Still, Dr. Quoc’s team has plans to continue making improvements to its intelligence and underlying software.
"By programming the software ourselves, we can control [Hera’s] quality and technology. We set the primary and ultimate goal of creating a leading Vietnamese product, so we do not copy what currently exists," explained Dr. Quoc, adding that the flexibility of the drone’s current software allows it to be used for a variety of tasks, from geography to defense-related projects, as well as rescue and relief missions.
Dr. Quoc pointed to the case of Vietship 01 as a possible use for drones like Hera.
Vietship 01 found itself stuck in the mouth of the Cua Viet River in the central coastal province of Quang Tri in 2020.
Had rescuers had a drone like Hera, it would have made it much easier to support both the rescue team and the crew trapped on the ship as they battled the river’s violent waves, particularly given the drone’s ability to fly in strong winds, as well as to transport fresh water and food.
The drone is also equipped with a loudspeaker and flashlight so that rescuers and victims can communicate in real time.
|RtR considers it a priority to make high quality Vietnamese products. Photo: C.T. / Tuoi Tre|
2023: a milestone
Startups often face challenges in terms of finances, personnel, products, and sales. Many even reach the point where they are ready to launch commercially but wind up failing simply because they can’t compete with those who already hold significant market share.
In order to keep his own dream alive, Dr. Quoc has spent more than VND100 billion ($4.2 million) and even sold his own house to ensure his RtR remains funded.
He also convinced friends and family to fund RtR by touting its made-in-Vietnam provenance.
"Launching [Hera] has still been comparatively cheap because it has only cost one-tenth of what it would have been in the U.S.," Dr. Quoc said.
"If we had established the company in America, we would have spent no less than $50 million, and it would not have been certain that we would have developed such a desirable product.”
Ensuring adequate human talent has also been difficult for Dr. Quoc and RtR.
"We have the opportunity to find other jobs with higher pay, but we stay at RtR because we can freely pursue our own passion for creativity," said Tran Quang Khoi, leader of RtR’s AI team.
According to Dr. Quoc, his investors are not investing in his company, but also his young talent. He also sees these investments as investments in Vietnam itself.
"In 2023, Vietnamese people will be proud that RtR put the Vietnamese national flag on the world map of drones," Dr. Quoc said.
"Right now, I feel relaxed and happy because we are on the right track and have already received orders. I believe we will take off in 2023.”
Ambition and enthusiasm
Over the past 20 years ago, Dr. Quoc’s innovation has been featured in Tuoi Tre (Youth) articles - "Xanh tu nhung dong kenh den" (Being green from black channels, July 12, 2002) and "Luong Viet Quoc va 8 hoc bong dao tao tien si tai My" (Luong Viet Quoc and 8 doctoral fellowships in the U.S., July 30, 2014).
Dr. Quoc’s educational pedigree includes a Fulbright scholarship, a master's degree from Cornell College, and a doctorate at UC Berkeley.
After working in the U.S. for several years, Dr. Luong Viet Quoc decided to return to his hometown.
Now, at the age of 57, he feels younger than ever and ready to take on the world.
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