To Scott Williams, most drones are just toys.
They can fly high and take photos and video, but can’t do much more.
But his drones? As he sees it, they might change the world.
“If we could put a flying cell tower [up] there, then we could do computing, we can do whatever right off of this thing,” said Williams. “We need a flying computer. We need this network that we can put anywhere and just let everyone compute off of it.”
Williams and his 16-year-old son, Mac, were flying one of the prototype drones at their home in Three Lakes. The flat circle is about the size of a kitchen tabletop. It’s equipped with four rotors, sturdy landing gear, and attachments for heavy-duty equipment.
These drones can fulfill the need Williams is talking about. They can lift hundreds of pounds of communications equipment, instantly creating a tower for cell phone and internet connectivity.
Making these drones, part of an ambitious world-changing plan, might soon be happening in Wisconsin’s Northwoods.
Rahul Tiwari shares Williams’ vision. They’re partners in the new company, WiscLift, which is set on developing and manufacturing flying cell-tower technology. It’s a technology that, last week, was named a winner of the statewide “We’re All Innovating” contest by Gov. Tony Evers.
But not long ago, Tiwari was a promising engineering student at Purdue University.
“I dropped out of college for this, and I brought a couple of my college buddies along,” Tiwari said at an event in Crandon earlier this year. “We work out of a garage, like all great American startups.”
Tiwari says these drones are the best way to provide cell phone and internet service in disaster areas, in part because, unlike other drones, they rarely have to come down.
Instead of running off of a battery, a tether cord provides continuous power.
“It can fly for longer than any other on the planet. We can fly for 42 days continuously, sitting at 200 feet,” he said.
Tiwari was on site after hurricanes hit Louisiana and wildfires swept through Colorado this fall. The disasters made communicating by cell phone or internet a challenge in some areas.
But the company’s drones helped provide near-instant Verizon coverage to the zones.
“That is what really excites me. If we can get these systems into the hands of the folks who are actually making a difference, the first responders, the telecom companies of the world who are responding to these disasters, so they can find and save those people, I’ll be a pretty happy dude,” Tiwari said.
Right now, Tiwari and his fellow engineers are making the drones one by one in the Twin Cities.
But the vision for large-scale production is in the Northwoods.
“The best manufacturers in the world sit in northern Wisconsin,” said Williams.
Williams has family ties to Forest County. He believes up to 90 percent of the components can be made there, at companies already making parts for things like trolleys and racing trucks.
Forest County Economic Development Partnership Executive Director Mark Ferris is all in on the plan.
“I don’t think a lot of people outside of Forest County know or understand we have brilliant engineering types here,” Ferris said. “We have the machine shops. We have the support manufacturers that can participate in this whole project.”
To Ferris, the potential for building the drones means jobs.
It means economic diversity.
But it also means a welcome expansion of Forest County’s identity.
“We’ve always had that great reputation for recreation, for logging, for the things that everybody knows Forest County for,” he said. “If you will, it kind of broadens the image of Forest County. I think we have the potential to be known as the technology center of the Upper Midwest.”
Williams thinks every county’s emergency management department should have one of his units. His company is also planning to use the technology to provide rural Northwoods students with better internet connections for remote learning and home assignments.
If they materialize, those goals will be in service of the public and will boost the local economy building drone parts.
“We need those jobs. We need to get our young population coming back and working here,” Williams said. “We put it all together in Forest County, we [can] have a multibillion-dollar industry established in Forest County. It’s really exciting.”
If it all falls into place, said economic developer Mark Ferris, Forest County could be a hub for the flying cell towers, a product whose expectations are sky-high.
“We’re going to see something that literally, literally changes the world.”