Classroom to Career: Drone class leads students to entrepreneurship

When JMU alumni, Nick Sipes (Physics, ‘17) and Caoimhe O'Sullivan Roche (WRTC, '17), took a class on building drones, little did the pair know that they would be inspired to launch their own drone company, Canvex, LLC. This collaborative, cross-disciplinary class hosted by JMU’s X-Labs drew JMU students and faculty from Integrated Science and Technology (ISAT), Physics, Biology, and Writing, Rhetoric, and Technical Communication (WRTC) as well as students and faculty from George Mason and George Washington universities. After forming groups based on skill set, students were encouraged to think critically about drone-based applications to socially-driven issues.

Experiential Learning

Funded by a grant through 4-VA and the James Madison University Center for Global Engagement, Caoimhe and Nick's group, City Walls, traveled to Columbia and was tasked with figuring out how to make a three-dimensional model of a section of the historic limestone walls that surround the city of Cartagena. Working with Columbian doctoral student, Manuel Saba, the students used a process called photogrammetry to record precise measurements from aerial photographs.

“Using various programs, we stitched together a series of overlapping photographs of a structure or mass, which resulted in a few workable and exportable formats that we could then edit and readjust, as needed.”

Nick Sipes

Historic Limestone Walls Surround the City of Cartagena, Columbia

Nick and Caoimhe considered the trip a true learning experience, having faced numerous issues with drone technology and such elements as high wind. This experience led them to explore the idea of turning the City Walls project into a drone company.

Caoimhe and Nick were fortunate to be accepted to JMU's inaugural Summer Accelerator cohort through JMU's Center for Entrepreneurship. More than 20 student ventures applied and the best nine were accepted. This program provided the two with resources and financial support to transform the City Walls project from a school project to a fully-functioning, money making enterprise.


Canvex, LLC - Incorporated March 2017

Nick and Caoimhe incorporated in March 2017 as Canvex, LLC. Canvex uses drone technology and photogrammetry to create digital 3D models of sites that can then be integrated into a virtual reality environment for their clients. This process ensures that the site model is as close to the original as possible.

Most recently, Canvex was part of the Picturing Harrisonburg exhibit, hosted by JMU in Duke Hall. They spent most of last summer archiving a multi-century building by flying and editing a 3D model of downtown Harrisonburg's municipal building.

Caoimhe O'Sullivan Roche
Built and remodeled in the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries, it provided yet another challenge for us to capture this building at a high level of fidelity.

Caoimhe O'Sullivan Roche

Looking Toward the Future

Nick and Caoimhe are currently developing a 3D map of JMU’s campus to create an official virtual reality tour that they hope will entice other universities to hire them. The two prepared a pitch presentation through the Center for Entrepreneurship, creating a business model and establishing their plans for future growth.

“We recognize the need for drone-based cinematography because we have already worked with private entities and real estate agents to provide high-quality video for marketing and personal use.”

Nick Sipes

As Canvex grows, Caoimhe and Nick recognize that challenges and uncertainties are to be expected, but they continue to receive considerable guidance from JMU mentors.

Canvex - The Process of Creating of Virtual Reality Content
“We enjoy the autonomy that building a start-up brings and we gladly welcome the pits and peaks that await Canvex in our first year of running the business.”

Caoimhe O'Sullivan Roach

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