Photo: Photo FLA
Ready for Takeoff
Improving Aviation, a Tampa startup, is using drones to fight wildfires and modernize flight.
Rocio Frej Vitalle, 33
Founder and CEO, Improving Aviation, Tampa
The big idea
Air travel and cargo transport are major contributors to carbon emissions. To address the challenge, innovators are starting small. Advanced electric-powered aviation technologies, such as drones, combined with geospatial mapping and artificial intelligence, can be used to modernize the industry. The technologies also can predict and track wildfires, monitor water quality and deliver supplies to remote areas, says Tampa entrepreneur and aerospace engineer Rocio Frej Vitalle.
“I started Improving Aviation with the mission to develop high-tech aerospace technologies that enable a more sustainable, autonomous and innovative industry,” says Vitalle. “We develop aerospace technologies to enable the next generation of transportation.”
Originally from Zaragoza in northeastern Spain, Vitalle moved to the U.S. when she was 18 to play tennis, first at Boise State and then at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. She was a phenom on the court, but she also had sky-high ambitions in her aerospace engineering studies. She excelled in the discipline, earning an invitation to join the honor society for aerospace engineering and distinguishing herself as a researcher.
In 2013, with her degree in hand, Vitalle moved to Washington, D.C., to work for a government contractor serving the Federal Aviation Administration, NASA and the U.S. Department of Transportation. After a few years, she was able to work remotely and returned to Florida, where she began working on a master’s degree in civil engineering at the University of South Florida, specializing in urban air mobility flight system design and traffic management. After seven years with the contractor, she was itching to join the startup world: “I wanted to do something more creative, more dynamic, more fun.”
Vitalle mulled a few startup offers but ultimately decided to launch Improving Aviation in 2020. She says contacts she made in her industry helped open the doors to opportunities and subcontracts for her new company, giving her a solid start with FAA work.
Improving Aviation builds technology that enables traditional and emerging aircraft systems to work together and has won competitive government grants to further develop drone-based intelligence analysis and information management for climate-related issues. Now, in addition to serving the FAA, Improving Aviation is working with NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to develop a portable air traffic management system that uses drone technology to provide real-time insights and analysis for fighting wildfires.
“What’s exciting about our wildfire work is that we can actually impact environmental policy,” says Vitalle. “If we’re successful, it’s going to really change the way firefighters reallocate their resources and we think we can save lives by predicting where secondary fires could generate.”
Improving Aviation also is evolving its current airspace technology for the U.S. Air Force for management of concurrent manned and unmanned missions and for providing automated intelligence reports using drone video data. Closer to home, the startup hopes to use its tech for water quality control with a crowd-sourced force of drone operators providing data. “By collecting data like this, we can monitor and detect spots where there is red tide much earlier than when outbreaks have already happened and you're sending your people to take water samples,” Vitalle says of the early-stage project.
Improving Aviation — now a team of nine engineers, data scientists, AI experts and entrepreneurs — generates revenue from government contracts and grants such as through the federal Small Business Innovation Research program. The company is on track for “a couple of million dollars” in non-equity funding from government sources this year, Vitalle says.
Vitalle hopes to provide services to the U.S. Department of Defense, particularly with the increasing intensity of hurricanes, wildfires, snowstorms and floods. She plans to provide products and services to the private sector as well. Drone delivery missions, city mapping and smart agriculture are some of the other frontiers her Improving Aviation team could explore, she says.
Community on board
For startups, human resources are always in short supply. “As a startup, we don’t have a marketing department. We don't have a proposal writing department or business development,” says Vitalle. “But the community has been amazing.”
Embry-Riddle is Improving Aviation’s key technical partner. Faculty members and about 20 students from the colleges of engineering and aviation have been intimately involved with the startup, helping to create the traffic development platform and testing it out during drone flights on campus, she says. In December, an Embry-Riddle team accompanied Vitalle’s team to a prescribed burn in Tallahassee where they flew drones to show how the traffic management platform performed.
In 2021, Vitalle participated in a Tampa Bay Wave startup accelerator for female tech entrepreneurs, and the Florida High Tech Corridor, a tech sector support organization formed by USF, University of Central Florida and University of Florida, helped Vitalle with the government grant proposals that ended up winning the NASA and NOAA work. Experts with the Tampa Bay Technology Incubator, part of USF Connect, provide support in business development, market research, website review and more, she says.
- 17.4%: Percentage of female aerospace engineers.
- $2.5 billion: Average annual federal spending on fire suppression, 2016-20.