Drones are becoming the eyes in the sky for farmers, oilrig workers, realtors and many others, enabling them to perform previously impossible tasks. But as more drones occupy our airspace, potentially hazardous situations arise. A drone once landed on the White House lawn and ISIS has started arming drones with small explosive devices. How do you protect critical infrastructure and sensitive areas from the spying eyes of a drone? With sensors and software rather than lasers and guns.
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How do you protect critical infrastructure or sensitive areas from the spying eyes of a drone? With sensors and software rather than lasers and guns.
Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are becoming the eyes in the sky for farmers, oilrig workers, realtors and many others, enabling them to perform previously impossible...
The next industrial revolution may be zooming around just above our heads. From maximizing crop yields to inspecting wind turbines and checking insurance claims, the increasing capability, affordability and availability of unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, is set to radically change the way many companies do business.
Most of us are familiar with recreational drones, and even their burgeoning use by Google and Amazon. But with the commercial drone industry now gathering momentum, package delivery is just the tip of the iceberg. The number of drones on DirectIndustry.com gives a good idea of the size of the market.
According to a 2016 report by consulting firm PwC, the global market for drones, currently valued at around $2 billion, could replace nearly $130 billion worth of business services and human labor over the next few years.
Underpinned by new technology, the creation of regulatory frameworks and growing awareness, the economic case for drone use is increasingly compelling.
Developments in sensor technology are playing a vital role in the proliferation of ever smarter drones. Boasting cutting-edge sensors for RGB (visible light), multispectral, hyperspectral and thermal imaging, as well as for laser (LiDAR) scanning, they are increasingly used in industrial sectors such as infrastructure and agriculture. Michal Mazur is head of PwC’s Drone Powered Solutions team.
The quality and quantity of data being collected by drones is a real game changer. For example, drones will allow farming to become a highly data-driven industry, leading to increased productivity and yields.
Swiss firm senseFly manufactures aerial imaging drones for surveying, agriculture, industrial inspection, mining and humanitarian use. Its newest high-spec, multifunctional offering, the eBee Plus, boasts a photogrammetry-optimized RGB sensor, next-gen flight and data management software and the ability to use satellite data for precise positioning. Replaceable sensors embody the drone’s multifunctionality. Jean-Christophe Zufferey is senseFly CEO.
The eBee Plus can map more square kilometers per flight than any drone in its weight class. It’s all about efficient, survey-grade accuracy.
UK-based QuestUAV also produces drones for surveying and mapping, with commercial applications across industrial sectors such as mining, agriculture, construction and infrastructure. The company’s drones carry reusable parachutes, allowing them to land almost vertically. Non-standard sensors can be used to measure air quality and other variables.
Pushing the Boundaries
Courtesy of Xamen
With the ability to go places that humans can’t, or won’t, commercial drones are increasingly important in industrial sectors as diverse as energy and security.
The LE 4-8X Dual ATEX from French manufacturer Xamen is the first drone certified for operation in explosive atmospheres. It uses wooden propellers and special wiring to prevent sparks, while the machine’s operating temperature never exceeds 100° C. Thibault Sergent is Xamen’s sales manager.
The drone is targeted at clients such as operators of oil tankers and LNG carriers and the industrial chemical sector. It not only reduces risk, but slashes maintenance costs too.
With commercial drones increasingly adept at navigating their immediate environment, they also can go farther and faster.
Chinese firm Yuneec claims that its Typhoon H is the first drone able to detect obstacles and intelligently navigate around them, regardless of operator input. Omid Maddah of the communications team explained:
Our Intel Realsense sensor performs millions of depth-point calculations a second. Via the sensor, the drone can actually memorize its environment, dramatically reducing the risk of collision.
Courtesy of Yuneec
Barriers to Uptake
One of the biggest bottlenecks in the development of the market is the legislation. Drone-related regulations struggle to play catch-up with advancing technology, says Martin Eriya, Head of Digital Media at QuestUAV.
Technical hurdles in the advancement of safety features are the biggest challenge facing commercial drone manufacturers today.
The proliferation of commercial drones also has driven the development of safety-related software and services. North Carolina-based PrecisionHawk launched its LATAS airspace safety platform last year, purportedly the only one to link drones, three-dimensional ground data and real-time manned aircraft data from the FAA.
The lack of vendors capable of offering true end-to-end solutions is another obstacle. Drone-based solutions require more than just a solid flying platform paired with a sensor.
For Jean-Thomas Celette, senseFly’s head of sales and marketing,
Professional software and localized, end-user support and training are crucial. Ultimately, drone-based solutions need to seamlessly integrate with a company’s existing processes.
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The drone revolution can take off only if improved battery technology allows UAVs to stay aloft longer.
While drones are getting smaller, faster and sturdier, one aspect has seen little recent improvement: batteries. Most quadcopters can fly only 20-30 minutes on a charge, and even less with heavier payloads or on windy days. Fixed wing models offer slightly longer flight times.
Gretchen West is co-executive director at Commercial Drone Alliance:
If you’re using a drone for surveillance or to monitor power lines or farms, 20 minutes in the air is very limiting. You won’t get very far.
While current performance is good enough for filmmakers, real estate agents and some others, the need for longer battery life is great.
The benefit of a drone is to increase efficiency by freeing people for other tasks. If you have to switch batteries all the time, that’s no good.
Charging on the Go
Skysense has developed a charging station for drones that can be put in the field, for example atop buildings. Consisting of modular 50 cm square pads, the device begins charging automatically as soon as the drone touches down. The addition of two small, light springs to the landing gear makes the system compatible with most drones on the market. It charges as fast as a regular unit. The pad can be plugged into an electrical socket or powered by solar panels, and works even in rain and extreme weather conditions. The system eliminates the need for field personnel to swap or recharge batteries.
Andrea Puiatti is CEO of Skysense:
With our technology you can eliminate delays, remove people from the equation and operate the drone in remote locations.
Most commercial drones use lithium-ion batteries, but no giant leaps forward have been made. People have started looking to other energy technologies.
Hybrid propulsion drones may be the way forward to longer missions. Much like hybrid cars, they switch between an electric motor for vertical take-off and landing and an internal combustion engine for horizontal flight of up to several hours on a gallon of gasoline. But drones running on fuel fall under different regulatory restrictions and are currently more expensive.
SolidEnergy Systems has developed a lithium-metal battery half the size of an iPhone 6 battery and promising even higher capacity. It uses a metal anode rather than the graphite one found in Li-ion batteries, doubling the energy density. SolidEnergy’s batteries can be used in a wide range of technologies, but the company is targeting drones as their initial market.
Courtesy of Kokam
South Korean battery manufacturer Kokam recently launched a nickel-manganese-cobalt (NMC) drone battery with an energy density of 265 watt-hours per kilo. This will increase operating time by 20% over the average lithium-ion battery.
Research into alternative battery technologies is limited by the very high cost of bringing them to market. According to Lux Research, it costs about $1 billion over six years to commercialize new battery technology.
Kay Wackwitz is CEO and founder of Drone Industry Insights, a market research company based in Hamburg, Germany.
Metaphorically speaking, we’re flying with a Nokia 3210 today and nobody can imagine that it will soon reach a whole new level with iPhone technology. However, battery life will increase over the next year since many industries have a strong interest in it.
Overcoming limited range—whether through charging stations or better batteries—is a crucial step for drone technology to move forward. Gretchen West adds:
For the future development of our industry, drones must be autonomous. We don’t want people to fly them or change batteries. They should just fly their mission and come back, meaning endurance will be very important.
Camille Rustici is a Video Journalist and the Editor-in-Chief for DirectIndustry e-magazine. She has years of experience in business issues for various media including France 24, Associated Press, Radio France…