A look at new technology innovations shaping the future of consumer and commercial drones.
Sales of Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) are expected to nearly triple in the next three years, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. This growth is driven by drone technology innovation that’s bringing new capabilities and uses for flying robots, beyond fun and entertainment.
Drones are becoming increasingly critical tools for meeting serious business needs.
The new year kicked off with a slew of drone industry announcements at the 2017 International Consumer Electronics Show (CES). Many fit into three categories: drones for industrial use, consumer selfie drones and the adrenalin-fueled world of racing drones. Some drones shrank in size, becoming more nimble, while others became smarter, equipped with autonomous navigation systems and virtual reality capabilities.
Drones That See and Think
“Vision and collision avoidance came along in 2016,” said Anil Nanduri, vice president in the New Technologies Group and general manager of the UAV segment at Intel, adding that those technologies are becoming standard in new drone models.
“This year we’ll see more redundancy built into systems to provide backup support in case vision fails,” he said. “These sensing technologies will help drones fly in fog and all-weather environments.”
For example, the Yuneec Typhoon H drone with Intel RealSense 3D camera technology avoids obstacles by creating a 3D map of what it sees in real time, and “remembering” where things are to navigate around them.
DJI’s new models released in 2016, the Mavic Pro and Phantom 4, use forward- and downward-facing vision sensors to detect obstacles. DJI’s newest professional cinema drone, the Inspire 2, takes this up a notch by including upward-facing infrared sensors to enhance collision avoidance in enclosed spaces.
Computer vision and artificial intelligence are making drones easier and safer to fly.
“There will be more automation — from launching the drone, flying it and capturing the data, to being able to transmit that data and automatically analyze it,” Nanduri said. “Because drones are getting smarter at knowing what to do, the amount of skill required by a drone pilot will drop.”
In addition to beyond-line-of-sight flying capabilities and innovation in fixed wing and multi-rotor hybrid drones, Nanduri said security will become critical to the future of drones, just like it is for any internet-connected device.
“The good thing is that security technology already exists,” he said. “It just needs to be adopted.”
Nanduri also pointed to the positive impact of regulations, particularly the FAA’s Part 107 waiver. He said these common rules for operating drones in the U.S. are making it easier for people and businesses to turn their ideas for drones into reality.
“This waiver set standards for commercial use of drones, eliminating a painstaking waiver request process,” he said. “By putting these rules in place, the FAA is changing the U.S. from being a laggard to a leader in drone technology.”
Three main aspects of Part 107 include: A flying drone must remain in the operator’s line of sight; drones must not fly above 400 feet; and operators must have a pilot’s license to fly unmanned vehicles.
Nanduri sees the Part 107 waiver as a key to unlocking new uses for drones in a variety of industries, ranging from real estate and industrial inspection to agriculture and public safety services.
“Many industry leaders and individuals are looking at how they can monetize drones for commercial use.”
Industrial Drone Innovation
Drone pioneer DJI announced it took a majority stake in Hasselblad, the 75-year-old Swedish camera equipment maker whose technology was used by NASA during the Mercury and Apollo missions. This marriage between a legendary camera company with the world’s biggest consumer drone manufacturer signals that a significant increase in aerial image capturing is on the horizon.
Autel Robotics, a manufacturer of multi-rotor and fixed-wing drones, introduced two new cameras for their X-Star Premium line of quadcopters. Squarely aimed at professionals, the FLIR Duo thermal imaging camera will be a boon to firefighters and building contractors. Autel is also releasing a 4K camera with a 1-inch CMOS sensor, greatly improving the resolution and clarity over their existing camera module.
These and other drone innovations could inspire new industrial uses for drones.
For example, aircraft maker Airbus now conducts airplane inspections using a AscTec Falcon 8, manufactured by Intel-owned Ascending Technologies. Their drone captures high definition images of aircraft, then those images are quickly analyzed by computers to help find imperfections.
“Drones, sensors, database, cloud computing and machine learning are really key for what we are putting together,” said Ronnie Gnecco, innovation manager for UAV Development and Applications at Airbus.
Gnecco said it usually takes two hours for two men hoisted in a cherry picker to quality inspect a new Airbus aircraft. With a camera-equipped UAV, his team can produce better data from the 150 high-definition pictures captured in about 10 minutes.
Selfie Drone Innovation
Selfie drones, something that really hit the scene at CES 2015 with Nixie, continue to improve and proliferate. At CES 2017, there were tiny new models, some even folded to fit in shirt pocket, like the Zerotech Dobby Drone.
Controlled by a smartphone app, the Dobby folds out to automatically take selfie photos and video with its electronic image stabilized 4k camera. It includes several “smart” features such as facial recognition, tracking and gesture control — tools that allow pilots to put down the controller and watch as Dobby navigates on its own.
The Wingsland S6 takes the pocket selfie drone in a new direction by adding a foam dart canon. The Wingsland S6 is safe to fly indoors and outside as it uses optical flow sensors for indoor use and GPS for outdoor. It’s packed with many features that have become standard on more expensive DJI drones, such as a 4K camera, autonomous flight modes and automatic return to home during signal loss or low battery.
An interesting take on the pocket selfie drone is the Selfly, a pocket drone that fits into a smartphone case much like a Transformer robot. Still just a Kickstarter-backed dream, it takes a leap in innovative design and functionality by taking advantage of what most people carry with them everywhere: a smartphone.
Racing Drone Innovation
What was once a fringe passion by adrenaline junkies has become serious business. Traditionally, to be a good drone racer you had to know how to build a great racing drone. Now, ready-to-fly rigs are flourishing.
One such entry is the UVify Draco, a high-speed quadcopter built for serious FPV (first person view) racing. Boasting 100 mph speeds, a carbon-fiber airframe, modular parts for easy replacement and an HD digital live video FPV transmission system with zero latency.
The digital FPV-video system is especially notable as most FPV systems used by hobbyist and pro racers are analog based. Digital systems have existed but tend to be significantly more expensive and with some amount of latency in the video feed.
Another contender is the Connex Falcore by Amimon, a company known for making zero-latency wireless video transmission systems. The Falcore is a racing quadcopter with two notable features. The first is the inclusion of a wireless digital FPV transmission system and the second is its “SHIELD” mode — a way for beginner pilots to learn to fly without having to worry about managing the altitude stick. The Falcore will stay locked at a fixed distance above the ground, letting the new pilot focus only on mastering turns.
FPV video is streamed to a smartphone that, when fitted into a Google Cardboard viewer, delivers a “VR experience.” The drone is controlled by your head movements while wearing the viewer.
Being a fixed-wing aircraft, the PowerUp is a lot more sensitive to wind than a typical quadcopter racer. This contender likely won’t win any serious drone races, though the novelty of sitting in the cockpit of a paper airplane is quite unique.
Ken Kaplan contributed to this story.