Drones: Flying Data Machines Digitizing the World from Above

Man launching drone by lake
by Shawn Krest
Writer
, Movable Media

Drones are becoming essential data collection tools for industries and organizations.

Drones are no longer just flying robots with cameras. They’ve become digital eyes in the sky, harvesting visual data that computers transform into valuable insights and efficiencies.

Today, commercial drones are creating 3D maps of bridges and construction sites, surveying previously unexplored areas of Brazilian rainforest, spotting safe places to mine and helping speed disaster relief efforts. Increasingly they’re tools for digitizing the real world so people can use computer technologies and artificial intelligence (AI) to track and manage things.

“The future of drones is really about the data they capture and what you do with it,” said Ronie Gnecco, innovation manager for UAV Development and Applications at Airbus, who is pioneering how the airline industry can use drones for safety inspections.

“Drones, sensors, database, cloud computing and machine learning are really key for what we are putting together,” he said.

[Read full story: Industrial Drones Put Digital Eye on the Airbus Assembly Line]

Gnecco used Intel’s AscTech Falcon 8 drone to build a system for capturing and processing high quality aerial photos into 3D models of an aircraft. The digital images are analyzed by Airbus design-specific software that allows inspectors to identify damage, locate it precisely and document traces for a verifiable Inspection.

Drone flying over an Airbus plane
Airbus uses the Intel Falcon 8 drone for visual safety inspections. Photo courtesy of Airbus.

“With the Falcon and using software that we’ve developed, it takes about one flight of 10 minutes to fly all around the aircraft, taking 150 high-definition pictures,” he said. Previously, it took two hours for two men hoisted in a cherry picker to quality inspect a new Airbus aircraft.

Drones Digitize the Real World

Sales of commercial drones — used for farming, construction, product delivery and other industries — are expected to grow from a $2 billion global market today to as much as $127 billion by 2020, according to PwC consulting firm.

Drones are taking off in industry because they can save time and money, and keep people safe during dangerous inspections, said Marco Moeller, co-CEO and cofounder of German-based MAVinci, a company acquired by Intel that specializes in unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) for land surveillance and mapping.

“I think drones are a game changer for many industries,” Moeller said. “They can remove a lot of manual interaction, including the need to physically touch things that require measuring.”

MAVinci is integral to building Intel’s end-to-end commercial drone systems, which range from mission planning to data management technologies. Using cloud-based data processing and analytics tools, industries can use drone systems to create 2D or 3D models to help manage infrastructure, equipment and environments. [Learn more about Intel Insight Platform technology.]

MAVinci started in 2009 after technologists met at a national young scientist competition in Germany, and soon the team gained support by the European Space Agency (ESA) to help grow the company. Moeller said MAVinci focused on an “end-to-end automatic toolchain for data capturing and processing.”

Today, they build fully automatic light aircraft equipped with camera and software for flight planning, management, control and data processing.

Autonomous Aerial Data Collection

Programmed with a pre-planned flight plan, the drones rely on specific locations to trigger the camera, which captures digital images of land and Earth-bound objects. Those images are assembled like a mosaic into a 3D digital map.

Drone (i.e. flying data machines)
MAVinci Sirius Pro fixed-wing drones can survey remote landscapes that are too dangerous for human surveyors. Photo courtesy of MAVinci.

“We created precision technology that has a margin of error of less than three centimeters,” said Moeller. “Our technology is used to automatically control and plan flight missions.” Those can include bridge or infrastructure inspections.

Before this precision mapping capability, surveyors had to spray paint big white crosses to mark distances on the ground. Those reference points were measured with special equipment to ensure that they are centered precisely for latitude, longitude and altitude. The crosses serve as landmarks to help calibrate the data that drones gather.

“That is a lot of manual work,” Moeller said. “MAVinci drones don’t need those reference points because it’s programmed to know precisely where it is at all times.”

This can speed up the whole surveying process and save people from performing laborious or dangerous pre-survey scouting. MAVinci also can send drones to places like the rainforest or unstable landscapes where it’s impossible to paint a landmark on the ground.

Gigabytes from the Sky

Moeller said the fixed-wing MAVinci drones generate about 200 gigabytes of digital image data per day.

“We can fill up a really big hard drive pretty quickly with a single drone,” Moeller said.

He said the entire industry is now shifting its focus to managing and analyzing all the data drones capture. The data is most useful for businesses and organizations that need to maintain operations, manage safety and find efficiencies.

“This is where automation, computer vision and artificial intelligence will play a big role in the future,” Moeller said.

Moeller believes the industry will evolve to meet specific needs of particular industries such as natural resource mining, agriculture, insurance and infrastructure.

“The tools that we have right now are primarily volumetric,” he said.

“We can capture and measure sizes and lengths. We can identify precise positions and build maps of land and objects. The ability for drones to capture images with incredible detail that reveal rust, cracks or changes in objects will pave the way for automatic detection capabilities.”

Moeller said the MAVinci Sirius Pro fixed-wing drone can help famers monitor plant health and optimize crop yields as well as reduce water consumption and fertilization costs. It can perform fully automatic flights without the need to set ground control points.

“Their ability to capture data quickly, safely and cost effectively is what will make drones a critical tool for bridging the real with the digital world,” he said.

 

Editor’s note: Learn more about how Intel is bringing new innovations to commercial drones.

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