The route to a fully autonomous drone

The evolution of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), more commonly known as drones, is developing at a rapid pace. Not only is the technology progressing, but regulations are being adapted to encourage wider adoption.

With the new FAA Part 107 Rules in the USA, users no longer need to have a commercial pilot license to operate a drone and in the UK, the National Air Traffic Control Service (NATS) is laying the foundation for drones to fly beyond their operators’ line of sight – due to the development of new technology that can track small unmanned devices at low altitude.

The release of applications is also starting to complement a wider variety of industries, inspiring further implementation. UAVs have come a long way since the Kettering Bug, a drone developed during the First World War.

>See also: Are drones set to become the biggest threat to national security?

Today, they are being used to monitor climate change, gather information following natural disasters and on search and rescue missions in challenging terrain. According to Gartner, 2016 saw 110,000 drones sold for commercial use alone. That figure rose to 174,000 last year and the number of consumer drones to 2.8 million. The industry is undeniably growing.

The most exciting part of this growth is how drones are allowing businesses to explore in new ways, look at landscapes from a different perspective and capture data. For example, a 100-acre construction site can be visually captured by a pre-programmed drone in 10 minutes. Compare this to traditional methods, where a manual survey would have taken a team the best part of a month to complete, and the benefits of drones start to become clear to see.

Understanding barriers to construction can take months to identify through manual surveying, wasting considerable resource in the process and delaying project completion. And, not only are drones proving to cut time and costs, they are also offering businesses a safer way to operate.

Taking flight

Despite the drone being around since the early 1900s, the technology has only just started to lend itself more strategically in the last two decades. Since then, technologies for drones have developed and grown exponentially and simple capabilities – such as controlling a camera and satellite navigation – are now seen as standard.

This rapid development and the fact that the pace is showing no signs of slowing down, indicates drones have the potential to become fully autonomous agents in the digital workforce of the future. In fact, Skydio’s recent reveal of the R1, proves just that. The reality of driverless cars is just around the corner, so this statement is not at all far-fetched.

>See also: What do drones mean for cityscapes?

The fully autonomous drone will have the ability to follow pre-loaded instructions, take off, land, follow a moving target, avoid collisions, capture data, perform post flight analysis and store valuable information. All operators will need to do is type in a command, wait to review and then choose the follow up actions. Anything more complicated simply will not succeed in this competitive market.

As they already do, drones of the near future will look to assist humanity, but more independently. They will perform tasks that have an uncomfortable amount of risk attached to them, that save us time and that do not require a human touch. For this reason, it’s been estimated that global militaries will spend $70 billion on drones by 2020. This will remove the need for constantly manned aircraft, with the idea being to mitigate the need to place pilots in potentially dangerous situations and collect indisputable information.

Nevertheless, as is always the case with developing technology, there are still many loose ends to the vision. If we want a product to work seamlessly for every customer, many ends need to be tied up and supported. Building a fully autonomous drone with all the necessary supporting systems is almost a certain reality of the future, but it can be accelerated by adopting some enabling technologies and methodologies. The following strategies aim to help your business bring a fully autonomous drone to customers at a competitive speed.

Five strategies to build a fully autonomous drone

1. Born connected

Today’s smartphones, wearables and tablets are designed with ‘born connected architecture’ – meaning they are expected to perform best when they are connected to the internet. Drones are modelled in the same vein – as Dario Floreano, a roboticist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology said, “drones have really been riding the smartphone revolution”. Ultimately, all subsystems within the drones, such as camerarbotic systems, are connected so they can be monitored, programmed and updated on the internet. This allows drones to improve over time as they are continuously being updated. If you want your customers to be impressed, offering updates and designing drones that are ‘born connected’ is essential.

>See also: New UK drone safety regulation: is it enough?

2. Onboard intelligence

When the technology for drones is connected and sensors are in place to ensure vitals are working effectively, they start generating data. As in most industries today, data is invaluable.

However, in the past drones have struggled to cope. When data is aggregated for large machines, its operational capabilities decrease as the servers cannot cope with the volume of information.

New edge computing is therefore changing the game, as all that data no longer needs to be sent to the cloud for processing. The basic analytical processing can be done in the device directly and insight can be used for operational decision making on the spot. If used effectively, edge computing will open a whole new set of operational possibilities; embedding onboard intelligence means data will determine the mission, not the other way around.

3. Harness AI in the cloud

The introduction of edge computing does not mean cloud computing will become a thing of the past. The cloud is still king when it comes to processing historical trends and aggregating data. It also enables AI capabilities to be harnessed. Getting to grips with the possibilities of AI will only help in gaining further insights and enable timely decision making. An example of this in practice is the actions of the Japanese government.

>See also: EXCLUSIVE: The drone industry through the eyes of its regulator – CAA

In 2016, prime minister, Shinzo Abe, unveiled a campaign to utilise drones and artificial intelligence to increase productivity at construction sites by 20% by 2025. PwC, Stanford University and the World Economic Forum also released a series of reports that analysed ways that emerging technologies could aid sustainability efforts. AI and drones were top of their lists.

4. Miniaturisation

Other than the technology, weight is one of the most important components to making a successful drone. Miniaturisation relates to the size of sensors, cameras and onboards smart equipment – the smaller the better. Continuously monitoring for trends that help maximise these miniaturised pieces of technology will undoubtedly help build the next generation of drones.

5. Predictive fleet management

Finally, fleets of autonomous drones need monitoring. The human touch is still needed. Sensors and the IoT can help build robust drone monitoring solutions as well as predictive asset management; which is already making an impact. Data collected from the drones can be put into these asset monitoring solutions to establish proactive fleet health monitoring systems. Ultimately, this is essential for a fully autonomous system.

>See also: Commercial drones in the city of the future

The future is undeniably exciting for drones, let alone autonomous drones. Not only is the technology becoming more sophisticated, but so is its popularity. Between now and 2020, Goldman and Sachs forecast a $100 billion market opportunity for drones – helped by growing demand from the commercial and civil government sectors.

From Amazon deliveries, which are on schedule to be launched in the UK by next year, to scanning an unreachable military base, drones are proving to be extremely beneficial in places where man cannot reach or is unable to perform in a timely and efficient manner. Whether it be increasing work efficiency and productivity or improving accuracy, refining service and customer relations, drones are proving indispensable.


Sourced by Bhoopathi Rapolu, head of Analytics EMEA, Cyient

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Nick Ismail

Nick Ismail is a former editor for Information Age (from 2018 to 2022) before moving on to become Global Head of Brand Journalism at HCLTech. He has a particular interest in smart technologies, AI and...