The Future of Drone Technology
Drone designers and software developers are always unleashing new possibilities. It can be hard keeping up with all the new Drone technology entering the market constantly, So to give you an idea of where we are currently in the advancement of this technology, Here is a breakdown by generation.
- Generation 1: Basic Remote Control Aircraft of all forms.
- Generation 2: Static Design, Fixed Camera Mount, Video Recording / Still Photos, Manual Piloting Control.
- Generation 3: Static Design, 2 Axis Gimbals, HD Video, Basic Safety Models, Assisted Piloting.
- Generation 4: Transformative Designs, 3 Axis Gimbals, 1080P HD Vide or Higher Value Instrumentation, Improved Safety Modes, Autopilot Modes.
Generation 5: Transformative Designs, 360° Gimbals, 4K Video or Higher Value Instrumentation, , Intelligent Piloting Modes. Most would agree, This is where we are with current Drone Technology, while some of the higher end professional grade Drones have started to cross into the next generation with the more Automated Safety Modes.
- Generation 6: Commercial Suitability, Safety & Regulatory Standards Based Design, Platform & Payload Adaptability, Automated Safety Modes, Intelligent Piloting Models and Full Autonomy, Airspace Aware
- Generation 7: Commercial Suitability, Fully Compliant Safety & Regulatory Standards Based Design, Platform & Payload Interchangeability, Automated Safety Modes, Enhanced Intelligent Piloting Models and Full Autonomy, Full Airspace Awareness, Auto Action (takeoff, land, mission execution)
What are Smart Drones?
The same kinds of magnetometers, gyros, accelerometers, GPS modules and processors as those used in our smart phones are used in modern quadcopters. This technology will continue to improve and be part of the next generation of Drones known as “SMART DRONES“.
These “SMART DRONES” will have more efficient motors, better on board processors and software, more accurate sensors and built-in compliance technology for safe, effective flight control that will provide new opportunities in transport and logistics.
Recently, 3DR announced Solo, The world’s first Smart Drone, an all-in-one personal drone whose ease of use and powerful new features kick off a new aerial age. What makes it smart? Not only does Solo have the world’s most advanced autopilot system, but it also runs two 1 GHz computers. This processing power enables Solo to do amazing things that no personal drone has ever been able to do.
They will be totally autonomous Drones, delivering data in real time, constructed of high impact plastics making the drones lighter and more robust, needing no input or control from the pilot once the destination or task is set.
Smart sensors will control and monitor flight. Guided by computer vision systems along with object detection and collision avoidance programs. New forms of artificial intelligence or algorithms will make them even more adaptable.
The main goal is to have Smarter drones with built-in safeguards, networked together to enable coordination, collaboration and real time data delivery, This will open entirely new fields of drone applications such as automatic delivery of goods or emergency services.
Take for instance, currently sending a drone out in harsh weather would be a matter of hoping for the best, but researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) believe they have developed a solution.
The team have created an algorithm that enables a drone to keep an eye on its own “health” while in flight and take action as necessary. The drone can monitor its fuel levels, and watch out for damage to its propellers, cameras and sensors. If a problem is found, the drone can take an alternative route that includes a charging station, or select another action to minimise potential damage. Such a self-monitoring system is important to the commercial viability of drone delivery, because it will help to make sure packages actually arrive at their intended destination.
Why is this important? Next-generation Smart Drones could be fitted with technology that allows them to hook into the cloud-based UTM system, which would provide constant communication, navigation and surveillance, directing drones and warning them of congestion or severe weather ahead. Industrial and agricultural applications are likely to be among the first commercial drone applications that gain traction in the US.
Another growing concern is that of identifying the drone, here’s an idea, LightCense is a new technology the uses visible color blink sequence to create an identification system. It allows the use of camera devices, like smartphones, to capture the identification code just using an app.
Future Technology Improvements
Batteries will get Better
While Drone Technology itself has been able to make smaller, lighter components, One aspect of the industry is lagging… POWER. With current batteries only lasting 25-30 minutes max. The need for a light weight, long- lasting battery or power source for Drones and other UAVs has got to be at the top of the list.
Currently there are smaller more powerful batteries being developed along with other power systems being tested and impressive results have been achieved with these systems. This technology would enable Drones to fly for hours instead of minutes.
Fuel cells, currently being developed by Horizon Unmanned Systems (HUS), based in Singapore, has unveiled its Hycopter drone, which the company claims is the world’s first hydrogen fuel cell powered multi-rotor and can stay in the air 4 hours at a time – 2.5 hours when carrying a 2.2-pound payload.
Top Flight, a startup out of Malden, Mass., says it has the answer to the range problem in the form of hybrid propulsion. The company’s drones in development carry gasoline-powered generators that charge their onboard batteries in flight. The result is a drone with six 26-inch rotors that can fly more than two hours at a time in gusts of up to 35 miles per hour, while carrying payloads such as cameras, infrared sensors, or crop-spraying equipment.
Edison, N.J.-based Sunlight Photonics can lay claim to the first commercially available drone that runs entirely on solar power. The company, which was founded in 2008, unveiled the Sunlink-5 last May.
Cameras will be an intricate part of Smart Drones
With 3D sensing technology, cameras will not only be used for aerial photography , the feedback to on-board computers will be used for orientation, navigation and recognition to implement obstacle avoidance. Improved gimbal designs will give great results from even the smallest rigs.
DJI, the largest drone manufacturer in the world, announced two new cameras for its high-end Inspire drone, The Zenmuse X5 and X5R are the first micro four thirds cameras designed specifically for aerial use and will offer drone pilots 13 stops of dynamic range, 16 megapixel resolution and the ability to shoot 24fps and 30fps 4k video — as well as standard still pictures, of course.
Software will enable Drones to analyse their surroundings
Rather than use on-board systems that increase weight and demand more battery power, Computer Vision Software will allow you to stream video back to an object recognition server. This will enabled Drones to analyse terrain and act according to certain sets of pre- defined instructions. Sophisticated Pattern Recognition Software will act in a similar manner, streaming data back and forth from the drones to servers and vice versa. Fully autonomous Mission Planning Software will enable you to change settings, apply a GPS guided mode and operate aerial mapping tools.
These software algorithms that control flight are being re-written by a fanatical community of DIY open source contributors. Formed in late 2014, Dronecode brings together existing open source drone projects and assets under one umbrella organization governed by The Linux Foundation.
It currently coordinates and prioritizes funding for six initiatives, 28 Dronecode members and more than 1,200 developers who are collaborating on a standard platform for consumer and commercial drone projects.
DJI also introduced an SDK (software development kit) for its Inspire 1 and Phantom 3 drones. The system is meant to allow developers to build applications for those devices.
San Diego, Calif.-based 3D Robotics Founded in 2009, is a leader in the hobbyist drone market. They have also developed a line of open-source software for command, management and tracking of various types of drones. Pixhawk is an advanced autopilot system and DroneKit that offers an SDK and web API to easily develop apps for your drones.
Sensors to detect and avoid obstacles
The biggest hurdle for Drone technology to clear in order to gain FAA approval for commercial use, is development of systems to prevent them from crashing into people or property, each other and even more important, into manned aircraft.
The key challenge in developing such a “sense-and-avoid” system has been developing technology that can reliably detect the presence – and the course – of other aircraft and obstacles in real-time and to engineer it into a package small enough and light enough for quadcopter drones.
If Amazon Prime Air or other drone delivery systems are ever going to take off, “sense-and-avoid” systems technology will play a key role integrating these drones into service.
Sense-and-Avoid Systems in Development:
Ascending Technologies and Intel have signed an agreement to work on developing collision avoidance technology and algorithms for Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAVs).
Demo of RealSense 3D sensing technology on an AscTec Firefly drone flying through the course.
Drone operators and businesses relying on drone services will largely benefit from the unprecedented simplicity and safety of drone operations close to obstacles using this new technology.
SkySpecs Guardian is a seamless co-pilot that takes over flight control when an obstacle is nearby or a collision is imminent. Once the risk has been averted, Guardian fully relinquishes control to the human operator. The operator need not know, necessarily, that he or she was even assisted, thus enabling even inexperienced or novice drone operators to fly confidently and without risk to persons or property.
Most of use have heard about the Panoptes Ebumper, the first commercially available, sonar-based, small drone obstacle avoidance system designed specifically for low speed and indoor operations.
The eBumper4 is the first sonar-based small drone obstacle avoidance system. It uses four sensors to provide the UAS with information about its physical environment. When it senses an obstacle, it bumps off the obstacle, keeping the UAS from crashing into it. This enables the pilot to safely navigate the drone away from the obstacle. Currently available for the 3D Robotics Iris+ and DJI Phantom line of drones.
This year Ascending Technologies, SkySpecs and Panoptes all demonstrated collision avoidance technologies that together will greatly improve the industry’s safety offerings. None of these products currently provides for perfectly safe system, but the improvements are pushing in the right direction and drones will only get safer as products like these develop. However, much more work is required to make drones safer as this international industry matures.
It should come as no surprise that DJI is at the forefront of the drone industry once again with its new Matrice 100 quadcopter. The Matrice 100 is designed specifically for developers to help test new sensors, processors and other tech as it’s optimized for use with DJI’s software development kit (SDK).
One of the features of the bare-bones Matrice 100 is Guidance, which uses multiple stereo and ultrasonic sensors that allows the drone to automatically avoid obstacles within 65 feet. Guidance can also stabilize the Matrice 100 with centimeter accuracy above the ground.
As these technologies continue to develop, Drones will be safer and more reliable. As more businesses start to find more uses for drones, the use of a “Drone Super Highway” will need to be established and in service.
Despite all these opportunities and advances in Drone Technology, the market for civilian and humanitarian drones is likely to remain relatively small over the next few years because of legislation.
With the recent introduction of the Consumer Drone Safety Act, a bill from Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) that is calling for more restrictions on consumer drone flights in the United States.
The bill, which was created in response to the growing number of near-collisions between drones and commercial airplanes, wants to regulate the maximum height for flight, the weather and time-of-day conditions for flight, and any areas or circumstances where flights may be prohibited or limited, such as near airports.
The bill, if passed, would require drone manufacturers to update existing consumer drones to meet these new safety restrictions by adding technologies such as collision avoidance, geo-fencing, “anti-tampering” safeguards and more.
There are still many obstacles to overcome, especially safety and privacy issues, but one thing is certain Drones will become more common in the near future. Over the next few years, Drone technology will become better in every way — providing safer, more automated and quieter drones, as they gain capabilities we can’t even imagine today.