Could Fully Autonomous Drones Be A Reality Sooner Than We Think?

Drones have come a long way since their inception in the early 1900s

22Mar

The evolution of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) 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 most exciting part of the industry’s growth is how drones are enabling us 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

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.

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.

While building a fully autonomous drone with all the necessary supporting systems is almost a certain reality of the future, it can be accelerated by adopting some enabling technologies and methodologies. The following five strategies aim to help businesses bring fully autonomous drones to market at a competitive speed.

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 modeled 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 camera robotic 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.

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. However, 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 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.

4. Miniaturization

Other than the technology, weight is one of the most important components to making a successful drone. Miniaturization relates to the size of sensors, cameras, and smart equipment – the smaller the better. Continuously monitoring for trends that help maximize these miniaturized 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.

The future is undeniably exciting for drones. Between now and 2020, Goldman 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.

Sunset

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