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More than flight: true end-to-end automation in commercial UAVs

Posted December 10, 2017

Though drones have simmered in the public consciousness as military tools for a number of years and have recently blown up as a must-have tech toy, drones have actually been in existence for almost a century.

This first drone was more or less a flying bomb with a fuselage and wings made out of wood laminate, papiermâché and cardboard (yes, really) powered by a four-cylinder engine made by Ford. Drones have obviously come a long way since the cardboard-winged variety took flight, but industrial unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in particular are only beginning to unlock their full potential, particularly with drone systems that feature true end-to-end automation. While autonomous flight capability is being hailed as a game-changer in commercial UAVs, there’s a lot more that goes into true end-to-end automation than just the ability to fly without a human pilot. The best commercial UAVs can take care of themselves completely, thank you very much.

Flying solo

Requiring human operators has always been the biggest factor preventing commercial drones from delivering on the time and money savings that have been promised by these solutions since they initially came into existence. Having a human pilot available to fly missions required organizations to either handsomely pay a third-party operator, or get an internal employee certified as a drone operator. This is a big enough expense for preplanned missions let alone having either type of operator on-call for on-demand flights. However, without a dedicated drone pilot ready and waiting to fly, there is virtually no chance of a standard industrial drone being able to fly immediately in response to an emergency.

So it’s understandable that the autonomous flight capabilities leading commercial drones are now equipped with have been heralded by companies all over the globe. A UAV’s ability to launch, fly and land on its own eliminates the expense of the pilot while opening up opportunities made possible by on-demand flight applications, including emergency response. It also eliminates the chance of human error, which improves the quality of the flight and the precision of the data being gathered while protecting the very expensive drone from the lumps and bumps that would otherwise occur in the difficult flying conditions that often accompany industrial sites. Drone pilots are by and large excellent at what they do, but as it turns out, no one can fly a drone quite like a drone.

Dealing with data

As essential as those autonomous flight capabilities are, a UAV mission involves more than just flying. The other major component of a UAV mission is the collection of data. For UAVs that offer autonomous flight but lack true automation, this requires a payload operator to be in charge of collecting the tremendous amount of data required by organizations from their commercial drones. Requiring human operators for payloads or sensors once again cuts into the time and money savings, all but eliminates the ability to fly on-demand or as emergency response, and reintroduces the chances of human error.

A drone with true automation automates data collection as well as data processing. This greatly increases how much data a drone is able to collect since a human operator doesn’t need to be taking the photos, measurements or completing other application specific data collection tasks, and human employees aren’t stuck trying to make sense of the avalanche of data a UAV is capable of collecting as the software that accompanies the sensors and payloads automatically transforms this raw data into actionable insights. With the ability to so efficiently collect and process data, commercial UAVs are able to quickly and significantly improve industrial operations.

Mission possible

Drones are known primarily for flight and that will never change, but for commercial UAVs some of the most essential automatic processes take place before a UAV ever launches. As noted by leading commercial drone developer Airobotics in their post on UAV design for commercial drones, true automation is only achieved when either no human intervention or minimal human intervention is required for a drone to operate, which means that on top of automated flight, data collection and data processing, maintenance also needs to be handled by the drone system itself. This reduces downtime and offers virtual 24/7 drone availability, a necessity in many industries.

Airobotics has made this possible by designing the Airbase for their industry-leading Optimus drone system. The Airbase is where the UAV is kept when not in use, thus it is a robust shelter designed to stand up to the often extreme conditions of the industrial environments in which commercial drones are used. The Airbase is equipped with a robotic arm that swaps batteries to ensure the drone is always available to fly. The arm can also change payloads and sensors to equip the drone for the specific task it needs to accomplish – a development that transforms a commercial UAV into a multitool with a wide range of applications, a major upgrade from commercial UAVs that have just one sensor and can therefore only fly one type of mission.

Fully taking flight

UAVs are only going to become increasingly integral to organizations around the world, and they’re going to do so thanks to this emphasis on true automation. Not all commercial UAVs are created equal, and the ones designed for self-sufficiency and end-to-end automation will set themselves apart from the pack while providing a distinct competitive advantage to the organizations using them. Strange as it may seem, it’s the drone developers looking far beyond flight that are creating the best commercial unmanned aerial vehicles.

Written by Patrick Vernon

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