At this week’s InterDrone conference, top industry figures discussed the next step of enterprise drone programs: data-driven business transformation.
The panel, moderated by Intel‘s Anil Nanduri, was a small group of heavy hitters. Michael Ritter of Slantrange, Dyan Gibbens of Trumbull Unmanned and Dr. Christophe Strecha of Pix4D focused on how to integrate aerial data throughout the enterprise. “If you’re in the industry, you’ll likely work at some point with someone on this panel,” said Gibbens, pointing out that the group represented areas across the workflow: from data capture to processing and analysis.
Nanduri began by asking the panel if they had seen proof of concept projects with aerial data become recurring ways of doing business for their enterprise customers. Gibbens, whose clients are primarily in the energy industry, commented that lower oil prices had forces efficiencies in that vertical – which had led to the adoption of drone mapping projects. Dr. Strecha of Pix4D said that their company had seen widespread adoption in areas where drones have a significant benefit, such as mining where drones can travel in inhospitable environments. And Ritter, whose customers are in the agriculture sector, said that drones had revolutionized the way that crops are evaluated – “We’ve seen an evolution of these concepts being adopted,” said Ritter. “Some parts of the industry are eagerly adopting the technology.
While the panel saw drone technology being broadly adopted across verticals, they agreed that agriculture – a $5 trillion industry – may offer the most potential for the drone industry. Defense, energy, and construction were all named as emerging sectors for drone technology adoption.
The panel agreed that adoption of drone technology differed around the world. Strecha pointed out that the concept of data sharing is different depending upon where you are. “In many parts of Asia, cloud-solutions are just not acceptable,” said Strecha. “And pushing data to a cloud is still really hard in some areas… in the next few years, I think internet connectivity will be OK around the world, but how do you get there now?”
When asked what they saw as the top barriers to entry for enterprise clients, participants said that education, regulations, and data transfer were important. Gibbens commented that their company had to educate clients on technology adoption and safety issues, and added that clients were not interested in small benefits but needed to see an order of magnitude savings.
Technology has outpaced regulations, the panel agreed – but it is up to the drone industry to help. “How can we work with FAA to solve the problems for them?” asked Gibbens.”Where we really want to get to is beyond line of sight,” said Ritter. “That will really transform the industry.”
Bee-based maths is helping teach swarms of drones to find weeds, while robotic mowers keep hedgerows in shape.
‘We observe the behaviour of bees. We gain knowledge of how the bees solve problems and with this we obtain rules of interaction that can be adapted to tell us how the robot swarms should work together,’ said Vito Trianni at the Institute of Cognitive Sciences and Technologies of the Italian National Research Council.
Honeybees, for example, run on an algorithm to allow them to choose the best nest site, even though no bee knows the full picture.
Trianni runs an EU-funded research project known as SAGA, which is using the power of robotic groupthink to keep crops weed free.
‘We can use low-cost robots and low-cost cameras. They can even be prone to error, but thanks to the cooperation they will be able to generate precise maps at centimetre scales,’ said Trianni.
‘They will initially spread over the field to inspect it at low resolution, but will then decide on areas that require more focus,’ said Trianni. ‘They can gather together in small groups closer to the ground.’
Importantly the drones make these decisions themselves, as a group.
Next spring, a swarm of the quadcopters will be released over a sugar beet field. They will stay in radio contact with each other and use algorithms learnt from the bees to cooperate and put together a map of weeds. This will then allow for targeted spraying of weeds or their mechanical removal on organic farms.
Today the most common way to control weeds is to spray entire fields with herbicide chemicals. Smarter spraying will save farmers money, but it will also lower the risk of resistance developing to the agrichemicals. And there will be an environmental benefit from spraying less herbicides.
Swarms of drones for mapping crop fields offer a service to farmers, while farm co-ops could even buy swarms themselves.
‘There is no need to fly them every day over your field, so it is possible to share the technology between multiple farmers,’ said Trianni. A co-op might buy 20 to 30 drones, but adjust the size of the swarm to the farm.
The drones are 1.5 kilos in weight and fly for around 20-30 minutes. For large fields, the drone swarms could operate in relay teams, with drones landing and being replaced by others.
It’s the kind of technology that is ideally suited to today’s large-scale farms, as is another remote technology that combines on-the-ground sensor information with satellite data to tell farmers how much nitrogen or water their fields need.
Wheat harvested from a field in Boigneville, 100 km south of Paris, France, in August this year will have been grown with the benefit of this data, as part of pilot being run by an EU-funded project known as IOF2020, which involves over 70 partners and around 200 researchers.
So you want a drone that can film from the sky? DRIVE/Aerial is here to help. A few years ago, if you wanted to dabble in aerial photography or cinematography, you only had a handful of options. Today's offerings, however, come with a wide array of features and can range from hundreds to tens of thousands of dollars, which makes trying to find the right one daunting.
So to help you sort out the good from the bad, we at DRIVE/Aerial decided to put together a list of our favorite camera-ready drones available as of February 2017. That way, you'll be all ready to film your family on your next vacation to Aruba.
If you'd like to dip your toe in to the aerial filming market, the Holy Stone F181 is a good place to start. This feature-packed drone comes with an attachable 720p camera, a push-button return, and an altitude hold function that can help any pilot stay up in the air. Unfortunately, it doesn't come with an external gimbal to stabilize your footage, which means your camera is only as steady as your flying. But for the $109 price tag, this drone is hard to beat.
We like to call the Breeze the budget DJI Mavic (see below). It's a portable 4K drone that is easy to use and fits in a backpack. The only drawback is its lack of stabilized footage. The portable design means Yuneec sacrificed an external gimbal, so you'll have to stabilize your footage in post-production. But for the price and feature list (4K video and 13MP stills, as well as selfie, orbit, journey, and follow-me modes) the Breeze is a good entry into filming from the air.
Armed with an array of sensors, commercial drones are about to become a new source for digital information. We expect the drone market to surge to nearly $7 billion by 2020 globally, driven by regulatory clarification, continuously decreasing component costs, and – most important– ongoing innovation that connects drone capabilities to big-data analytics.
While 60% of drone usage currently relates to communications and media such as for film making and commercial photography, new higher-value applications are on their way, as drones have a significant advantage in terms of precision, convenience, and cost over more traditional solutions such as satellites and helicopters. Drone-mounted sensors can be used to capture an impressive array of data, paving the way for increased digitalization of industrial processes.
Leaders across a spectrum of industries are already availing themselves of drone-based data. In the oil industry, for example, what used to be weeks of inspection work now takes just days, thanks to drone-based thermal imaging and gas “sniffer” technology to inspect oil rigs and pipelines. Sky Futures, a third-party drone services company that specializes in such inspections, works with oil companies, such as BP, Shell, Statoil, and Conoco Philips, and has raised $9.5 million in investment capital in just the past year.
In transportation, American railroad BNSF is partnering with the Federal Aviation Administration to test drones for remote track and bridge inspection and air quality monitoring. Network Rail in the United Kingdom is using drones as part of its ORBIS project to digitize the country’s rail network in 3D, to enable better planning of track maintenance and renewal. Airlines Easyjet and Lufthansa have adopted drones as a tool for aircraft inspections.
Other industries are being persuaded by the cost and safety benefits of drone-based data as well. Mining giant Rio Tinto is using drones to survey equipment and mining pits in Western Australia. Heavy machinery company Caterpillar is reportedly exploring the use of drones for fleet vehicle management in the field, while drones are the cornerstone of Komatsu’s “Smart Construction” service, which can fully automate bulldozers and excavators. And one of retail’s largest players, Walmart, is testing how drones could help improve warehouse inventory management.
The multiplying possibilities of drone-based data could inspire across-the-board alterations in data gathering strategies, particularly if such changes lead to cost savings, improved safety, and enhanced analytics. For example, savings are to be had in analysis of inventory stockpiles, thermal imaging of pipelines and rail lines, three-dimensional modeling of insurance claims, and non-destructive terahertz imaging for buildings. Soon, it might be worthwhile for many companies to check whether drone-based data could add value – either to optimize current operations or offer new avenues for growth.
If a company can identify potential benefits, it can then consider whether to consolidate drone program development across multiple business units or subsidiaries, so as to concentrate investment dollars and strengthen data analytics. In addition, organizations that decide to invest in drones may need to adjust their data architectures and processes – and improve their understanding of local regulations. While some drone-based data may complement existing information, some will make other information-gathering methods obsolete. Given that drones have little track record as yet, determining the “best” method for data gathering will require strict analysis of benefits versus costs, such as through pilot programs, before undertaking expensive functional restructuring.
Businesses also will need to determine whether to run their own drones or outsource. Factors such as investment horizon, need for data security, and desired development speed will influence this choice. A company might opt for in-house drone operation and data analysis if it is concerned about proprietary issues or security, is willing to make a substantial up-front investment, and wants to take a “learn by doing” approach. As an example, French railway operator SNCF is using an internal drone program to enhance safety and maintenance through network surveillance.
Changing the way we watch sports
Drones are perfect action cameras. Like the athletes they film, they defy physical limitations. They move like Hollywood camera rigs but are more flexible and spontaneous. Think of them not as action cameras, really, but as athletic cameras. They can film pretty much anywhere: clinging to a sheer cliff face; over open water; behind a dirtbike going 60; even in the middle of fireworks. Drones mimic the way we move—they can even follow you, hands-free—and by doing that they go one step beyond the sports coverage we’re used to: they convey not just the visuals, but the feeling.
This will change the way we watch sports. For instance, I don’t remember the first time I saw a BMX double backflip — the YouTube clips fuse into one — but I remember the first time I saw it through a GoPro. Even though I’d never jumped a BMX, I felt, or imagined I did, what the rider pulling the trick felt.
This is because the thrills of action sports—sports in general, really—come from their extreme physical challenges: speed, height, strength, distance, and terrain. Static or handheld cameras can’t keep up, and most professional camera rigs can’t quite communicate the spontaneity of sport. Drones excel at this stuff—they can capture spontaneous movement and do best with extreme speeds, heights and distances. (For an idea of what I mean, think of the NFL’s Cablecam.)
That’s what a fireworks display feels like. In other words, with a drone, the shots can have the same spirit as the subject.
And now: I’ll elaborate.
Surfing, for instance: I like surfing, but I’m not an enthusiast and don’t especially like watching it. One reason that sport hasn’t broken into more mainstream broadcasts, aside from all the downtime, is that it’s pretty hard, visually, to get the right feel. It’s been tough to get a camera out over the water that, unlike a helicopter, can track exactly (and safely) with a surfer’s every move.
You probably want another visual aide here, so here’s an edit of action sports drone footage featuring surf shots. Again, you’re probably going to mute your speakers at some point. (Almost all drone footage online is for some reason completely unlistenable.)
Even golf has its physical extremes of distance and accuracy. A helicopter—which costs who knows how much to rent—can give you a sense of the course, but here’s an interactive 18-hole aerial tour where the drone more or less tracks with each individual shot. Or with what your shot’s supposed to be.
Football coaches realized the value of an aerial perspective long ago, installing cameras on top of broadcast booths to record practice and games. Those are static views, though, and can only show so much. Drones move in three dimensions and can spontaneously react to plays in real time, the way a Cablecam does in a game, except cheaper. The NFL has permission to use drones in practices, including the Patriots.
Astronauts say they experience a shift in awareness when they see the Earth from space: the entire planet, a fragile blue dot suspended in isolation. They swim in empathy for the planet, and, with all borders and boundaries removed, feel a yearning for peace and cooperation among all people. They say the feeling never leaves them.
This is known as “the overview effect.” Drones will let us experience it. The scale is obviously magnitudes smaller but the principle is the same. For now we say “Whoa, look up there,” or, “man that thing is annoying,” but the really interesting thing is what happens after you get past that part, and you look back down.
Banking low over the trees, the small quadcopter slows and begins a gradual climb. Rising above the roof, it hovers in place for a moment before flying over a fountain in the courtyard and sweeping along the edge of a swimming pool.
Welcome to the modern world of real estate.
Drone photography and videos and sophisticated software programs are seeing increased use among Realtors looking to up their game with eye-catching visuals that will help sell homes. “Drones can be used on all kinds of properties,” said Bob Gonsalves, president and CEO of the U.S. Association of Unmanned Aerial Videographers, a membership association focused on the needs of commercial UAV operators.
“It allows real estate agents to show off properties in a very unique way that you couldn’t have done several years ago,” he said.
Actually, it could have been done it back then.
“You would have hired a pilot to fly a helicopter, and that would have probably cost $2,000 for a couple of hours,” Gonsalves said. “What has changed over the years is the affordability of drones. Now you can buy a DJI Mavic Pro Quadcopter with high resolution from Best Buy for about $1,000.”
About half of his association’s 6,000 members use their drones for real estate purposes, Gonsalves said. It’s no wonder because Multiple Listing Service statistics show that homes with aerial images sell 68 percent faster than houses that are marketed using standard photos. Industry research firm RIS Media additionally notes that 73 percent of homeowners say that they’re more likely to list with a real estate agent who uses video to market their home.
Chad Z. King, who owns a Los Angeles-based aerial photography business called A Bird’s Eye, got in on the ground floor, so to speak. In fact, King figures he was among the first to utilize drones to showcase homes. “I started doing aerial photography with a miniature remote-controlled helicopter in 2009,” he said. “We mounted a Nikon D7000 camera on it. Back then that was the best that Nikon offered. We didn’t have a downlink, so we just sort of winged it. We’d land it and take a look at the footage and say, ‘OK, we need to get further out,’ or ‘we need to angle it down a little more.’ We did it that way for about three years.”
Sharper Shape Inc. wants to bring its drone-based 'Automatic Detail Inspection' (ADI) service to major electric utilities companies in the United States. Having just successfully completed field trials, the company is now making its end-to-end drone-based inspection system readily available for commercial use. The company announced its ADI service and field trial completion this week, in hopes to allow the "drone software as a service" to increase the efficacy of electric utilities companies across the country.
How would this work, exactly? Well, the entire process of inspections of "critical infrastructures" would be automated. You'd no longer need people 'on the ground', which eliminates costs. Drones would cut down on a lot of time, further eliminating expenditures.
In addition to the obvious, Sharper Shape has a far more interesting trick up its sleeve. According to sUASnews, before a single inspection takes place, Sharper Shapes ADI Flight Planner software would construct extremely accurate 3D models of the infrastructure in question. After creating a digital map of all power lines, towers, and other critical infrastructure using the lidar (light detection and ranging) data recorded via drone, the Flight Planner software would arrange for the most optimal and efficient inspection routes possible. This would then allow unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to do routine inspections, detect defects anywhere on their path, and communicate with the on-the-ground system or utility company faster than an employee could scale an electric pole.
A squadron of drones at the BHP Billiton-managed Goonyella coalmine near Moranbah in central Queensland is radically changing the way in which miners keep physical tabs on their operations, traditionally the preserve of the mining surveyors’ profession. The first of the drones — or more correctly unmanned aerial vehicles — arrived at the BHP Mitsubishi Alliance-owned Goonyella a little more than a year ago.
Dubbed Virgil after the logistics character in Thunderbirds and sporting $2 stick-on cat’s eyes to keep the local hawks at bay, it has been joined by seven others in BMA’s growing squadron. Weighing 2.5kg and looking more like a hobbyist’s model aeroplane than the more ubiquitous hovering helicopter type of drone, the German-built and battery-powered UAVs have a flight time of up to 40 minutes, fly at up to 80km/h at a height of 120 metres, and can cover 80ha of the mining lease in a single flight.
After a flight plan is uploaded on to a memory card, the UAVs take flight for their rapid-fire collection of the type of volumetric measurements (by taking overlapping photos which can be data crunched into a 3D model) that a team of surveyors would have laboured to collect in the past. Project leader Jason Wadsworth told The Weekend Australian that the UAVs gather volumetric information “so we can understand the progress of the mining operation around the pits”.
“We get a tonne of information from the UAVs and it is giving our engineers and operators better visibility about what is going on site at any time,” Mr Wadsworth said.
“And now we are starting to venture into its safety compliance aspects, so we can monitor and understand where we might have problems with safety berms, road construction and that type of thing.’’ “It is about making sure the site (the mining lease is 30km long and 20km wide) meets its specifications. “The UAVs don’t need to go down to the pits, and they don’t need to integrate with the equipment down there which is good for safety, and it has productivity benefits.”
Mining surveyors are far from losers in the technology shift as apart from anything else, they are the ground-based pilots of the airborne workhorses — after obtaining a remote pilot aircraft systems licence for drones weighing up to 5kg. Sometimes referring to themselves as spatial scientists but unkindly referred to as “peg whackers’’ by other professions on mine sites, mine surveyors are climbing the respect totem pole thanks to the game-changing impact of the UAVs.
It reflects the capability of the UAVs, with Goonyella specialist mine planner Ben Skerman saying that there was a “lot of excitement about what this system can do”. “That’s because we can get the information quickly, it’s accurate and it gives us the opportunity to see things in ways we have never seen before,” Mr Skerman said. “So there is a real buzz around what this can do. As the technology evolves, we know these things are going to get better.’’
THE CSIRO has this month gone into partnership with Australia’s largest rural services and advisory company Ruralco to fund drone productivity studies. “Drone technology is facilitating data-driven decision-making in agriculture; it can help farmers better analyse issues which affect productivity and sustainability,” says Ruralco chief executive Travis Dillon. “This is about us staying ahead of the innovation curve; we don’t know exactly where the next productivity leaps in agriculture will come, but technology and data will certainly be at their heart.”
Perhaps they will unlock the secret to make drone technology a true return on investment proposition, but in the meantime drones are like golf training aids. We think we should have them but we’re not quite sure if they have any significant benefit. That’s the message from farmers who have been contributing to the boom in drone sales that is expected to see global revenues soar to $15 billion in 2021.
The vast majority of those sales are in hobby or consumer drones which are capable of covering a kilometre or two with limited camera functionality. They’re not very expensive and from a budget conscious farmer’s perspective, they have a use in keeping an eye on things such as fences and livestock. But one Australian drone importer says those cheap hobby drones are next to useless in farm applications.
“The limiting factor for an off-the-shelf drone is range it can fly and time in the sky,” says Bob Guegan from Just Drones. “They simply don’t have the range required by most farmers we have spoken to, and other than DJI drones, their cameras aren’t good enough for any serious agricultural work.” He says DJI has become the “iPhone of drones” with models that work well for farmers, offering lengthy flight time and range, as well as a decent camera to capture video and still imagery. Mark Playdon from Drone Addiction agrees. “DJI is leading the pack globally with several types ranging from the tiny Spark to the large matrice,” he says. “For just general keeping an eye on things, DJI Mavic could be suitable, as well as the Phantom 4 series. “These are all under 2kg and so can be used commercially without a licence.”
Western Australian broadacre farmer and agronomist Leigh Nairn has been using a DJI Phantom 4 Pro to scout trial paddocks and monitor emergence. He was monitoring his seeder setup, which was having issues lining up with the GPS, when an eagle attacked the drone — one of the hazards of flying them. He got a fantastic image from the attack and the repair bill wasn’t significant, and he continues to carry it around as an everyday tool. “You can carry it around in a camera bag with the arms folded in, take it anywhere and throw it up wherever you want to get some good pics,” he says.
He also has a larger DJI Matrice model which is fitted with near infrared cameras that detect stressed crop or weeds and help create normalised digital vegetation index (NDVI) maps using third party software. “We are using that for bio imagery and NDVI maps and putting that into DroneDeploy or PrecisionHawk which are programs that process the data from the drone,” he says.
While something like a DJI Phantom 4 will cost around $2000, these more professional drones are getting into five figures. Australian company Falcon UAV custom makes a drone called the AgFalcon which has six rotors, a full near infrared set up with batteries, chargers, spare parts and the near infra-red camera along with all the software as a total package for $12,000.
Falcon UAV’s Phil Lyons extols the benefits of drone NDVI mapping and says when they’re done properly, they can lead to efficiencies such as savings in chemicals. “Obtaining a drone-produced NDVI map as soon as enough leaf matter is showing can lead a grower to those areas of low near-infrared reflectance, indicting some stress problem,” he says. “In some cases, we have seen a bug infestation that the grower did not know existed due to the size of his paddock, which would have led to massive crop losses.”Leigh Nairn says he uses his near infrared package 10 per cent of his drone flying time. “We researched drones a fair bit before investing and I wanted to see if it could do what I wanted, which was take imagery and put that into a nitrogen recommendation for a sprayer,” he says. “That technology is not quite there yet.”
He’s not the only one to say that. NDVI mapping is great when it’s accurate and the only way to ensure that is to visit the suspect areas on foot — ground truthing. Cheaper satellite imagery can provide an NDVI map as well although a drone can achieve much higher resolution. But with the necessity to ground truth, the investment in an expensive drone makes less sense. Birchip Cropping Group researcher Sebastian Ie has been creating NDVI maps with a $40,000 fixed-wing drone. “That map will show you greenness but it won’t differentiate between weeds and crop, so you have to ground truth,” he says.
“Is there a cheaper way? The alternative is free satellite NDVI data which would give you a general idea of what’s going on. “From our perspective a drone has a high enough resolution that you could pick up data from all of our trial plots, which is something you couldn’t get from satellite data. “The value of higher resolution mapping is not so clear for the farmer and is not something that has been proven yet.”
Mr Nairn says he doesn’t think it will be too long before farmers would see a return on investment in NDVI mapping as the technology improves. “What I’d eventually like to see is drones locating weeds and then a ground robot drives out there to spray it,” he says. In the short term, he says even improving the ability to identify weeds to create prescription maps to enable spot spraying would be a huge step forward. But one thing everyone agrees on is that drones are here to stay.
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