The co-founders of Aerotas were featured as Guest Columnists in this month’s Point of Beginning magazine. The focus of the article is on the critical steps in developing a survey drone program. The article covers the crucial categories of technology (hardware and software), operations, insurance, and regulation. In our experience, operations and workflow management are the most critical but over-looked component in ensuring a successful program.
The second in a series of posts expanding on our article in Cal Surveyor. As we discussed in the article, mapping drones can produce three primary deliverables: orthophotos, 3D models, and high-resolution photo and video. In order to use an aerial mapping drone profitably, a surveyor has to understand each of these deliverables and how a surveyor drone can be used to create them. In this post, we dig in to each of these surveyor drone deliverables.
In our article in California Surveyor Magazine, “What you need to know to determine if UAVs are right for your survey business,” we identify the key factors that land surveyors must consider when deciding whether to begin using survey drones as part of their business. In this post, we will dig in to the first topic that a surveyor needs to understand before deciding whether to start using a drone for aerial mapping: the basic stack of survey drone technology.
There are several ways that a drone can be piloted, but determining which approach is right for you requires understanding the benefits and costs of each. We break down and explore the three broad types of drone piloting.
We at Aerotas have spent the past 3 days at the UAS Mapping conference in Reno, Nevada. In addition to a deluge of information about surveying, photogrammetry, and image processing, we got to meet many of the companies that are working in this industry today. It provides us with an interesting snapshot of the types of firms involved in actually using drone technology, and all of the specialties that it takes to make this technology profitable. Below is a snapshot based on the 50 firms that were exhibiting at the conference. There are definitely some companies here that didn’t exhibit, and this certainly doesn’t represent the entire commercial drone industry, but it can provide some valuable insights about the industry as a whole.
Exhibiting Companies at the UAS Reno Conference
The most obvious takeaway from the above chart is the balance in the industry between hardware manufacturers, software manufacturers, and support companies, which include drone operators, consultants, and trade groups, among others. Many of these firms are highly specialized, like some of the data processing firms that analyze survey data for operators. It suggests that a fully vertically integrated firm that tries to build their own drone, autopilot, sensors, data processing software, and then run the operation on the ground, will face huge challenges from the more modular options out there. In this industry, it will make more sense to specialize on a specific part of the industry rather than the full value chain.
Drilling into the data a bit deeper we get hints of where most people think a lot of the value in the UAS industry is. Of the 20 hardware manufacturers, over half made complete aircraft, while 7 only made sensors, and only 4 companies sold individual aircraft components like flight computers, suggesting that a lot of people see value in complete hardware systems. On the software side, nearly all firms were involved in data post-processing, primarily image stitching and 3D modeling. Only 2 firms offered flight computer and navigation software. The support industry was more varied, with a wide selection of service providers, consultants, and other firms like industry advocacy groups, schools, and trade magazines.
The most important thing that can be gathered from this data is actually what is missing. Of the 50 firms presenting, there was not a single firm focusing on legal compliance, regulatory management, or workflow management. It shows that these functions, while critical to the industry, are often overlooked by practitioners and end users of UAS technology. There are many good companies out there, like Skyward or Rupprecht Law, that address these industry needs. However, though both firms were in attendance, neither had a booth in the exhibit hall.
There is no question that this data set is incomplete. In fact, it isn't even a complete list of the companies that attended the conference. It does, however, show what the industry currently does, and does not, choose to focus on. Hardware manufacturing and software data processing are hot and very competitive. Support industries, especially legal and professional services, are not getting much attention. They are, however, as critical to safe, legal, and profitable operations as any good piece of hardware. Lets hope the the industry eventually catches on to develop a full suite of functions to grow to its full potential.
There has been a huge amount of hype in recent days about the Lily Camera Drone, a product that flies itself while taking pictures or videos of whatever the user may be doing. This type of autopilot offers extreme promise, but it is a technology that UAV companies have been struggling with for some time, and no one has quite perfected yet. Unfortunately, while many advancements have been made in developing a good autopilot, products like the Lily are likely to disappoint real world users.
A good autopilot system is one of the most useful features of drones. From inspecting power lines, to surveying crops, to monitoring construction sites, autopilot means that you don't need an experienced operator to use the drone. However, anyone that has used these autopilots, knows that there are a myriad of problems keeping them from going mainstream.
Some of the problems are small and good progress has been made in addressing them. Sometimes the tracking system just has a bad connection and the drone doesn't follow it exactly. Or there is interference in the GPS or compass based guidance system and the drone may fly away. These can be serious issues, but are ones that current technology, if well executed, is capable of addressing.
The most serious problem for autopilots, and especially the Lily Camera, is obstacle avoidance. No mass market drone yet has any reliable form of collision avoidance. This means that any drone on autopilot, especially those at lower altitudes, can crash into an obstacle with no way of automatically staying safe. If you are skiing, it is extremely easy for the drone to hit a tree, or potentially another skier, posing a serious safety issue. It might hit a bridge, power lines, trees, or banners, completely wrecking the drone. Anyone that has used "return home" features on other drones knows that they suffer the same issue, and the autopilot may confidently fly straight into a tree on the way home. In the real world, this may do $1,000 damage or more to the drone itself, making it a very expensive problem.
The issue with collision avoidance is that it is technologically extremely hard. A drone has to be aware of obstacles in front of it, behind it, to its sides, as well as above and below. This means a lot of cameras or sensors. Added to that, it has to detect things as small as power lines, which are invisible to many available sensors or hard to detect. It would also need to know about any people that may get too close to the drone, such as another person. Finally, has to recognize any of these problems this with enough room to stop or change course, which is difficult if the drone is going 30 mph or higher.
None of this technology is impossible. In fact, there are dozens of companies working on extremely promising technologies in this space. However, they are all still just experimental or prototype products, and none has been demonstrated to be truly reliable. It will likely be a few years until a reliable obstacle avoidance system can be developed and integrated into off the shelf consumer and business drones.
The Lily Camera is an exceptional product, and hopefully it can deliver on its promise. However, the technology still is not the autopilot panacea that many people think it to be. It will still crash into trees, bother the public, and be more complicated to use than it seems. Despite this, there will be a few people for whom the Lily is the perfect drone. For the others, you may just need to wait until autopilot becomes more reliable.