Drones Are Doing More In U.S. Than You May Know, As These 3 Companies Show

Five years ago, the pundits predicted that by now we would be seeing tens of thousands of drones buzzing over our heads delivering everything from pizzas and burritos to the latest “must-have” item from Amazon. So what happened? Where are they? In a nutshell, they are here, but the general public doesn’t see them—at least not daily—and they aren’t necessarily delivering what was predicted.

The fact is that commercial drones fly in remote areas or over private property every day by the thousands. They’re performing work on farms, powerlines, construction sites, cell towers, and oil pads, especially in the U.S. where there are more than 118,000 FAA-certified remote pilots. Compare that to the U.K., where there are just under 5,000.

Delivering pizzas and burritos will likely be a very small part of what drones will be doing in the future. According to the largest benchmark study on commercial drones, the bulk of all current industrial use outside of film, photo and video falls into two categories: surveying and mapping land areas and inspecting and monitoring physical structures. And it’s these two uses that will continue to drive the growth of drones for industrial use for many years to come.

Three companies represent this growth and are worth getting to know: PrecisionHawk, DroneDeploy and SkySkopes. In many way,s they are emblematic of the current state of the growing commercial drone industry and provide insight into its future.

PrecisionHawk

Founded in 2010 and headquartered in Raleigh, N.C., PrecisionHawk was one of the first vendors to offer a full end-to-end enterprise drone solution stack. That stack included a drone aircraft with advanced sensors, software, analytics, and contracted services for inspecting things like oil well pads and utility lines and more. (“Advanced sensors” refers to specialized cameras on the drone that detect things like crop growth patterns.) With over $107 million in investment and more than 180 employees, PrecisionHawk has some large customers, including ExxonMobil, John Deere, Monsanto, and Verizon. They offer services in more than 150 countries and have a network of 15,000 pilots.

Two things illustrate how PrecisionHawk leads the industry. First is their regulatory experience and FAA partnership. Second is their focus on operating drones beyond the pilot’s ability to see them, or “beyond visual line of sight” (BVLOS). PrecisionHawk was one of a few companies to partner with the FAA on its Pathfinder Program, and the company’s work is informing current FAA regulations and BVLOS policy. PrecisionHawk also understands that as the commercial drone industry evolves, widespread BVLOS drone inspection has the potential to significantly change business models for many industries. With their programs and papers like “The Economics of Using Drones for BVLOS Inspections,” they educate businesses and help them evaluate when it’s best to use traditional ground and manned aviation, line-of-sight drones, or BVLOS drone inspection approaches. PrecisionHawk is unique in evaluating the costs and benefits of BVLOS operations compared with traditional operations, which allows businesses to plan an aerial intelligence strategy that delivers the most value for the money.

DroneDeploy

San Francisco-based DroneDeploy provides software that controls drone flight plans and workflows as well as processes the images they collect. They have more than 4,000 global customers mapping and assessing everything from construction progress, to disaster recovery, to agricultural crop vigor.  Founded in 2013, the company partnered with leading drone manufacturers to provide its software to operators in a variety of industries, including agriculture, real estate, mining, construction and many other commercial and consumer arenas. Having raised $56M in funding, DroneDeploy started by selling software directly to pilots and later added selling through the channel that supplies mid-size companies and then added direct sales to enterprises and resellers.

By every measure, DroneDeploy has the most popular non-OEM mapping flight application on the market. They boast that their software processes over 100 million images per year and measures more than 10 million distances a year (for instance, between objects). But they are not resting on their laurels. Drone use by surveyors and mappers is rapidly becoming more sophisticated, and as that’s happened, DroneDeploy has been pushing boundaries more than any vendor. Their app market is the largest set of industry-specific integrated applications available.

Part of what has made DroneDeploy (and the drone industry itself) so successful has been the consumerization of drone technology. What others missed but DroneDeploy didn’t was the foresight to see that the prosumer drone category would be the only place where sales volumes and margins would be strong enough for aircraft manufacturers to recoup R&D investment. That’s why, early on, they pivoted from open source-based aircraft to DJI drones since DJI is and has been for four years the dominant player in the space. Last year, DJI’s market share for drone aircraft was 74%. As a result, all the major mission planning and mapping applications like DroneDeploy and dozens more now integrate with or run on DJI’s products. Most of them started off with applications dedicated to their own drone, but soon found that most professionals want to use the simpler and more reliable DJI prosumer drones. DroneDeploy made that bet early, and it has paid off.

SkySkopes

Whereas PrecisionHawk offers a full drone stack and DroneDeploy offers software, this last company doesn’t manufacture anything. They provide drone services. And in a field of more than 30,000 service companies, very few stand out as full-time ventures—let alone as profitable and growing—but SkySkopes does. They succeeded because they specialized. Based in Grand Forks, N.D., SkySkopes started in 2014 and has grown from a small startup with four part-time employees to over 18 full-time employees and four offices across the upper Midwest. Over the years, SkySkopes has refined its focus to strictly providing aerial services for the energy industry and now has operations in California, Texas, Minnesota, Florida, and Europe.

What makes SkySkopes successful is they are not afraid to push the limits of drone technology. Their specialization in acquiring aerial data with advanced aircraft has landed them projects with CenterPoint Energy, Duke Energy, Xcel Energy and a host of others. SkySkopes and NASA have also teamed up over the past few years to demonstrate and test BVLOS use cases for the UTM project to integrate civilian low-altitude airspace and unmanned aircraft system operation. All this landed CEO Matt Dunlevy a seat on the advisory board of the Energy Drone & Robotics Coalition, the only event exclusively focused on the business and technology of aerial, ground/surface and subsea robotics in energy operations.

Together these three companies encapsulate the present state of the growing industrial use of drones. Clearly, that’s not what the media prefers to focus on since it’s not sexy drone pizza delivery. But it’s important work with great business benefits to specific industries.

This article first appeared on FORBES.com

Image credit: Photographer: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg, © 2019 BLOOMBERG FINANCE LP

Seven Trends That Will Shape the Commercial Drone Industry in 2019

[This post first appeared in Forbes]

In many ways, 2019 will be another big year for the commercial drone industry. Last year saw a wider rollout of the FAA’s LAANC program (the Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability that provides access to controlled airspace near airports), the launch of the UAS Integration Pilot Program from the FAA, and some significant developments for new regulatory frameworks for drones in Europe and in India. This year, expect more of the same—but with a few twists.

Trend 1 – Expanded business use

Adoption of aerial drones and drone technology will not be as widespread as some might expect. Instead, it will grow in select industries like agriculture, construction, insurance, mining and aggregates, public safety and first responders, oil & gas, survey engineering, telecommunications and utilities.

Last year, companies began to move beyond the provisional use of drones—where they were outsourcing to determine a drone program’s feasibility—to standing up or expanding internal teams to manage workflows and data. This year, expect to see reports about companies expanding their teams and adding use cases that take advantage of the waivers allowing limited beyond visual line of sight operations.

Trend 2 – Slower, more steady growth

The number of certified remote pilots is the benchmark for commercial drone industry growth. That’s because, almost uniformly around the world, regulations demand each drone operation have one pilot. Last year, the number of FAA-certified remote pilots grew about 50% over the previous year, to approximately 115,000. That increase was mostly made up of pilots who work for companies, enterprises or public agencies with internal drone programs as opposed to pilots who operate for drone-based service providers. It’s clear that commercial industries are now driving growth rather than individual interest as in years past.

One thing to keep in mind when looking at FAA numbers is that the month-over-month growth rate is beginning to slow. That may worsen given the current partial U.S. Government shutdown, which will delay the grant of new certificates. It may also slow further because some drone-based service providers who are not making money (most aren’t) will choose not to re-certify as a remote pilot.

Trend 3 – Further vendor consolidation

Much of the industry’s growth so far has come from the early hype about how drones were going to “transform” industries as well as huge forecasts that fueled investment. Over the years, we’ve seen those dreams turn to smoke as vendors like 3D Robotics and GoPro fell out of the sky. Last year was no exception. The $118M collapse of Airware and the release of Parrot’s disappointing financial results give us a glimpse into what will come.

Still, there is good news, and you can expect more moves like PrecisionHawk’s acquisitions as vendors seek leadership positions in key industries and secure new revenue streams.

Trend 4 – Public distrust and civil liability

Despite the benefits of commercial drone use, the general public still has concerns about drones with regards to safety, security, privacy and public nuisance. After the Gatwick debacle, expect more headlines in 2019 of unauthorized drone sightings and the coming drone apocalypse. In many ways these stories hurt legitimate commercial operators who often need to gain permission from reluctant land owners so they can perform inspections and survey maps for infrastructure unreachable by other means.

Here in the U.S., there is another tea kettle about to boil over. A little-known but highly influential group known as the Uniform Law Commission (ULC) will continue to work on a proposed “Tort Law Relating to Drones Act,” which concerns drones and privacy. If their proposal is adopted by states, we could see an arbitrary line drawn 200 feet in the sky that would establish a new aerial trespass zone giving property owners the right to establish no-fly zones. Right now, their draft goes much further than any existing state or federal law and, if enacted, would create a complicated patchwork of differing state laws that inhibit commercial operations. Until then, expect to see more local and state laws like this one in Pennsylvania aiming to protect people’s privacy from drones.

Trend 5 – More regulation – maybe

Some predict 2019 will be the year the FAA finally implements a requirement for remote identification for all drones, recreational and commercial, flying in the U.S. It’s expected this will be combined with a new rule for flights over people for small drones. But there is a big difference between the FAA proposing a rule (called the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking or NPRM) and that rule becoming law. The difference can be anywhere from six to nine months. So it’s likely we’ll see a proposed rule, but implementation will be like Waiting for Godot.

To be clear, Drone ID is not a slam dunk, and the specifics of the ID signature are still being debated within the FAA. Even so, Drone ID needs to exist for Unmanned Traffic Management (aka UTM) to become a reality. UTM should help enable some of the most talked-about use cases for drones, from package delivery to aerial taxi services, but don’t expect this first iteration of remote ID to live up to the headlines or vendor expectations of a global autonomous drone network – as that would ignore the arduous political processes in each country or region to make UTM even possible.

Trend 6 – DJI’s continued dominance

SZ DJI Technology Co., Ltd. (a.k.a. DJI), a Chinese company, continues to dominate the market and has made gains this year in every product category, from drone aircraft at all price ranges, to add-on payloads, to software. Recent survey data shows DJI is still the dominant brand for drone aircraft purchases, with a 74% global market share. Much of DJI’s dominance can be attributed to its aggressive product development, technological advancements and partner development in the enterprise channel. Last year, the company released two new series of enterprise products (Phantom 4 RTK and Mavic 2 Enterprise) that target industrial users. It’s safe to predict their leadership will continue given their strategic investment with Hasselblad, their recent investment in an R&D facility in Palo Alto, California, and their partners in the enterprise space such as Microsoft.

Trend 7 – Sensors, software, and AI advancements

Along with the new imaging sensor integration announcements in 2019 (such as smaller, more lightweight LiDAR), expect to see imaging software advancements as companies seek to combine RGB, thermal imaging, orthomosaic, and data from IoT sensors. More aerial imaging and mapping software firms will likely announce artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities. Right now, most of this is cloud-based machine learning (a.k.a. deep learning and predictive analytics), where datasets are trained by specialized teams. Already, there are some drone-based AI solutions for image recognition/machine vision, but it’s still early in the technology development cycle and AI is near peak hype.

Some big news for 2019 could be workflow integration of drone data and workflow into predictive maintenance and service solutions, as well as enterprise asset management systems such as those from IBM, INFOR, Oracle and SAP. Capabilities could include documentation, tracking and GIS data integration. That may bring a yawn to some, but when you can connect the dots and show the effect of drone data on the balance sheet, CFOs and CEOs will take notice and drive further enterprise adoption

Image credit: Mark Kauzlarich/Bloomberg

Four Commercial Drone Trends to Watch in 2018

In my last post, Five Biggest Commercial Drone Trends of 2017 and the Challenges Ahead, I used data from our 2017 Drone Market Sector Report to illustrate the major trends of the past year and describe the major challenges ahead for the drone industry. That post looked back, but this one looks forward, offering our specific predictions for 2018, including investments, technology improvements, ecosystem partnerships, and software innovations.

(Listen to this companion Drone Radio Show podcast here for our complete assessment.)

1. Investment and testing will continue in earnest on Unmanned Traffic Management (UTM) and beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) operations.

With regulations moving at the speed of government and dissenting views on Drone ID, it seems like UTM (air traffic management for low-altitude drones) is an elusive dream. However, there is hope that testing being done on beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) operations in drone corridors will provide the necessary inputs to integrate drones into the national airspace. Expect news this summer from the vendors and service providers conducting tests at NUAIR in New York as they release results and performance-based navigation standards begin to coalesce.

2. You’ll see more news on improved sensors, hardware integration, networking, and processing.

Already, we’ve seen announcements like this one for new thermal imaging drone payloads. Expect to see further Ethernet / IP sensor integration efforts as more and more remote managers demand immediate access to data from local operations. Expect more news on LiDAR / drone integration like this one from Delair-Tech as more land surveyors and construction professionals demand further time and money savings over traditional methods.

3. Look for more partnerships, software, and innovations coming from the DJI Enterprise ecosystem.

We noted in our 2017 Drone Market Sector Report just how much DJI dominates the industry with its 72% market share. All the major mission-planning and mapping applications—like DroneDeploy, PrecisionHawk’s PrecisionMapper, Skycatch, and dozens more—now run on the DJI SDK. What our report didn’t mention was DJI’s focused efforts to further expand its commercial ecosystem. DJI Enterprise’s AirWorks Conference is but one example, an event whose purpose is showcasing applied drone solutions for the commercial industry’s most challenging obstacles. Expect many innovations from DJI’s partners in the hardware, software, and service sectors.

4. Software will dominate advancements.

Along with the new imaging sensor announcements in 2018, we expect to see imaging software advancements as companies seek to combine RGB, thermal imaging, orthomosaic, and radiometric data.

We also expect to see more aerial imaging and mapping software firms announce artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities. Right now, most of this is cloud-based machine learning (aka deep learning and predictive analytics) where data sets are trained by specialized teams. You may see some edge-based AI announcements for image recognition/machine vision, but be cautious when you do. We think it’s still early in the technology development cycle and AI is at peak hype.

We think the big news for 2018 will be the integration of drone data and workflow into predictive maintenance and service solutions, as well as asset management systems. Capabilities include documentation, tracking, and GIS data integration. It may bring a yawn to some but we believe when you can connect the dots and show the effect of drone data capture on the balance sheet, CFOs and CEOs will take notice and drive further enterprise adoption.

Parting thoughts

As I speak to clients, I always like to remind them of two things about the commercial drone market. First, it’s not a drone market, it’s a data and information market. The drone is just a data capture device. Second, drones are aircraf, not consumer products and as such their operations are regulated by aviation authorities.  All technology advancements aside, this is a regulated market, so always expect lumpy, bumpy growth.

We hope you keep those in mind as well and wish you best success in the coming year.

Listen to the companion podcast here http://bit.ly/2CXe6uK.

If you have questions about what’s in the report I mention or would like to comment, write me at colin@droneanalyst.com.

 

Image credit: Shutterstock and Skylogic Research

Commercial Drone Markets: 2016 Year in Review

Last year at this time, I reflected back on the news and trends of the commercial drone markets of 2015 and wrote about the mixed state of affairs in the U.S.  Back then we saw only 2,500 Section 333 grants for commercial activity, and the press’s narrative that ‘drones are cool’ turned to ‘drones are a privacy invasion headache.’ This was tempered by a proliferation of the drone conferences that had both exhibitors and vendors scrambling to attend. We also saw the outcome of the UAS Registration Task Force Aviation Rulemaking Committee and the FAA’s rapid implementation to put hobby drone registration in place.

In January 2016, I wrote a piece titled Six Trends Driving the Commercial Drone Market in 2016 and Beyond, which articulated that, while making predictions is not an exacting science, six trends would provide key opportunities and challenge for the industry:

  1. Competition
  2. Fidelity
  3. Sensors
  4. Mobility
  5. China Incorporated
  6. Virtual and Augmented Reality

In this post, I’ll review those trends as well as other significant news for drone manufacturers, service providers, and investors in 2016.

What rang true?

  1. Competition

The biggest news all year was that the FAA Part 107 regulations are now in place. And they’re not as onerous as they could have been. Hurray! We (at least in the U.S.) have the basis for an industry and a firm regulatory framework upon which to grow.  And that’s what I saw and heard from so many companies that want to use drones for their businesses at the major drone shows.  So many were sitting on the sidelines waiting for regulations to be clear.

Several weeks ago, Patrick Egan of sUAS News wrote a piece called “Part 107 Your Golden Ticket” that sums my feelings and it’s this: There has been some grousing about what’s not in the rule. But there is plenty of work that can be done under this rule. The 10 years of uncertainty is over, and people can begin to offer services—from the real estate agent who wants aerial photos to the cellular company that wants tower inspection, to the insurance company that wants proper damage assessments, to the first responder who wants a better view of an incident. I think that’s exciting.

And so is having competition.  Many think it’s a race to the bottom on prices for drone-based business services–and that’s true in part–but the other side of the coin is there is healthy competition, which delivers customer benefits. Because everyone is working harder to produce a better product.

  1. Fidelity

The desire for better fidelity – that is, better image and video resolution – is still one of the major drivers in the commercial drone industry.  This is not just true for professional drones but also consumer drones. Last year the major brands like Autel, DJI, and Yuneec continued to offer integrated 4K video recording cameras on consumer and prosumer drones, but they did so at lower prices than in 2015.  Additionally, this past year, DJI upped the fidelity bar with its Phantom 4 Pro and Inspire 2. The Phantom 4 offers more powerful video processing for 4K videos at 60 frames per second (fps) at a 100 Mbps bitrate. The Inspire 2 tops that and offers 5.2K at 30 fps on the X4S camera. These also offer a mechanical shutter, eliminating the rolling shutter distortion that can occur when taking images of fast-moving subjects or when flying at high speed. In effect, they are as powerful as many traditional ground cameras.

  1. Sensors

The trend for better and smaller, more lightweight sensors for drones—such as stereoscopic, ultrasonic, LiDAR, infrared, and spectral sensors – was hot. I wrote about some of that in Sense and Avoid for Drones is No Easy Feat. I could fill a small book with all the announcements, investments, and product releases from companies like DJI, Intel, Parrot, SenseFly, Slantrage, and Velodyne this past year. All of these will help drones perform tasks like collision avoidance, 3D imaging infrared thermography, or improved crop vigor analysis.

But the rising star in the sensor market is Aerotenna.  In July, we saw this startup take home first prize at the NASA UTM Drone Sense and Avoid Tech Competition. It turns out Aerotenna has some incredible new technology–microwave sensors (that’s basically miniature radar) that are coupled with active sensing autopilot capability that scans the surroundings during flight and avoids potential collisions autonomously. So by combining microwave-based sensing with aerospace and control engineering, they are solving many challenges of being able to fly autonomously beyond visual line-of-sight. This will uncover new applications for UAV platforms.

  1. Mobility

A third major driver this past year was mobility. In the consumer world, the scales have tipped from PCs and TV to mobile devices.  What this means for drone manufacturers and service providers is that their application development has shifted from desktop to mobile apps.

In 2016, we saw DroneDeploy double down on this trend with the introduction of an App Market, a store for drone applications from a range of companies—including Autodesk, Box, John Deere, and 13 others—as well as a variety of industry verticals. I wrote about that here.  The App Market includes mobile device applications from Airmap, Dronelogbook, Flyte, Kittyhawk, NV Drone, Skyward, and Verifly that help pilots and businesses manage drone operations and compliance.  In a nutshell, these apps enable enterprises and drone-based business service providers to automate their workflow and data integration with specialized tools built right within the DroneDeploy user interface.

  1. China Incorporated

Throughout 2016, Chinese companies both large and small entered the world market with consumer drones to establish market share or increase it. Do I really need to explain this? Tractica (not known for accurate commercial drone forecasts) says consumer drone sales will continue to surge over the next several years, with global annual unit shipments increasing more than tenfold from 6.4 million in 2015 to 67.9 million by 2021.  While average selling prices (ASPs) for drones will continue to decline sharply during that period, they anticipate that total revenue will increase from $1.9 billion in 2015 to $5.0 billion in 2021. I won’t argue with those numbers.

What didn’t ring true?

  1. Virtual and Augmented Reality

Virtual and augmented reality for drones was a bust this year. Seriously. I expected to see a significant announcement from someone about the use of augmented reality using the data from commercial drones, but all I got was this lousy t-shirt.

What else happened?

Investment, mergers, and partnerships. That’s what happened. The major players were Airware, DJI, Intel, and Parrot. In September, Airware acquired Redbird with the intent of building a full-stack drone services empire. All throughout 2016, DJI announced partnerships with at least 14 companies including Epson, Ford, Leica, Luftansa, Measure, and PrecisionHawk.

The surprise too many of us was just how aggressive Intel got in the drone space this past year. They acquired drone manufacturer Ascending Technologies, made a further investment in data services provider PrecisionHawk, and bought Movidius and Mavinci.

Parrot took a different approach. They continued with their past strategy which was to make investments.  Previous investments included Pix4D, Airnov, and MicaSense.  This year Parrot made three minority investments in BioCarbon Engineering Ltd., a UK company that is developing a drone-based reforestation solution, Planck Aerosystems Inc., a US company that is developing drone-based surveillance solutions for the Navy, and Nano Racing S.A.S., a French company that is developing a small-scale immersion-piloted racing drone.

What about next year?

There were some hard lessons learned this past year and they point to trends I believe we’ll see next year.  For example, take Jonathan Downey’s 8 Lessons Learned Turning Aerial Data into Enterprise Outcomes. If you read between the lines, you’ll see a brutally honest confession of their hard times. Wisdom comes from experience and kudo’s to Jonathan for giving the commercial drone industry some good advice–especially #3: To drive business outcomes, provide an end-to-end solution.

But there is a scary insight from last year and it’s buried in this post by Measure: How is the drone industry moving forward? It says:

“..on October 26, the FAA and the Transportation Research Board convened a workshop to aggregate stakeholder perspectives on the expected growth of the drone market in the coming years. Key issues addressed included the drivers of and obstacles to growth in the drone industry, and how best to predict market trends. The insights provided by the representatives from the commercial drone industry, defense-oriented UAV industry, government, and aviation advocacy groups will aid the FAA as it creates its next UAV market forecast.”

So, what did the stakeholders say to FAA? At the Commercial UAV Expo I heard one say they told the FAA that their forecast was too low.  Most said we’re going to see tens of millions–maybe hundreds of millions–of drones flying in national airspace in the near future.” What else would they say?  That’s what they told their investors. Insane.

Image credit: Shutterstock

This post first appeared in sUAS News ‘The Market’

Sense and Avoid for Drones is No Easy Feat

But development is vibrant, and you’ll see it work first in prosumer drones

THE FACTS:

“Sense and avoid” for drones is a popular topic in the press right now, but the phrase can mean different things in different contexts and for different people. To clarify, there is a difference between solving the problem of “sense” and solving the problem of “avoid.”  Also, there is a difference between “airborne collision avoidance” (which is what most concerns the FAA) and “obstacle avoidance” (which is the problem that most manufacturers are trying to solve right now). With that in mind, this post looks at what a few manufacturers and software providers are doing to solve obstacle avoidance.

WHAT’S COOL AND WHAT’S NOT:

DJI – DJI was one of the first to release a drone that could sense and avoid obstacles. In June 2015, they announced Guidance, a combination of ultrasonic sensors and stereo cameras that allow the drone to detect objects up to 65 feet (20 meters) away and stay away from objects at a preconfigured distance. The kit was immediately available for the Matrice 100 drone development platform.  They subsequently incorporated that technology into their flagship Phantom 4 prosumer drone but not their new professional drone, the Matrice 600.

The Phantom 4 has front obstacle sensors combined with advanced computer vision and processing that allow it to react to and avoid obstacles in its path. The secret sauce for the Phantom 4’s ability to sense and avoid obstacles in real time and hover in a fixed position without a GPS signal is a set of specialized software algorithms for spatial computing and 3D depth sensing. These algorithms are coupled with an onboard Movidius vision processing unit (VPU) that gives the Phantom 4 drone the ability to sense and avoid obstacles in real time. In the “TapFly Mode” of the flight control program, the Phantom 4 obstacle sensing systems are supposed to enable you to fly a path with the drone automatically moving around objects as it flies. But you can find several real-world tests like this one that show it’s not a perfect system.

Intel – Intel is all over sense and avoid, and they accomplish it with active sensors. In 2015 at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), they gave this sneak peek at what they were working on. In January 2016, they acquired German drone manufacturer Ascending Technologies (AscTec) and dazzled CES with an on-stage demo of their Intel® RealSense™ technology integrated into an AscTec drone that showcased how it can avoid obstacles and continue to follow the subject. They recently announced their Aero Ready-to-Fly Drone, a fully functional quadcopter powered by the Intel® Aero Compute Board, equipped with Intel® RealSense™ depth and vision capabilities and running an open-source Linux operating system. It is geared for developers, researchers, and UAV enthusiasts.

It’s clear Intel understands the importance of sense and avoid technology for ready-to-fly prosumer and commercial drones, too. In June 2016, Intel announced the addition of a factory-installed Intel RealSense R200 camera and an Intel Atom processor module for Yuneec’s Typhoon H.  The module will map the Typhoon H’s surroundings in 3D, which it then uses to autonomously navigate its environment—including rerouting itself around obstacles. Yuneec’s Typhoon H camera drone already had the ability to stop itself before colliding into large objects. But now it should avoid obstacles and keep moving right around them. We’ll see if that comes true in the real world. Let’s hope it does. Otherwise Intel’s $60 million investment in Yuneec may show signs of not delivering the expected return.

Either way, Intel has hedged its bets. In July 2016, a team from Intel and Airbus demonstrated an aircraft visual inspection with a modified AscTec Falcon 8 with RealSense cameras. The demo took place during this week’s Farnborough International Airshow in England on an Airbus passenger airliner.  Additionally, in September 2016, Intel acquired DJI’s VPU vendor Movidius, which means they may have the market cornered for sense-and-avoid technology.

ParrotParrot’s S.L.A.M.dunk integrates advanced software applications based on the robotic mapping construct called “simultaneous localization and mapping,” or SLAM.  The name of Parrot’s solution is a play on the words “slam dunk,” but really it’s anything but that.  SLAM is a computational problem of constructing or updating a map of an unknown environment while simultaneously keeping track of an agent’s location within it. Parrot’s use of SLAM enables a drone to understand and map its surroundings in 3D and to localize itself in environments with multiple barriers and where GPS signals are not available. In other words, it performs obstacle avoidance. Their solution depends on active sensors. You can read more here.

NeuralaNeurala is a software solution that analyzes the images from off-the-shelf cameras to enhance drone navigation. Unlike Parrot’s solution, Nueurla technology is passive. It uses GPU-based hardware running artificial intelligence neural network software. While commercial-grade GPS can fly a drone close to its objectives, Neurala software can help it identify safe areas to travel and land. At InterDrone, Neurala announced the launch of Bots Software Development Kit. The kit will allow manufacturers to install artificial-intelligence “neural” software directly into their applications without the need for additional hardware. That said, full collision avoidance is still under development.

LeddarTech – Leddar just announced its modular Vu8. The specs make it ideal for autonomous drone use. The Vu8 is a compact solid-state LiDAR sensor that detects targets at a range of up to 705 feet (or 215 meters) and weighs 75 grams. The Vu8 is an active sensor that “could be” used for collision avoidance, navigation, and as an altimeter for drones. According to LeddarTech, the Vu8 LiDAR is “immune to ambient light” and was designed to provide “highly accurate multi-target detection over eight independent segments.” There are some cool details in this video but no real-life use on a drone demo just yet.

BOTTOM LINE:

At this time, the drone industry appears to be rich with R&D and solutions that attempt to tackle the obstacle avoidance problem. But a simple search on YouTube for successful real-world examples reveals we still have a way to go before anyone claims victory. I like what LeddarTech says:

Available drones sensing solutions for position and range measurements as well as for collision avoidance are still far from perfect: GPSs and barometers aren’t full-proof—even outdoors—and can’t be relied upon when navigating indoors. Ultrasonic altimeters have very limited range. Optical flow sensors require good lighting and textured surfaces, and camera vision are still a work in progress and tend to be processing-intensive.

As with any technology, there are always trade-offs. It’s still not clear to me who has the category-killing solution. I think that’s going to take more R&D investment. One thing is for sure—we’ll see more new sense-and-avoid product and tech announcements this year. Like with DJI, I believe it will continue to be released first in prosumer drones because that’s the only place where sales volumes and margins are strong enough to recoup the investment.

Image credit: Intel

This post first appeared on DRONELIFE.com