What is a Smart Drone?
Smart Drone is an automated and autonomous aerial vehicle which uses sensors to control its flight operations as well as monitor changes in its plans in real-time.
Smart Drones are usually constructed using high technology and sophisticated electronics and sensors so that they can continue on their role if there is a loss of control data.
They generally requires no control or input from drone pilots, depending solely on its own onboard electronics for the duration of flight.
Advanced sensors which are usually found in mobile phones, laptops are already popping up in Smart Drones.
Sensors and technologies like processors, magnetometers, gyros, accelerators, and GPS modules are now routinely used in Smart Drones to make them more robust and effective.
When compare with contemporary drones, Smart Drones come equipped with top tier equipment which offers significantly upgraded capabilities.
Smart Drones of today features faster on board processors, efficient servos and motors, better software, and accurate sensors.
Additionally, to better serve the logistics, security and defence industry, smart drones are usually fitted with inbuilt compliance technology for effective as well as safer flight navigation and control.
To better cope with today’s complex environmental conditions, Smart drones will require smart sensors which are hooked up with computer or synthetic vision system which uses artificial intelligence (AI)-powered technologies to detect objects on its path as well as avoidance tactics.
With the rapid growth in AI and powerful algorithm, smart drones will become even more adaptable and will likely monitor and control its own flight path.
Benefits of Smart Drones
One of the benefits of Smart Drones is that it offers a capability such as networked coordinated flight. This capability is still being understood by commercial industry however, advanced militaries are developing what is known as a ‘swarm tactics’ whereby multiple drones of maybe 25 to 300 engaging a single target in order to overload their sensors and combat capacity thereby causing confusion.
This tactics will need an networked coordination, collaboration and real time data exchange. In the civilian sector, this application could find use in logistics, medical services and even autonomous package delivery.
Challenges of Smart Drone application
To get to the scenario described above, smart drones will have to surpass some major challenges which includes self-monitoring capability.
This means that a smart drone should have the capacity to self-monitor and diagnose its own system without outside help.
Let’s say a smart drone enroute to deliver a package stumbles upon harsh weather conditions, it’ll have to monitor its own health conditions while in flight and take precautionary measures when needed.
In such a scenario, the smart drone will have to monitor its fuel usage and level, watch out for possible damage to its propellers, sensors and cameras. If a significant threat to any of these is found, the smart drone could take a number of actions to keep itself safe which taking a different route to reduce chances of possible damage or take a route with a charging station on its path.
This type of self-monitoring and diagnostics capability is very useful in the commercial viability of smart drone surveillance, goods delivery, because it will ensure the survivability of the drone as well as the mission entrusted to it.
Another significant challenge for smart drones is integration with civilian manned airspace in safety. One of the solution to this particular challenge is quick identification of the smart drones when it is airborne. Using visible color blink sequence to create an identification code, smart drones can then be identified with the use of a specially built smartphone app to decode the visible color blink sequence and retrieve the identity and destination of the drone.
In addition to using visible light coding method, smart drones could be outfitted with technology to connect to the cloud-based UTM system.
This will provide automatic round-the-clock communication and navigation information to the smart drone, thus providing instant airspace traffic data as well as atmospheric conditions of the drone’s path.
Here’s how it works, a device will allow a smart drone to capture data and information after being connected to sophisticated Smart Sensors, such as RFID and Bluetooth 4.0 devices. The captured data will then be stored in a cloud platform.
This device can be fitted on almost any commercial drones available in the market, thereby allowing users to utilize their existing drone stock without buying new drones.
Technological bottlenecks to Smart Drones adoption
Even with the rapid growth in the technological sector, there are still some challenges impeding the widespread adoption of smart drones.
Most of this challenges would have to been addressed before operators can get any meaningful use out of smart drones.
Unfortunately, Battery technology has not matured sufficiently enough to power smart drones for longer distance as hoped. Current batteries available today for smart drones can only last about 30 minutes which reduces the usefulness of the smart drone for lengthy operations.
Drone makers are currently developing battery technology that would increase drone flight time by hours instead of minutes.
In fact, alternate power supply using Hydrogen fuel cells have been developed and is now able to power multi-rotor drones sufficiently enough for a drone to stay airborne for more than 4 hours at a time.
Another attempt at increasing drone’s flight time involves using a hybrid engine comprising of gasoline-powered generators that charges onboard batteries when airborne.
This recent method has been able to make a smart drone fly more two hours in windy conditions reaching up to 35 miles per hour while carrying payloads like cameras and infrared sensors.
The useful life of battery technology appears to be the most potent impedance to smart drone adoption.
Another innovative idea to increase the range offered by batteries in today’s smart drones is powering the drone entirely using solar energy. Solar panels mounted on the wings and fuselage of fixed wing drones connected to rechargeable batteries have reportedly kept a smart drone airborne for more that 72 hours.
Smart drone Camera
Optical devices like camera represents the most popular gadget on smart drones. Cameras offers operators the ability to see and interact with the environment in real-time.
Modern smart drones are rapidly gaining the ability to use several types of camera systems as well as upgraded technologies like night vision and infrared visions. These technologies presents an exciting new capabilities to smart drones including being able to see and navigate at night and other challenging weather conditions.
More so, using modern 3D sensing technology, drone-mounted cameras hooked to an on-board computers offers options for orientation, navigation Software as recognition to avoid obstacles without the need for bulky and complicated software systems.
Also, advances in micro cameras which is 4x smaller than regular cameras now offer drone pilots higher dynamic range, better megapixel resolution and the ability to capture both 24fps and 30fps 4k video.
Smart drone Software
Asides sophisticated cameras, another essential piece of smart drone infrastructure gaining traction is the software. Instead of using bulky and weighty on-board systems that demands extra battery power, innovative Computer Vision Software now offers alternative to terrain analysis.
These software streams videos to an object recognition server, allowing smart drones to analyse its terrain.
Software algorithms that control flight are finding its way into smart drones in military, consumer and commercial projects.
Special autonomous Mission Planning Software provides the ability to change flight profile, switch to autonomous flight with GPS and utilize aerial mapping tools.
Smart drone Autopilot
A large part of drone flight usually involves boring round trips to and from one destination to another. This part of smart drone operation is expected to be automated with human-in-the-loop monitoring the whole trip.
Using micro sensors like GPS receivers, inertial navigation systems (INS), yaw detection and digital compasses tied to an onboard computer, a smart drone can basically fly itself round certain sets of pre- defined waypoints.
Laser rangefinders coupled with the onboard autopilot will prevent drones from diving too close to the ground.
Smart drones are expected to operate in the same airspace with manned flights, thus, they’re required to have FAA approval for commercial use. And the biggest hurdle to gain that approval is to demonstrate that smart drones can prevent itself from colliding with other drones, people, property, and more importantly, into manned aircraft.
Part of this process is integrating proximity sensors to a smart drone to detect and avoid obstacles in its path.
Obstacle avoidance system
A novel approach to obstacle detection and avoidance is using multiple stereo and ultrasonic sensors which sends out a ping, and the return signal is analysed to assist the smart drone automatically “see” and avoid any obstacles within 65 feet.
These system can also stabilize a smart drone within centimeter above the ground.
Realistically, designing a reliable “sense-and-avoid” system that can detect dangers like other aircraft and obstacles in real-time is quite difficult, particularly as they’d need to be small and light enough to fit into the smart drone.
Whenever obstacle avoidance system or “Sense-and-Avoid” system matures enough, it’ll be of immense benefit to the viability of both civilian, commercial and military smart drones.
As smart drone technologies continues to mature, they’ll be more efficient, safer and reliable.
Even with this progress in drone technologies, it is expected that the market for commercial drones to still remain small compared to the military over the next few years.