While regulators try to keep up, commercial drones are rapidly evolving from Christmas toys for the bored into serious, sophisticated business tools. Collision avoidance is becoming standard.
German-Canadian-American company Microdrones was the first to receive beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) approval from Transport Canada (TC) in July, after TC initiated operations at the UAS Centre of Excellence, Alma, Que, which offers the industry a dedicated, restricted airspace for testing.
With its, 8,400 ft. sq. hangar and more than 6,000 sq. ft. of office space, the UAS Centre of Excellence is an unmanned gem, and its team is working diligently on a number of Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) R&D projects both in Canada and abroad.
The next frontier of UAS innovation will focus on improved cameras and sensor systems, autonomous flight navigation, improved “geofencing” to preclude operations in restricted areas such as around airports and military installations and artificial intelligence.
“There will be more automation – from launching the drone, flying it and capturing the data, to being able to transmit that data and automatically analyze it,” said Anil Nanduri, vice-president in the New Technologies Group and general manager of the UAV segment at computer chipmaker Intel.
Aircraft manufacturer Airbus, for example, is combining the latest in drones, sensors, and computer analytics to conduct maintenance inspections. As the drone hovers around the aircraft, high-resolution images are scrutinized using machine-learning algorithms to identify any imperfections. The process takes about 10 minutes compared with two hours for two quality inspectors using a cherry picker vehicle.
A category of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), which is coming on strong is multi-rotor drones. These generally offer more manoeuverability simply by changing the relative speed of the rotor and adjusting the thrust produced by each. Applications include aerial photography, agriculture, environmental inspection and coverage of sports events.
A California disrupter, FlightWave Aerospace Systems, will launch a UAV early next year, called the “Edge,” which will take off vertically, then fly as a fixed-wing platform, capable of speeds up to 100 km/hr, with a range of up to 100 km for up to two hours. They’re also working on a solar panel upgrade which will add another 30 minutes’ endurance.
The takeoff and land anywhere capability means the Edge can be deployed in hard-to-reach places, including mountain and water locations, and does not require catapults for launch or nets for landing capture. The 130-cm wingspan UAV can be assembled in about a minute with payloads that include a 60-megapixel camera, video, thermal or multispectral imaging. (Clients may also certify their own payloads via FlightWave’s open-source design.) Operators can create automated flight plans or pilot the drone with a joystick. The pre-launch price for The Edge is US$7,500, rising to $10,000.
Enroute to earning his PhD from the Aerospace Design Lab at Stanford University, FlightWave co-founder Trent Lukaczyk did internships at Boeing (on computational materials and mesh tools for composites), Lockheed Martin (simulating aerodynamics), Hillcrest Labs (consumer electronics), and NASA’s Langley Research Center.
The “Wingtra,” which emerged from ETH, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich – sometimes referred to as the “Silicon Valley of drone innovation” – also takes off like a helicopter and flies in fixed-wing mode for nearly an hour. It is fully autonomous; no piloting skills necessary. It claims “Formula 1” wing technology, “the same batteries that power a Tesla” (presumably smaller), and a LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) sensor for landing.
And in yet another celebration of Canada’s 150th year, battery-maker Duracell is going “where no drone has gone before” on an 11,000-km trip that started in Beavercreek, Yukon and concludes in St. John’s, N.L. The Explorer150 program which kicked off in August, is a joint project with Maclean’s magazine, Duracell, InDro Robotics and (TC). The cross-country journey will provide idyllic video of the countryside that you can view here: http://duracelldrone.macleans.ca/#intro.
This journey accuately showcases the multi-use capabilities of unmmaned aircraft .
Rick Adams is chief perspectives officer of AeroPerspectives, an aviation communications consultancy in the south of France. He is also the editor of ICAO Journal.
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