Future Skies Will Swarm With Smarter Drones
The word "drone" often conjures up images of autonomous, militarized technology. But in the context of small aircraft with multiple rotors that you often see carrying cameras, drones are more accurately associated with hobbyist sport and commercial applications.
They've begun attracting mainstream attention as drone makers such as Parrot introduced affordable models putting them in the hands of a broader range of buyers.
The giant Las Vegas International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) has for the first time, created a dedicated Unmanned Systems Marketplace, where over a dozen companies will be grouped together to show off their latest flying machines.
According to the Consumer Electronics Association, sales of consumer drones are predicted to reach 400,000 units and $130 million in revenue in 2015, and surpass $1 billion in annual sales within the next five years.
Drones' affordability and their extraordinary flying agility is directly related to Moore's Law and lower costs for powerful chips. Drones are complex systems requiring precise control of multiple rotors and positioning in three dimensions.
Sensors feed data to a microprocessor, which decides on the rate of spin for the individual rotors, clockwise and counterclockwise...and that's just to hover.
A pilot's command to pitch, roll or yaw is received, calculated and translated to motor response in thousands of a second. Thanks to the miniaturization of key components as a result of smart phones and laptops, low-power CPUs, RAM, flash, sensors and I/O can be crammed into compact spaces and sold affordably.
As more powerful microprocessors become available,future consumer and military drones will have many new capabilities.
The space is evolving rapidly. Modern drone "brains" add orientation control, GPS-based points of interest, failsafe mechanisms, cruise and cameras to the list of features siphoning compute cycles.
Large drones designed for the defense industry, such as the RQ-4 Global Hawk, already have massive computer power "equivalent to an airborne super computer." They're immensely expensive (think hundreds of millions of dollars).
Manufacturers of cost-sensitive drones will use more affordable systems on a chip.
"It's really not too different from the benefits of advanced computing on a mobile device," says Brandon Basso, senior research and development engineer at 3D Robotics.
"Specific to drones, there are a couple of application domains that make sense for advanced computing. The first is computer vision--being able to sense the environment more effectively. Optimization and routing are also math-intensive problems."
3D Robotics sells a sub-$1,000 quad-copter able to track and follow GPS-enabled devices running Android. Its 32-bit ARM Cortex-M4 powered controller can keep the drone's camera pointed at you. Or, using DroidPlanner 2 software, it'll follow a flight plan of your creation and train its GoPro on a specific region of interest.
The company recently demonstrated a version of its Third-Person View (3PV) with Follow Me technology, which employs optical tracking of a subject, rather than following a GPS signal. According to Basso, the task is as much as 100 times more compute-intensive.
3D Robotics' engineers needed to beef up their controller and turned to Intel's postage stamp-sized Edison module, plus a dual-core 500 MHz Atom SoC with 1GB of LPDDR3 RAM, 4GB of flash memory, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.
"The Edison hardware is better suited for vision tracking because of its high clock rates and more RAM," says Basso. "Plus, it integrates well with open-source libraries for vision processing."
With smarter chips, the next big thing in drone technology will likely be affordable radio and laser remote sensing subsystems to address routing -- flying from one point to another in the presence of obstacles or adverse environmental conditions.
"One of the enabling technologies that got drones to where they are today is cheap MEMS (microelectromechanical systems) sensors--accelerometers and gyroscopes," says Basso. "That was wave one. The next wave of lidars and radars, which used to cost thousands of dollars on their own, are coming down in price."
Also, expect significant advancements to the cameras carried by drones. Today the emphasis is on higher resolutions and stable picture quality. But hyperspectral imaging, which involves the collection of information across the full electromagnetic spectrum (and not just the narrow band that humans see), promises a greater level of information than current systems.
3D Robotics drones are often used in surveying farms and with a full spectrum camera system they'll be able to collect better data on crops and make farming more efficient, using less water and pesticides.
A sensors improve, new business applications will materialize. Delivery is one example. Amazon always wants to serve customers more quickly at lower cost, and is experimenting with its Prime Air drone delivery concept.
As the technology continues to improve and becomes less expensive, it is likely that multi-rotor drones will significantly change Amazon's business.
A future world with skies swarming with buzzing drones will require some form of air traffic control. Regulations will likely mandate that drones will require permission to take-off and land just as aircraft do today. It'll have to be a highly reliable and automated system and it'll need a lot of computer power.
Until that happens, today's hobbyist flight controllers benefit from return-to-home functions. Should a craft fly out of radio range, an autopilot will guide it back towards its point of takeoff.
Todays hobbyist drones are packed with advanced technologies -- not bad for something that's priced in the hundreds of dollars.