Swarms, Sprayers, and BVLOS
Swarms? It sounds like a b-roll movie about bees, wasps, or possibly mosquitoes (I haven't seen a good horror flick with mosquitoes as the killer...yet!).
It's not a movie, it is one of a few major changes to the drone industry that are on the way, each of which is going to have massive implications. If you read to the end, you might find a *bonus* technology that is going to be the Granddaddy of them all... but it is some time off...
So, what are Swarm Tech and BVLOS?
Drone swarms are going to revolutionize the way data is captured on a large scale (at first). A swarm of drones is technically considered "more than two drones that act in tandem under the control of one ground station" according to Panagiotis Artemiadis, Associate Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering in the School for Engineering of Matter, Transport and Energy at Arizone State University.
Panagiotis presented on some very interesting technological breakthroughs at the Commercial UAV Expo in Las Vegas in October, including stackable drones, drone swarms and... well, we'll tell you the last "bonus" tech at the end...
Panagiotis spoke about how flocks of hundreds, or thousands of birds can fly in tightly clustered swarms and make almost instantaneous direction changes based on the movements of the other birds in the system around them. Hey, if a bird with a tiny brain can do it, a computer should be able to to it... right?
Artemiadis identified that having many simultaneously operating units with AI capabilities will allow tasks to be completed faster...
"Having many inexpensive agents..."
If you could have one $40,000+ fixed-wing drone that can fly an entire section in under an hour...
or forty $1000 drones that could fly an entire section in 10 minutes...
Which would you choose? Having many systems cuts down on the time to complete the operation by an order of magnitude. It allows for redundancy - if one particular unit is not functioning properly, or is not functional at all, the remaining units will still complete the function of: "map this area."
Swam technology is being used in modern warfare. Check out the video below from CBS News: "The Coming Swarm," which shows how the Pentagon is using a micro drone called the "Perdix" as a military super-weapon. In the video, three fighter jets each drop around 100 Perdix microdrones, flying over a target at high speed. The drones start to swarm around like an angry hive of bees, collecting information about their targets as they whiz past them, too fast and small to even shoot at.
Imagine that the target, instead of a person, is a field of potatoes, or hemp. The swarm buzzes around like bees, collecting data as a team, like a well oiled machine. Perhaps there is another swarm of spraying drones on standby (yes, spraying is the next massive change to the industry) that can zip out and apply fertilizer or pesticide according to an algorithm generated from the data the first swarm gathered.
It's easy to get carried away looking ahead to where things could go with a large team of robots working in unison... but it IS coming. Perhaps we'll even see this technology implemented in agriculture within the next year. M3 Aerial Productions Inc. is working on developing a system similar to the one mentioned above, and is planning to start testing a multiple-drone-per-pilot platform in Manitoba, Canada as early as 2018.
This is no small feat, naturally! Thus we're interested in what you might be able to bring to the table. If you're interested in a partnership on this project, please Contact Us with an idea of how you might be able to contribute to this project, we'd love to hear from you!
Ok, this one isn't actually really a "coming" technology, because it's already sort of here already. There are currently several companies that are getting into the UAV Aerial Application side of the industry, and they have been developing several styles and sizes for different applications (get it?).
Some are massive beasts that can carry a huge amount of product to apply to a relatively large area, like the Yamaha RMAX. Of course, when you're dealing with huge complicated units, you're also looking at a huge dent in your wallet... like a $200k+ dent in your wallet!
Other units, such as Kray Technology's Kray Protection UAS (which is available through Rogadrone.com in Canada), as well as the DJI Agras MG-1 have been used more and more often over the last couple years.
But there always remains one argument when talking about using spray drones...
One drone would take forever to spray a large field!
Yes, that is true. If you want the ENTIRE field flown, then yes, it will take a long time, and you're probably better off hiring a plane to do it like always... but the whole point of using the drone as part of a Precision Agriculture operation is to micro-manage your fields' inputs. Using one form of data collected from drones to help make decisions, or "prescriptions" of where chemicals or nutrients need to be spread... precisely!
But don't get me wrong, drones are going to eventually take over crop spraying as well, and it will be drone swarms that are completing those tasks, like a busy hive of buzzing honey bees! Funny, Jeff Bezos at Amazon also has a thing for the "Bee Concept." This could start happening within 3-5 years. Skeptical? I'd love to hear why, so let me know!
Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) used to be completely unfathomable technology for a small operator to be able to implement... legally!
The rules in pretty much every country that has brought in drone regulations state that the pilot must be able to see the drone at all times. Talk about taking the wind out of your sails! Companies can purport all they want that their systems can fly for five or ten miles, or even fifty or one hundred! ...but that doesn't change the fact that the regulations essentially limit you to half a mile.
Or so you thought!
In order for a company to be granted BVLOS they must be able to, first and foremost, demonstrate that the platform they are using, that is, the actual drone in the air, has a built in "sense and avoid" feature.
What is Sense and Avoid?
In order for a drone to fly BVLOS, it must be equipped with some pretty intense, high tech equipment. One component that is required is an ADS-B transceiver. This little gadget sends out a "ping" - a packet of data that is sent out in all directions containing the drone's position, speed, and heading. Most manned airplanes have these units which notify the pilot of other aircraft in the local area. Sometimes the plane will automatically correct the course according to the information sent by the transceiver.
Conversely, the drone must also be able to receive signals from other aircraft (ie. sense), including other drones and manned aircraft. It not only needs to receive information about incoming aircraft, it needs to be able to process that data and maneuver out of the way (ie. avoid).
So that's all it takes?
Not so fast - all that equipment and testing costs easily an arm and a leg... possibly the kitchen sink as well.
That's why big companies are doing it... and not so much the smaller fish in the pond... yet! For example, Drone Delivery Canada is using drones to deliver resources to remote or isolated First Nations communities in Northern Ontario; and BNSF is using a fixed wing long-range UAS that can fly over 200 miles in one flight!
This technology is getting cheaper though, and more readily available, and thus, many commercial UAVs will inevitably start having this technology built into them.
Why is BVLOS so good anyways?
Did you really just ask that? BVLOS will allow for huge development in the industry. With BVLOS, companies will be able to fly hundreds of miles doing corridor inspections on infrastructure such as:
- Railway lines
- Power lines
That's just a few of the massive applications - there are many, many more!
Ok... You've either read everything (hopefully!) or skipped right to the end (I can't blame you... I would...). But here it is!
4. *BONUS* Controlling Drones With Your Mind!
I'm not making this up! Remember Panagiotis Artemiadis from way up at the top of this essay? Well, he has been billed as "the man who controls drones with his mind."
Panagiotis jokes in his lecture at the Commercial UAV Expo that "we have to control them before they control us!"
Right then, he shows a video of a guy controlling three drones using the brainwaves measured with an EKG. He was able to control the horizontal spread of the three drones by either clustering them together, or spreading them out. The goal in the video was to bring the outside drones close to the middle, then as a joystick is pushed up, the three drones rise up through a hoop. Finally, the mind ends up spreading the drones apart again.
When I saw that, my mind literally did two somersaults and slammed into a wall.
The things that Arizona State University are working on right now... those are some of the coolest developments in the UAV industry that I have seen since the first "drone video" I ever saw, which completely opened my eyes to the magnificence of these machines.
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