The Evolution of Drone Autonomy

The Evolution of Drone Autonomy

15 Dec 2020 Written by Sharon

As drone technology matures, autonomy platforms have developed from simple flight planning to fully autonomous drone inspections.  Autonomy platforms continue to evolve, says vHive Co-Founder and CTO, Tomer Daniel.  vHive is a leading provider of AI-powered enterprise drone solutions.  The vHive platform allows multiple drones to operate autonomously to perform a complex mission: future developments may entirely change the way drones are integrated into the enterprise.

 

Drones have become a critical competitive advantage in tower inspections: saving time, costs, and risk.  Previously, a tower inspection required an inspector to climb the structure, taking pictures and performing measurements manually from a significant height.  This process is complex; it takes long hours and requires multiple personnel on site for safety.  The data that tower inspectors are able to generate through manual photographs and measurement is sparse: manual inspections frequently require multiple visits in order to gather sufficient information to perform required maintenance.

Enterprise drone solutions and aerial data offer a significant advantage: but operating a drone manually to get that data requires training, skill, and hours of practice.  A pilot gathering data for a tower inspection, for example, must understand what inspectors will need to see.  The pilot must also understand how to fly an aircraft precisely around an asset in order to gather accurate aerial images; despite obstacles, wind, or the need to change batteries in the middle of the flight. The data then needs to be analyzed and processed into a digital form that is useful to the client: pointing out potential problems from thousands of images and building an accurate asset replica can be a time-consuming process that requires expert knowledge.

Autonomy: From Automatic Flight Planning to Processing

Autonomous drone platforms remove many of the variables and issues present in gathering aerial data.  “Drone autonomy allows users to get the results they need, without having to figure out the complex problem of acquiring insightful data,” says Tomer.
“A platform that allows autonomous drone inspections does much of the difficult work for you,” says Tomer.  “The software knows what data you will need, it plans the ideal flight for you and it resumes the survey seamlessly after battery swap”. Machine-learning software can process the data, identifying problems specific to particular industries and utilizing images to build precise 3D models of industrial structures.

Accurate data gathered in autonomous drone inspections allows enterprise customers to create precise digital replicas of their assets, known as Digital Twins, sharing that data easily across large organizations.  This is critically important in allowing enterprise companies to reconcile the existing historical data in their asset management systems with current visual evidence of exactly what each asset holds.
Digital twins can also support additional functions within the enterprise such as quality assurance, engineering, sales and security.

Phases of Drone Autonomy

vHive sees drone autonomy as evolving in phases, each one expanding upon the functionality of the previous phase.  At this point in the industry’s development, the first phases of autonomy have been realized.  There are numerous solutions that accommodate some level of autonomous flight planning.  AI-driven autonomy can plan flights based upon mission parameters with some level of input from the pilot: machine-learning driven processing engines can highlight points of interest in the aerial images gathered.

The Evolution of Drone Autonomy

vHive’s enterprise drone solution for autonomous drone inspections goes further.  vHive’s software solution automatically plans the 3D flight path to enable repeatable high-resolution imagery, allowing for the use of multiple drones in order to shorten the time required in the field to gather the data.  The platform can divide a mission between drones with an uncoordinated team and have each complete a portion of the survey.  vHive then processes data into usable form: 3D digital twins, analytics, a 360-degree panoramic view of the asset location and more.

“Clients performing autonomous inspections want analytics from that data that will help them manage those assets efficiently.  They want to save time and costs by identifying issues early.  They want a 3D digital replica of their assets to tie into asset management system that can be shared between stakeholders anywhere in their organization,” explains Tomer.  “They don’t want to invest in specialty hardware.  They don’t want to have to hire special training organizations.  They don’t want to worry about the data integrity or the skill of their pilots.”
Ideally, says Tomer, “the field operators can perform autonomous drone inspections and simply incorporate drone imagery into their daily workflows”.

From Today’s Autonomous Platform to Drone Industry of Tomorrow

vHive’s enterprise drone solutions allow for more than one drone to fly simultaneously while maintaining segregation for safety: in the near future,  any user of the vHive platform will be able to see all of the drones they have in the air, dynamically coordinating multiple drones for multiple teams.  Eventually, as a robust framework of unmanned traffic management (UTM) develops, drones operating on different platforms to perform a variety of missions in common airspace will be able to interact with each other, deconflicting seamlessly and safely in dense airspace.

Ultimately, says Tomer drones will be able to navigate anywhere – even in GPS deprived environments – and fly themselves safely without human pilots.  This will help to revolutionize many traditional industries – but there is much more to explore.  New levels of autonomy will raise new issues about the uses of augmented and virtual reality in autonomous inspections.  New questions will be raised in global aviation about the role of the human pilot, appropriate laws and certifications for autonomous aircraft, and the appropriate uses for new technologies.

“When the drone does everything, there will be new issues that we haven’t thought about yet,” says Tomer. “At vHive, we are always thinking about what will come next, how we can create new opportunities for our clients, and how we can anticipate the impact that these tools will have.  We’re at the beginning of this evolution – and that’s an exciting place to be. “

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