Drone Tech Digest - January 2017

Solar powered Internet bringing drone project ditched

X has closed down its project to build a solar-powered drone to supply Internet to remote areas. X is a subsidiary research company of Alphabet, owner of Google. The project was the work of another company that Google bought in 2014 called Titan Aerospace. The Titan project was closed due to more promising results coming from rival Project Loon, that uses a weather balloon to supply Internet access. Project Loon has already had some success, in 2013 it provided Internet services to a New Zealand farmer. 

Fleet of AUVs provide speedy seafloor mapping

Swire Seabed, a Norwegian autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) company, has modified a vessel to carry and deploy up to six AUVs which are capable of travelling to depths of up to 6000 metres. These will be teamed up with unmanned surface vehicles (USVs) and two remotely operated vehicles which can go to depths of 5000 to 6000 metres.  The aim of having so many vehicles is to speed up seafloor mapping and surveying. Each AUV has a battery life of 72 hours and can operate at a 30km radius of the main vessel. The AUVs will take it in rotating 12 hour shifts, and between each shift each AUV’s data can be downloaded and analysed. Swire Seabed sees this technique being used for telecommunication or the oil and gas industries. 

US Navy trial swarmboats

The US Navy recently demonstrated a swarm of autonomous rigid hull inflatable boats performing a mission with minimal human supervision. The swarm boats use CARACaS (Control Architecture for Robotic Agent Command and Sensing) autonomy technology which the Navy says is good for carrying out harbour defence as it is cheaper than using manned ships. In the trial carried out on the James River in Virginia the boats intercepted potential enemy ships and escorted naval assets. The boats asses the threat level of an approaching boat by using image recognition technology. They would then communicate with each other and some would approach the boat and track it while others continue patrolling the area. All data is relayed to a human supervisor. 

DARPA funded traceless drone

The DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency – a branch of the US military) funded Inbound, Controlled, Air-Releasable, Unrecoverable Systems (ICARUS) program has granted funding to Otherlab to create drones from cardboard. This allows for lengthened operational scope of the drones – as they only need to go one way, being disposable. DARPA gave funding to Otherlab’s Aerial Platform Supporting Autonomous Resupply Actions (APSARA), a cardboard drone which is adaptable to different payloads for different missions. Otherlab says that its disposable drone is capable of delivering a payload (e.g. medicine or food aid) and then disappearing within a few days. 

Drone in a box

Airmada, a drone solution company, has developed a ground station for drones acting as security guards at industrial facilities. The ground station is a box which stores a drone until it is needed then opens up to act as a launchpad for the drone. After the drone has taken surveillance footage which is streamed back to human operatives the drone returns to its box, lands and is once again encased. A mechanism inside the box can change the drone’s battery and recharge it. While the company is currently focussed on the security market it also envisages the drone box being used for deliveries in the future.

Air-traffic control system for drones

Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore has written up plans to develop an air-traffic management system for drones. The proposed ssolution employs detect and avoid systems built into the drones, along with designated take-off and landing zones and dronelanes. One of the primary control systems would be a manned traffic management system for drones which would check speed and track the drones so as to avoid congestion and collision. The traffic controller would be able to communicate with the operator/pilot of the drone in case of rule breaches. Testing of the system should begin in 2018. 

Autonomous shipping

Rolls-Royce expects autonomous cargo ships to be traversing the oceans within ten to fifteen years’ time. It predicts that an autonomous ferry or harbour tug will be traversing rather calmer waters with the next few years. It has teamed up with other companies to create the Advanced Autonomous Waterborne Applications (AAWA) project in Finland to try to make it a reality. In August 2015 AAWA member Inmarsat launched its Global Xpress satellite which gave it the ability to support Ka-band (above 20 GHz) and L-band (1-2 GHz) satellite links (if the weather sensitive Ka-band goes down then the less weather sensitive L-band will still maintain a connection) almost anywhere in the world.  Rolls-Royce is confident that the data sent to and transmitted from the ships will be securable. Rolls-Royce is currently working on specifications and designs for advanced intelligent ships but admits that the same issues of legal framework, regulation and technology that bug the autonomous car industry will first need to be addressed before autonomous shipping becomes commonplace. It is most likely that the first examples that will be seen, it says, will be semi-autonomous. The Norwegian Maritime Authority and the Norwegian Coastal Administration have signed an agreement that allows for relevant sea trials to take place in the Trondheim Fjord.

UrbanAero’s autonomous passenger drone

Israeli company UrbanAero has said that its passenger rescue drone could be ready for general use by 2020. A project which has been in progress for the past 15 years has created the Cormorant passenger drone, which can carry a weight of 500kg at 185km/h. The helicopter-like drone can take off and land vertically and can fly between buildings and below powerlines. In September 2016 UrbanAero announced the Cormorant’s first autonomous flight.  

Amazon drone collective

Amazon has recently been granted a patent for a mothership-style drone transport and deployment system. The individual drone modules can connect and detach when and where needed. Combining the drones into a ‘collective unmanned aerial vehicle’ will, Amazon claims, mean that they can carry heavier burdens and fly greater distances than if working as individual drones. 

Selfly – pretty fly

The selfie stick changed selfies. Now Selfly, a selfie-taking pocket drone, could further change selfies. Selfly is a drone which is stored in a bulky, but fully functioning phone case, meaning it is there when you need it. The Selfly is controlled via a smartphone app and can be used to take photos or videos from previously hard to reach angles. It has an 8-megapixel camera that can take video at 1080 pixels and 30 frames per minute. It is capable of flying for about five minutes. Selfly is on Kickstarter.


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