I’ve always thought that tethered drones would have a major disadvantage over regular flying vehicles, in that their range is really limited and therefore their applications would be few and far between. However, a recent release by Drone Aviation got me thinking otherwise.
The company is taking the route many tech companies have followed to protect their technology and enhance their market position, by patenting unique technical elements — in this case, the Electric Tethered Aerial Platform (ETAP) technologies of their drone tether system.
So why the change of heart about tethered drones? The drone industry is becoming increasingly specialized in its offerings, so why not drones and aerostats with the advantage of no detectable uplink or downlink transmissions, which can also stay aloft for 8+ hours? You might even load the base into a truck and move the area of operations around. Maybe more use to the military for somewhat covert reconnaissance missions, but Drone Aviation indicates that applications such as newsgathering, law enforcement, infrastructure and pipeline inspections, and event management would also benefit from longer endurance drone operations.
Anyway, someone thinks this is a good idea, because Drone Aviation was just awarded a $400,000 contract by a “U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) customer” for WAAT electric tethered drones, plus complete in-field support packages and operator flight training.
And don’t forget those ads currently running on TV with dual operators inspecting oil refinery stacks using a free-flying six-rotor drone — maybe BP would also feel somewhat safer avoiding potential refinery-stack collision damage if the video inspection drone were to be tethered?
Trimble and 3D Robotics Divest
One of the hot-news items of the month has to be that Trimble has divested its UAS mapping business that it bought from Gatewing in Belgium in 2012. Having worked in this sector for the last four years, Trimble decided to concentrate on core software technology for UAS that integrates positioning, remote sensing and photogrammetry.
Delair-Tech in Toulouse, France, has acquired the Trimble UAS business for undisclosed terms. Delair is already a supplier of long-range, fixed-wing UAS solutions for industrial inspection and asset management applications, and intends to grow the acquired business by joining the Trimble UAS business to its existing portfolio of airborne mapping solutions.
Trimble has not entirely disconnected from its UAS business — rather, it has also formed a strategic alliance with Delair-Tech as a preferred provider of fixed-wing UAS solutions, with Trimble providing software, data processing and deliverables to UAS operators across multiple vertical markets. To ensure full segment coverage, Trimble has also joined up at the same time with Microdrones in Siegen, Germany, an existing provider of multi-rotor UAS solutions, under another preferred-supplier strategic alliance. Both Delair-Tech and Microdrones will support Trimble distributors to provide UAS mapping solutions for Trimble’s customers around the world.
It’s easy to guess that Trimble may have found that directly competing in this emerging airborne mapping market to be harder than it looked, with many existing capable UAS operators and a market that is perhaps developing more slowly than expected. So stepping back to focus on its core competences and selling what it does best should cost less and allow it to address all airborne operators, rather than competing with all of them. Not a pattern that Trimble may have followed closely in the past as it entered more and more market segments, but one that might let it more easily pick winners in the UAS segment.
And for 3D Robotics in Berkeley, California — the company that was seen as the U.S. supplier of drones at one time with its Solo and 3DR drones systems — it, too, is out of the UAV platform manufacturing and supply business. In just 12 months, the company has gone from the height of being an industry-leading drone startup to dumping its drone products. As a consequence, 3D Robotics has laid off more than 150 people and spent a good part of its initial funding.
Poor sales at the beginning of the year and highly competitive drone products, mostly from DJI, have forced a move away from consumer drones. Initial production problems may have also doomed the launch of its commercial drone products.
Although 3D Robotics might be up against the ropes, it is retrenching and, like Trimble, is focusing on the development of software and service applications. CEO Chris Anderson has declined to discuss his company’s financial situation, but has said that 3D Robotics is now solely focused on enterprise software.
ISIS Flies Explosive Drones
An unwelcome use of UAVs has now unfortunately emerged in Iraq. Kurdish forces fighting ISIS in northern Iraq last week shot down a small drone. They believed it was just one of many commercially available drones, such as the DJI Phantom, which have been seen flying reconnaissance missions, so they picked it up to transport it back to their outpost to examine it.
Unfortunately, the drone had been rigged with on-board explosives disguised as a battery, and the device exploded, killing two. Of three known such drone attacks in Iraq, only this one has apparently caused casualties. There was only a small amount of explosives, but it was enough to kill. There may be several known existing systems that can be used to defeat such attack drones, but the equipment needed has not yet reached this war zone.
Intel Extends Its Presence
On a much happier note, while Trimble and 3D Robotics are getting out of UAVs, Intel is extending its UAS market presence with the launch of an improved Falcon 8+ system, now marketed for the first time under the Intel name.
The UAV has full electronic system redundancy with redundant batteries, redundant communication between critical flight components and redundant aerial sensing. A triple-redundant autopilot uses three redundant inertial measurement units (IMUs) that compensate for environmental issues like strong electromagnetic fields or winds, and the vehicle also carries high-precision GPS.
The Intel Falcon 8+ is aimed at industrial inspection, surveying and mapping, and is geared toward professionals and expert use. The system is capable of detailed images with millimeter accuracy and can provide structural analysis that helps users detect and therefore prevent more damage to infrastructure. Structural inspections can be run time and time again to monitor for wear and tear, as this UAV has repeatable waypoint navigation capability.
Mock Medical Delivery
Exploring another opportunity where the use of drones may improve life for the rest of us, UPS and CyPhy Works recently demonstrated the delivery of medical supplies to an island off Marblehead, Massachusetts.
During the mock delivery, the Persistent Aerial Reconnaissance and Communications (PARC) UAS flew from Beverly, Massachusetts, to Children’s Island, about three miles off the coast, delivering an asthma inhaler to a child. UPS is investigating the use of drones for the delivery of humanitarian aid around the world, and at home is also testing drones to verify their warehouse stock.
And finally, Heliceo in Nantes, France, has come up with the DroneBox, which contains most of the electronics you might need for a drone of your own making, or you could also buy one of Heliceo’s several complete drone models and systems built around the DroneBox.
Heliceo’s patented solutions are available to suit both plane and multi-rotor drones. The unit contains GNSS RTK receivers, an autopilot, telemetry, data storage, communication, a flight controller and avionics. The DroneBox RTK is a “technology concentrator,” and with its 24-million-pixel camera is capable of detecting a coin from around 500 feet. Heliceo claims that its integrated solution can contribute up to 70 percent of the value of the entire drone.
The box is equipped with two GNSS receivers (one for navigation and one for Trimble RTK measurements), and the camera is optimized by a calibration process that corrects optical lens aberrations. Each acquired image is recorded with its latitude, longitude and altitude, which allows the subsequent creation of georeferenced 2D scaled maps or 3D digital terrain models.
So several steps forward for various UAV/UAS initiatives, some things from which we can still learn, and maybe a couple of steps back for a fledgling industry facing inevitable consolidation. But at this stage, it’s good to see there is still enough investment and enthusiasm to take on a wide range of opportunities. Some will fail, some will succeed, and the winners will hopefully find ways to further improve our way of life and hopefully make money in the process. And for goodness sake, let’s get some new or existing anti-drone solutions out there soon for U.S. troops and their allies.