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Dronesare often billed as most useful in mission areas that are dull, dirty or dangerous. Examples include video surveillance (dull), and post-tsunami nuclear reactor inspection (dirty & dangerous).But if all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. For companies trying to apply “drone technology” to their business it is important to understand some “missioneering” to apply the right tool for the job and to keep an eye on five supertrends.
Atits heart, each drone is a specialized tool, consisting of hardware and software that combine to do a particular function or mission. Regardless of the mission or environment (air, maritime, subsea, or ground) certain core functions are required: Energy, Propulsion, Structure, Control, Communication, and Navigation.
"For companies trying to apply “drone technology” to their business it is important to understand some “missioneering” to apply the right tool for the job and to keep an eye on five super trends"
Energy:The energy function iscurrently one of the most limiting, but also an area where major improvements in energy storage technology (i.e. batteries, fuel cells) will greatly increase the capabilities of all drone systems.
Propulsion: The ubiquity of quadcopter drones was driven in part by inexpensive electric brushless motor technology. New methods of propulsion (miniaturized jets and electric turbofan engines) promise to enable science fiction to become science. Brushless motors paired with internal motor sensors enable Ghost Robotics to direct drive their legged robots, operating at low speed and high torque. While not drone tech, manned use of new propulsion tech like the JetCat P-400 (89-lbs of thrust in an 8-lb package) made possible Jetman’s birdlike flight and beefier micro-turbines powering Gravity jetpacks bring Ironman to life.
Structure: New materials (carbon fiber, carbon-nano tubes, metal foams), methods (additive manufacturing), design capabilities (DARPA’s Transformative Design effort) and design philosophies (bio-inspiration) are enabling increased performance with lighter-weight structures with increased strength.
Control: Linearized control systems are well understood and quadcopters exist because the system is well behaved and tunable with a simple fairly inexpensive PID controller. Advances in non-linear control systems, the use of non-traditional control surfaces and methods (morphing, Multiple-input multiple- output (MIMO)) will increase system recovery during degraded states, and achieve greater controller robustness in challenging environmental conditions (unsteady winds/currents).
Communication: We all know that 5G is coming (ifyouhaven’theard – 5Giscoming!)and with it broader coverage, higher bandwidth and much-smaller transmitters and receivers. This will enable increased ranges and connectivity especially for ground and near-ground drones.
Navigation: While most navigation is currently GPS-based, other sensors are being used to provide integrated situational awareness or live mapping of the environment. Exyn and Skydio’s use of simultaneous localization and mapping (SLAM) with LIDAR or camera systems enable their systems to safely operate without GPS and in Exyn’s case in non-traditional locations like dark underground mines.
In order to operate in a specific environment (i.e. air) other functions may be needed. As a result all airborne drones have some way of producing lift (wings, direct thrust, or buoyancy) and adapting to the particular environment where the system operates by planning for pressure and temperature variations among a host of other environmental concerns. Space and subsea drones have their own unique adaptations.