You’ve spotted them flying at the park, you’ve seen the amazing aerial videos they can take. Drones, or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), are no longer just a military phenomenon but have entered the civilian fray. But while you’ll often see drones being flown just for fun, these days they’re being put to work in useful and increasingly surprising ways.
The Phone, I mean Drone Revolution
The earliest example of a UAV appeared in 1849 and the first wirelessly controlled types appeared in 1935, but only in recent years have a number of technologies converged to where drones have become relatively simple to manufacture, easy to fly and economical enough to be used in an ever-growing range of applications
All drones feature some degree of an autopilot system which makes them much easier fly than traditional RC aircraft. At the very least they can stabilize themselves without your help, but most drones can hover or fly around with little more than GPS coordinates to guide them.
These autonomous flight systems require advanced sensors, gyroscopes, and the processing power to perform sensor fusion and real-time flight adjustment. Until recent years, most of this equipment was expensive, bulky, and power draining. Then the MEMS revolution happened.
MEMS technology shrunk the gyroscopes, accelerometers, and magnetometers at the heart of the Attitude and Heading Reference Systems (AHRS) and Inertial Navigation Systems, essential for autonomous flight. Along with the help of Moore’s Law, as well as powerful, energy efficient SoC processors driven by the smartphone boom, these pieces have exponentially reduced their size, weight, and cost over the last few years. Nowadays, drones are not only within reach of prosumer types but the average consumer can afford to buy a basic drone that they can control with their smartphone.
More than Just a Toy
When affordable drones first came on the market, many people bought them just to enjoy the fun of flying, but it soon became apparent that the drones they bought were capable of doing work as well. Today these semi-autonomous eyes in the sky are being used for sports photography, land surveying and mapping, border patrol, agriculture, logistics, and many more fields that benefit from a small, cheap aircraft with wireless communication and the ability to carry a light load.
Even though current drone deployments seem cutting edge to us now, they may only be scratching the surface of what these versatile little flying machines are capable of. As more people play with drones and understand what they can do, a whole new world of possibilities is starting to appear.
Professional Drone Racing
Figure 1: Drone Racing League Miami (Image courtesy of Drone Racing League)
Okay, they’re not going to save the world, but it’s hard to deny that racing drones are cool. What better way to make use of your airborne toy then to recreate the speeder scene from Return of the Jedi?
Since drones were first released into the wild, hobbyists have naturally seen the competitive aspect of these minute aircraft and raced them recreationally, but this year, the Drone Racing League (DRL) looks to move the hobby beyond parks, garages and forests, to sports stadiums.
Drone racing today is done by experienced pilots wearing goggles that provide them a live First Person View (FPV) from the drone’s on-board camera. This not only gives them great visual feedback but lets spectators feel like they themselves are in the cockpit.
DRL is hoping that this immersive perspective, combined with the increased sales of VR headsets like the Oculus Prime will make drone racing the next big spectator sport. The prize purses are already there - with a teenager winning $250,000 at a drone race last year in Dubai.
Drone-on-drone cage fights have been happening for a few years now, but the holy grail of civilian drone combat - aerial dogfights, has been a technical challenge. Aerial combat requires a drone’s need to have live, HD video streaming, precise flying and shooting controls, as well as lightweight and non-damaging, yet accurate projectiles.
The problem has finally been solved and drone dogfights are now happening today in New York city warehouses. Pilots use immersive goggles to step into their drones, flying around at top speeds while shooting foam Nerf discs at each other. It’s as fun, and as difficult, as you would think.
Besides physical projectiles, virtual weapons are also part of the drone arsenal. TobyRich Vegas is a successfully funded kickstarter project that merges drone flying with augmented reality to let you play out your WWII aerial fantasies from the comfort of your smartphone.
Figure 2: The TobyRich Vegas (image courtesy of TobyRich)
Connected by Bluetooth Smart, the tobyrich.vegas drone is shaped like a traditional airplane and controlled by a pair of suction cup joysticks that attach to the screen of your smartphone or tablet. Besides air to air dogfights, it even allows for battles between a player controlling a plane and another player shooting a ground based virtual anti‑aircraft gun from their smartphone.
Singapore has a manpower problem - this small yet developed island country has been so economically successful that there are not enough young people working in its food and beverage industry. Local UAV company Infinium Robotics saw the opportunity and created Infinium Serve - a line of drones that offer fully autonomous food delivery from the kitchen to the table. With auto-correcting flight stabilization, it’s able to hold food and beverages stably and bring them to diners - by air.
Figure 3: The Infinium Serve - fully autonomous server drone (Image courtesy of Infinium Robotics)
Your Personal Action Photographer
The potential for drones to take amazing aerial video for outdoor sports was immediately obvious, but so was the hassle of having to find a talented drone pilot willing to follow you around and shoot video. A new generation of “follow-drones” use advanced autopilot systems and image processing to eliminate expensive cameramen from the equation. Through image recognition technology, collision avoidance and tracking algorithms, they’re able to follow you around completely autonomous, taking aerial video or photos when you bike, skate, ski, or just want a really really cool selfie.
While the current applications for drones are awesome, there’s still much more that could be done with these aerial phenomenons. Are you a drone owner? What creative uses have you found for your drone?
Mirko Bernacchi joined the Italian branch of Mouser Electronics in Assago in 2012 as a Technical Support Specialist. With more than 25 years of experience in electronics, Mirko provides expert technical assistance and support as well as customer service for our Italian office. He worked as a test development engineer at Celestica and Service for Electronic Manufacturing. At IBM he was a Burn-in memory modules test engineer and an Optical transceiver card test engineer, responsible for the installation of new test equipment, production test problem management and supplier interface as well as the introduction of new test routines.
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