Drones Reconsidered in Age of COVID-19
Andrew Wheeler posted on April 30, 2020 |
The legal and design challenges of making drones a fit for enterprise.

In the light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, some emerging technologies once thought of as too invasive or unwieldy are being rapidly reexamined. Virtual reality, supercomputing and artificial intelligence are a few of them.

Reconsidering the potential of drones during the pandemic is still conjectural, but more information is coming out every day. In fact, many practical civilian applications for drones are working areas like construction, architecture and inspection.

But there are many questions to ask before judging the degree of adaptability possessed by the global industry. Many regulatory frameworks exist at different levels of complexity for many good reasons, depending on the industry. What existing civilian drone applications could or satiate the demand of this global crisis? In what ways are they doing this already?

What are the different types of civilian drones?

Here is a quick rundown of different types of civilian drones:

Multi-Rotor Drones: These drones give the operator significant camera control and can maneuver in a confined area. They have short flight times and a small payload capacity. They cost about USD 50-65,000.

The Mavic multi-rotor drone from DJI has a flight time of 21 minutes and a flight range of 6562 feet. It comes with a Lightning connector, a standard micro USB connector and a USB type-C connector for transferring content filmed from its 12 MP camera (stabilized by a three-axis gimbal) to computing devices. It packs some significant sensor hardware to ensure safe flight: five vision sensors, two ultrasonic range finders, GPS and GLONASS, a pair of ultrasonic range finders and 24 specialized computers. It retails for USD 734. (Image courtesy of DJI.)
The Mavic multi-rotor drone from DJI . (Image courtesy of DJI.)

The Mavic multi-rotor drone from DJI has a flight time of 21 minutes and a flight range of 6562 feet. It comes with a Lightning connector, a standard micro USB connector and a USB type-C connector for transferring content filmed from its 12 MP camera (stabilized by a three-axis gimbal) to computing devices. It packs some significant sensor hardware to ensure safe flight: five vision sensors, two ultrasonic range finders, GPS and GLONASS, a pair of ultrasonic range finders and 24 specialized computers. It retails for USD 734.

Fixed-Wing Drones: These are long endurance drones and they cover a significant area compared to the multi-rotor drones (depending on the cost). They are faster but require a larger area for take-off and landing. There is more of a learning curve needed to fly and land these drones. Fixed-wing drones can be significantly more expensive, ranging in price from USD 400 to 150,000.

The Parrot Disco FPV is a fixed-wing drone for use in rural environments or large open areas. It has a flight range of 1.2 miles and includes FPV goggles. It can stay in flight for about 45 minutes before needing a recharge. It is a fixed-wing drone designed for beginners. For example, it has automatic take-off and landing and an anti-stall system. It retails for USD 445. (Image courtesy of Parrot SA.)
The Parrot Disco FPV . (Image courtesy of Parrot SA.)

The Parrot Disco PFV is a fixed-wing drone for use in rural environments or large open areas. It has a flight range of 1.2 miles and includes FPV goggles. It can stay in flight for about 45 minutes before needing a recharge. It is a fixed-wing drone designed for beginners. For example, it has automatic take-off and landing and an anti-stall system. It retails for USD 445.

Single-Rotor Drones: These are a rare type of drone (basically a helicopter) with a long flight range, like the fixed-wing drones. They are long endurance because they are powered by gas and, therefore, they can deliver heavier payloads. However, being gas-powered makes them more dangerous to fly and certainly more dangerous to crash. Only one rotor to power means less overall power is used in the single rotor drone. This can be an important characteristic if you normally take your drones on extended flights. Single rotor UAVs are better equipped to handle large payloads, since they require longer blades. Longer blades spin at a slower speed but are far more energy-efficient as a result. They will usually have much longer flight times than multi-rotor drones, all else being equal. Single rotor drones may also be better for heavy payloads, contrary to popular belief. These are ideal for larger surveys and mapping since they are better suited to carry heavy-duty magnetometers or LIDAR sensors. Cost: Unknown.

The Velos UAV has a modular payload rail system that allows users to change payloads or carry more than one load at a time. Everything can be customized to suit specific needs. Thermal cameras can be added, lidar sensors, gimbals, delivery containers or magnetometers can be configured according to a user’s needs. It has a cruising speed of 18-43 mph, can carry payloads between .1 to 10 kg, and stay in the air between 30 and 70 minutes, depending on the battery configuration. (Image courtesy of Velos UAV.)
The Velos UAV. (Image courtesy of Velos UAV.)
The Velos UAV has a modular payload rail system that allows users to change payloads or carry more than one load at a time. Everything can be customized to suit specific needs. Thermal cameras can be added, lidar sensors, gimbals, delivery containers or magnetometers can be configured according to a user’s needs. It has a cruising speed of 18-43 mph, can carry payloads between .1 to 10 kg, and stay in the air between 30 and 70 minutes, depending on the battery configuration

How are drones currently helping treat people with COVID-19 around the world?

(Image courtesy of Zipline.)
(Image courtesy of Zipline.)

Zipline

USA-based startup Zipline are transporting COVID-19 test samples from over 1000 medical facilities in rural areas of Ghana and delivering them to two cities in the country where they are tested in labs. Zipline has run into regulatory hurdles from the FAA when attempting to implement similar programs in the U.S., though they are hopeful that a similar program will be implemented in North Carolina within a month.

Zipline’s fixed wing drones launch from a catapult at one of four distribution centers spread across 400 miles of territory in Ghana. The distribution centers have operations inventory, storage and tools for technicians to perform various assembly, maintenance and repair tasks.

Before taking flight, a Zipline operator secures a battery pack and payload (up to 4 lbs. capacity) into the craft. The Zipline drone’s material expanded foam composition and long 11-foot wingspan help it reach speeds of nearly 60 mpg and fly a range of approximately 100 miles.

Once airborne, the drone can cruise at about 60 mph and cover 100 miles. The fixed-wing craft drops to an altitude of 40 feet when it is approaching its target destination. Once there, the drone ejects its payload and it floats down via paper parachute. Upon returning to base, the Zipline drone descends and “lands” when a hook on the rear of the plane catches a cord hung between to A-frames, stopping and dangling between them.

Digital Aerolus

(Image courtesy of Digital Aerolus.)
(Image courtesy of Digital Aerolus.)

In theory, drones have the advantage of flying into areas that are typically very hard to reach for human beings. Digital Aerolus specializes in building and designing drones to complete different tasks in these types of hard-to-reach areas. The company recently developed a drone outfitted with ultraviolet lights to kill pathogens like viruses and germs. Hospitals and medical facilities already use ultraviolet light for sterilization purposes, and some hospitals even have ground-based robots (think large, unwieldy Roomba) with UV lights.  

Health Diagnostic Drones

Fever and coughing testing COVID-19 drones:

(Image courtesy of Draganfly.)
(Image courtesy of Draganfly.)

A drone maker called Draganfly made a deal with Westport, Connecticut authorities to help enforce social distancing with their signature drones that supposedly detect vital signs up to 190 feet away. Police ending up not moving forward with the program due to public protesting.

(Video courtesy of DARPA.)

On April 13th, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) announced that they had issued nine new contracts to companies who are developing drone swarm technologies. They have a program called Offensive Swarm-Enabled Tactics (OFFSET) whose stated goal is to enable 250 UAVs or ground robots to coordinate operations with a soldier. OFFSET focuses on tactics, “human-swarm teaming,” autonomy, physical test bed and virtual environment. Are swarm drones useful in preventing the spread of COVID-19?

(Image courtesy of Animal Dynamics.)

(Image courtesy of Animal Dynamics.)

A company called Animal Dynamics is developing a small and lightweight 200g drone based on the flight mechanics of dragonflies called the Skeeter. It can glide and hover, tolerate gusts of wind, and navigate in GPS environments and in non-GPS environments. A recent story by the BBC featured the Skeeter, suggesting that it could be used to monitor greenhouses—just like insects do—to take the place of workers during mandatory social distancing. It is also swarm-enabled. 


How do current regulatory frameworks in Europe and America limit re-purposing civilian drone applications?

(Image courtesy of the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration.)

(Image courtesy of the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration.)

Drone regulations vary by country and the regulatory frameworks provide varying degrees of liberty in terms of personal use, but they can also be limited to engineers and designers involved in drone product design. In America, regulation began with two acts: Senator Feinstein’s proposed Consumer Drone Safety Act from 2015 and Congressman Garamendi’s Safe Drone Act of 2015.

According to the Law Library of Congress: “On June 28, 2016, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration finalized the Rule on the Operation and Certification of Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems. The new procedures established under Part 107 of the Federal Aviation Regulations cover a ‘broad spectrum of commercial uses for drones weighing less than 55 pounds.’ Among the matters regulated under the Rule are operating requirements, pilot certification, and certification of unmanned aviation systems.”

There are many countries with drone regulations on the books, and the Law Library of Congress created a report entitled “Regulation of Drones” that provides a comprehensive overview of the different regulatory frameworks. Generally, each country has a weight threshold for regulating UAVs (with the exception of Israel who regulates all aircraft, no matter the size), but each country differs in terms of categorization and each has different requirements, certifications and licenses necessary for lawful civilian use.

These regulations do not seem to have much to do with companies who design and build drones, but drones that are under specific weights in each country would likely be easier to purchase and operate, given the fact that potential buyers would have to go through less legal barriers to operate them.

How do hardware limitations contribute to the perceptual intelligence and capabilities of drone software?

The main hardware limitation of civilian drones seems to be the limited flight time provided by available batteries. But the size and type of drone will also give users different capabilities.

For example, if you are looking to capture the smoothest video, multi-rotor drones are probably the correct option to choose. If you are interested in flying fast or drone racing, then fixed-wing drones are probably the best to choose. In terms of heavy payloads, single-rotor drones are probably your best bet (if you can afford them).

Configuring the hardware attached to drones means calculating how much power hardware additions like thermal cameras, LIDAR or other sensors will draw away from the battery, with the overall general effect of reducing flight time.

Finding or creating the right hardware configuration for civilian drones depends not only on the type of task, but the type of regulatory compliance needed to operate in a lawful commercial way (which varies depending on global location). And don’t forget software configurations. But despite these complications, drones are an increasingly viable way for enterprise-level organizations to reconsider automating certain tasks, especially now with employees mostly working from home.

Two companies, FlytBase and DroneLogbook recently partnered to help companies perform this complication consideration of hardware, software and regulatory compliance all in one shot.

FlytBase has a technology platform designed for a simple deployment of drone fleets that are connected to cloud-based applications. They are compliant with popular hardware platforms like DJI and Ardupilot. For testing and integration, they come with APIs, SDKs and simulators.

DroneLogbook develops, builds and ships cloud-based compliance software to commercial drone operators that assist them in managerial and operational tasks while ensuring regulatory compliance. Using DroneLogbook, the commercial drone industry can plan flights, track documents and maintenance needs, track pilots, import telemetry data and output customized reports.

Commercial drone inspecting a pipeline. (Image courtesy of ND.gov.)
Commercial drone inspecting a pipeline. (Image courtesy of ND.gov.)

The partnership will enable users to take advantage of 4G and 5G connectivity by enabling cloud-based real-time video feeds, and by controlling flights, payloads and camera gimbals remotely. The commercial drone industry covers areas such as pipeline and wind turbine inspection. The partnership between DroneLogbook and FlytBase is meant to secure regulatory compliance while also providing enterprise-grade security for turbine and pipeline inspection. This is a clear example of drone designers and engineers using legal regulatory frameworks as a starting point in the product design process. As a result, the partnership created an innovative service to enterprise customers in the commercial drone industry that removes the headaches of configuring hardware and software while maintaining an awareness of necessary legal frameworks.

Bottom Line

With everyone working from home, drones are prominent among several emerging technologies that provide remote automation. This ability to accomplish tasks remotely without violating current social distancing restrictions or suggestions is worth understanding while the pandemic continues. Drone engineers and designers should follow the lead of DroneLogbook and FlytBase and figure out a way to develop drones that meet legal requirements in while serving their customer’s varying primary needs.

Whether drones deliver test samples from remote areas for testing (like Zipline), disinfect hard-to-reach surface areas like Digital Aerolus, or possibly replace jobs typically done by humans like Animal Dynamics, the time to reconsider drones is now.

And when you are inside working remotely, you could even have your civilian drone take your dog out for a walk like Kaitlin and Jonathan from Madison, Wisconsin.

Nika the husky on a drone-walk. (Image courtesy of Instagram @2husketeers.)
Nika the husky on a drone-walk. (Image courtesy of Instagram @2husketeers.)

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