BY ZACC DUKOWITZ
15 February 2023
When it comes to using drones for commercial applications, battery life is one of the biggest limiting factors.
Extending battery life has proved a tough challenge, and one that the drone industry has been laboring away at for years.
All this work has produced steady progress, with battery life steadily increasing. But the gains in flight time for drones that fly using your standard LiPo batteries have been relatively small despite all the work put into extending them.
Some less common approaches to powering drones have been tested, and seem promising. One is using hydrogen fuel cells, and tests have also been made with powering drones using gasoline (though these don’t seem to have gone anywhere).
Of course, you can also use a tether to send power up to the drone, allowing it to stay aloft as long as you want—but this means the drone has to remain stationary, since it’s leashed to the ground by the tether.
But there may be a way to power drones from a removed power source without having to tether them to ground.
That’s right—we’re talking about powering drones with lasers.
Credit: Northwestern Polytechnical University
NEW BREAKTHROUGHS FOR LASER-POWERED DRONES
The idea of using lasers as a power source for drones has been around for at least a decade.
But new research conducted by scientists at the Northwestern Polytechnical University (NPU) in China has been making the news lately, showing progress in work toward making this technology viable.
The team of researchers at NPU have equipped a drone with a module that converts light energy into electricity, allowing it to capture power from a high-energy laser beam so it can stay in flight indefinitely.
The researchers have dubbed these UAVs optics-driven drones (ODDs).
Credit: Northwestern Polytechnical University
Of course, for this laser-powering method to work the laser needs to be able to automatically track the drone.
For this reason, the researchers have made the laser adaptive and given it the ability to track its target—the photoelectric conversion module on the bottom of the drone—using an “intelligent visual tracking algorithm.”
According to NPU researchers, the algorithm has proven effective in a variety of environments, as well as differing light and weather conditions.
The lasers used to power the drone also have an adaptive technology that allows them to shape their beams autonomously, adjusting intensity as needed based on the distance the drone is from the power source and in instances where an object is detected between the laser beam and the drone.
The laser-power drone technology was recently tested on a small quadcopter. Tests were conducted outside at night and inside with both the lights on and off.
In the tests, the drone reaches a height of just about 33 feet in the air (see below for images from the tests).
Credit: Northwestern Polytechnical University
So far the NPU system has proven to be pretty inefficient, losing about 50% of the energy transmitted from the laser.
But it works.
And that may be all that matters right now, given that electricity is fairly inexpensive and that the approach allows the drone to can stay in the air indefinitely.
OTHER LASER-CHARGING DRONE PROJECTS
Here’s a quick rundown of other noteworthy efforts to charge drones with lasers.
In 2012, U.S.-based PowerLight (formerly known as LaserMotive), demonstrated its wireless drone charging system by keeping a large drone in the air for 48 hours in a wind tunnel.
The system was also used to power a Lockheed Martin Stalker drone outdoors at a range of 1,970 feet in the air.
Today PowerLight says it’s working on long-range, lightweight wireless laser power transmission system. Watch the video below to learn more.
DARPA’s Drone Laser Project
In 2018, DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) announced a program called the Stand-off Ubiquitous Power/Energy Replenishment—Power Beaming Demo (SUPER PBD).
The goal of the program was to test technology that would charge aircraft while in flight using laser beams.
In DARPA’s approach, the aircraft has solar panels in its wings and batteries in its fuselage. At first the batteries provide power to the aircraft, but as they run down a laser beam is pointed at the craft’s solar panels, allowing it recharge and stay in flight.
DARPA selected a UAS called Silent Falcon made by a company of the same name for its laser tests.
Credit: Silent Falcon
In 2018, a startup called LakeDiamond made news for its idea to use lab-grown diamonds to recharge drones while in flight.
The diamonds allow laser beams to maintain strength over a long distance, letting them recharge photovoltaic cells on the surface of the drone. In LakeDiamond’s laser, the light produced by a diode is directed at a booster composed of reflective material, an optical component, and a small metal plate to absorb the heat.
THE BENEFITS OF CHARGING DRONES WITH LASERS
So why would you want to charge drones with lasers?
The obvious benefit is that you would no longer have to worry about battery life. Using lasers, you could hypothetically have a drone that could fly for as long as you wanted.
But there are specific use cases that would benefit from having a drone that can fly for a very long time—maybe even forever.
Here they are:
Disaster relief. During time-consuming emergency missions, like searching for victims after a flash flood or earthquake, the ability to have a drone remain in the air for long periods of time could be extremely helpful.
Traffic control. Traffic never stops, and continuously flying drones could be used to monitor traffic and help improve safety on the roads.
Security patrols. Security concerns are in place every hour of the day, a fact that supports the idea of having a constant “eye in the sky” to monitor the security of a building or perimeter.
Flying satellites. Laser-powered drones could be used for higher altitude drone operations, in which drones basically act like small low-altitude satellites.
The last one sounds a little unlikely, but it does reveal the places our imagination can take us when a drone is no longer limited by how long it can stay in the air.
Who knows—maybe we’ll see laser-powered drones rolled out within our lifetime. Results from the research being conducted today certainly makes it seem like a strong possibility.
From New York to Dubai to Myanmar, more smart cities are springing up across the globe. As more countries start to digitally transform, the futuristic cities and state-of-the-art gadgets that once belonged only to the realms of science fiction may soon become our reality... and they will be made possible with the advancement of the geospatial industry.
The global geospatial analytics market is estimated to be worth USD$134.48 billion by 2025, with the market registering a compound annual growth rate of 15% between 2019 and 2025. Asia Pacific is also expected to see the highest growth during that period, fuelled by numerous smart city initiatives such as ASEAN Smart Cities.
These indicators point to the increase in demand for geospatial services, which will no doubt also bring improvements in quality to geospatial services and technologies. Led by factors such as increasing digitalization, access, ubiquity in unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) usage and the opportunities of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the geospatial industry is expected to remain a key player across the world in 2020.
Ever since the world entered a technological boom, we have been on a steady climb to become a digital world. Geospatial technologies will continue to enable us to build smart cities with the integration of digital technologies into work processes becoming a commonplace practice.
For example, the implementation of Integrated Digital Delivery (IDD) is one of the key elements in the Singapore government’s Construction Industry Transformation Map. IDD integrates every team member and stakeholder into the workflow, increasing connectivity between each member to improve efficiency and effectiveness. Cloud-based visualization and collaboration platforms like the HxDR from Hexagon allow data to be sent to the cloud as they are recorded. 3D point clouds and Building Information Modelling (BIM) can also be easily incorporated into the IDD workflow. This way, all parties involved in a project have access to real-time data and are updated on any new or changed information.
This approach highlights how the digitalization of geospatial technologies supports the construction industry and is important in ensuring that urban planning and construction workflows are operated efficiently, and in tandem.
Access for More Users
While the geospatial industry has always had a strong footprint in the construction industry, it can expand its horizons far beyond its roots. Lidar technology is used in laser scanners and trackers to provide accurate 3D models and land-over classifications to map areas as large as cities. However, there is a lot of anticipation about how geospatial technologies can be incorporated into other businesses. For instance, the automobile industry is looking into how Lidar can be used as 'eyes' for autonomous vehicles. Authorities can similarly use Lidar for urban planning and disaster response.
Furthermore, geospatial services are increasingly moving online as Software-as-a-Service (SaaS), allowing users to access a software’s functions over the internet. Geospatial services such as SaaS essentially mean that these services will become accessible to even beginning users. Geospatial providers are likely to improve the intuitiveness and user-friendliness of their products to make them more accessible for prospective users.
The global UAVs market is forecasted to grow to US$40.6 billion by 2028 from US$17.0 billion in 2018, and will play an increasingly important role in optimizing processes in various industries.
Major construction companies in other countries have begun to integrate UAVs into their work processes. The engineering community is one of the first industries to adopt UAV technology to aid virtual design and construction. Not only do UAVs improve the safety of work sites and are cost-saving compared to traditional surveying methods, but their aerial perspective also offers near-limitless ways to gather and analyse data. UAVs in geospatial technology have been used to scope out massive areas, such as a whole city, within a few hours. The integration of 3D visualization tools in UAVs will further revolutionize the way that geospatial technology can inspect, survey and map.
Opportunities on the BRI
Since 2015, China’s proposed SG$900 billion BRI project has encompassed opportunities amounting to SG$155 billion in the transport and building sectors. With over 200 projects spanning various continents, the precision and speed that geospatial services can provide are invaluable to such projects, and the ability to visualize the outcomes of projects is a great advantage for every party involved.
A notable BRI project is the Edirne to Kars High-Speed Rail Line in Turkey. The 2,000km line is the key link connecting the Guangdong and Shenzhen ports to Rotterdam, while also connecting the Asian markets of Myanmar, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Iran. A project of this scale will require rigorous and thorough planning to ensure that all these locations are linked, which may also present geographical problems. By using geospatial technology to map and survey locations, any construction challenges faced can be solved and even avoided well in advance.
Furthermore, critics have raised concerns regarding the BRI, such as the safety of sea channels and environmental concerns, as 90% of global commercial trade and 60% of the world’s total oil volume is still conducted through shipping. It is important that these channels remain safe for use. With technology like Lidar, accurate maps can be plotted to ensure new trade routes will not obstruct existing ones. Lidar can also be used to ensure that no excessive damage is caused to the environment during construction.
As the various factors look set for continuous growth, opportunities for the geospatial industry are abound in many areas. In particular, smart cities – a market that will be worth US$833 billion by 2030 – is in the driving seat to be the main growth engine for the industry as cities develop future infrastructure with geospatial technologies.
Please note that this article was written before the coronavirus outbreak.
Author: Mark Concannon
Read this interview with five pioneers in the field for insights into the best ways to introduce drones into your business model.
Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs or 'drones') are increasingly becoming the solution of choice and have indeed proven to be a disruptive force across a multitude of industries in the past decade, including for the geospatial surveying profession. But will drones really provide all the answers to your mapping challenges? We interviewed five pioneers in the field to take us beyond the hype, explaining the lessons they have learned from the frontline and sharing their insights on the best ways to introduce UAVs into your business model.
What type of work can UAVs be used for?
UAVs can serve mapping and surveying professionals in a broad variety of ways. They are useful to collect spatial data like volume numbers as well as for a suite of other end products such as orthophotos, detailed elevation models, contour lines, 3D PDFs or special plans with cut-and-fill areas. They can also be used for projects such as those involving land subdivision, terrain inspection for construction and signalling terrain borders. In the UK Andrew Griffiths, founder of Droneflight, uses “the senseFly eBee for survey work, and a variety of multi-rotor drones for survey and inspection including Aerialtronics’ Zenith, Parrot Bluegrass, DJI M210 and the Flyability Elios”. These devices have proven critical to the success of a number of large infrastructure and development projects including tunnelling, quarries, rail, highways and waste disposal. UAVs have been used to collect data, but also to provide clients with “a better understanding of project progress”. At Lerch Weber SA in Switzerland, a seven-strong team uses drones for volume calculation and orthophoto purposes, whilst SRDP Consulting Inc, a Philippines-based enterprise, also uses drones for infrastructure inspection work as well as topographic mapping. Tom Wren, UAV manager at Plowman Craven, deploys drones for surveying, inspections and building information modelling (BIM), declaring that “UAVs are a real game-changer,” offering more efficiency and a wider range of business opportunities.
Why should you consider incorporating UAVs into your business model?
UAVs are ideal for projects that require a high degree of rigour and detail, since they have the capacity to map individual locations or macrostructures/terrains with great precision. Since UAVs can obtain high-resolution photographs, they make metric orthophotography, vectoral mapping schemes and detailed cartography including hydrographic and topographic maps possible. UAVs are relatively small-scale pieces of equipment and can fly very close to the ground in comparison with manned aircraft. They are nimble, agile and manoeuvrable, capable of hovering and of accessing spaces that are too difficult, hazardous or unsafe for people to reach, which enables observation and recording in previously inaccessible areas. In rail projects, for example, surveys are ideally “conducted with no personnel on the tracks and no need for track closures, and in as short a time as possible to minimize disruption”, making drones the perfect solution for such projects at Plowman Craven. Using UAVs can significantly reduce danger to people and damage to equipment, as well as minimizing disruption in the target environment, thus keeping the overall risk to projects low.
UAVs: saving time and money
The cost-saving aspect of using drones is appealing to a lot of businesses, considering that even the most sophisticated drones cost significantly less than a helicopter or small aircraft. Whilst the initial outlay for a new UAV fleet and associated hardware, software and training might be significant, ultimately it could prove more cost effective, giving your company an advantage. Armin Weber of Lerch Weber SA found that conducting gravel pit surveys conventionally in the past was less economical and the business lost clients, whereas “with drones, we could be very competitive and we won back some of our clients; now, we have even more than before”. All the experts interviewed agreed that investing in drones has been valuable, with Plowman Craven’s Tom Wren stating that his company wins “a lot of projects because of the breadth of deliverables and the timeframes we can deliver in. So from that point of view, [our] investment is constantly being paid back”.
Weber explains some of the efficiencies enabled by drones: “In the past, our fieldwork flow included the setup of the ground control points. It was always very time-consuming. Today more and more drones are RTK/PPK capable, [which] reduces the need of ground control points dramatically”. UAVs can be as steady as ground survey tools, saving time spent re-measuring due to human error. Drones can be deployed more quickly than organizing a helicopter or aeroplane flight, whether your own or contracting someone to do it, plus regularly flown routes can be automated. Hence, UAVs present a clear opportunity for surveying enterprises to save time and money.
Starting can be the hardest part: ‘ready, set, drone’
Weber cautions to “be aware that not everything works right away”. It is important to be open to the idea of testing and refining, considering that the perfect setup might take time, but it is certainly worth pursuing. Griffiths agrees, suggesting that businesses start small, obtaining “a cost-effective drone that can be used for training and experimentation initially”, and then using this process to increase knowledge and start to gain expertise.
When considering UAV fleet size, Weber suggests numerous factors that must be taken into consideration, including:
Mission size: large or small? Is there a single point of interest?
Could it be worth flying several drones simultaneously to reduce operation time?
What about a spare drone in case of a failure?
What meteorological occurrences need to be taken into account (e.g. like wind, rain or cold weather)?
Jakub Karas, director of UAS at UpVision, and Joel Ferrer Cruz, president of SRDP Consulting, both warn that having a backup drone is essential; purchasing at least two of each type will ensure the business is covered should there be complications. Cruz notes that “rotary drones are ideal for mapping areas that have limited space, while fixed wings are more suitable for larger areas”. He recommends leaning towards reliable rotary drones to begin with, as they tend to cost less. Depending on the scope of planned work, Karas would establish a small fleet with a multicopter that has the possibility of changing sensors, a VTOL (vertical take-off or landing) and a smaller drone such as a Phantom 4 Pro. When selecting equipment, it makes sense to avoid drone systems that are unproven or not well reviewed within the industry.
Alternatively you could rent a drone to test it out first, or outsource some drone work to gain a better understanding of a drone before investing in it yourself. “Seeing a competent practitioner working with it, and being able to work with them, is an invaluable qualification tool,” says Griffiths. The more practical and thorough your understanding is, the better your investment is likely to be: “Take small steps and validate the benefits” is his expert advice. The other experts agree, with Wren suggesting that commissioning an experienced consultant to set up your systems is beneficial.
How to choose which UAV to incorporate into your business model
All five experts agree that it is absolutely critical to do a lot of your own research rather than accepting vendor promises at face value. Griffiths emphasizes that a vendor demonstration is never enough to gain true insight into the real-world limitations of a drone. Cruz says he talks to multiple manufacturers directly to get to know and compare their products, including by attending international expos which he sees as a way of staying updated on the latest trends and developments. Weber recommends relying upon established products and asking experienced users for their insights; drone user groups can help with feedback from their experience. Some UAV manufacturers offer webinars, which can be a useful way to collect a lot of intelligence about a range of different devices before committing to a major purchase, but it is even better to invite manufacturers or one of their users to engage with your team on a specific project. Griffiths found that this “enabled us to gain real practical working insight into the unit and the realities of operating it”.
Questions you should be considering include:
What is the intended use of the drone?
What are the technical requirements?
What are the real-world limitations of the drone?
What are the regulatory requirements (such as aviation and other health & safety issues)?
It is critical to investigate your country’s requirements in depth. In the Philippines, for example, the company, the personnel and each individual drone must be registered with and certified by the country’s civil aviation authority. Complying with regulatory procedures is essential and comes at a cost, so a comprehensive budget that takes into account hardware, software, training, data processing and regulatory requirements is critical. Make sure you get things right before scaling up, too.
To cloud or not to cloud? That is the question…
A drone can be described as ‘just a device’ – one that is being employed to acquire geospatial data. Then it all comes down to how to handle that data. Cloud-based processing for geospatial data has been around for a while. There are pros and cons that need to be weighed up. For example, the cloud is relatively straightforward to adopt for those new to UAV data processing, and can be an interesting option that pays off with a small number of orders. Griffiths considers cloud processing an “excellent entry point” since it simplifies the processing, and teams can obtain good illustrative results even without comprehensive training. However, Tom Wren (Plowman Craven) contends that jobs can be cheap to process in the cloud but take significant time, while turning work around rapidly is often key for clients.
Conversely, in-house processing demands major computing power and memory, and processing several thousand photos can easily take up days of staff time. This said, some clients prefer a comprehensive package with in-house processing included, enabling businesses to take control of the quality, timing and resolution of data collection and providing their own data rather than contracting a third party to do so. Joel Ferrer Cruz notes that once the business starts experiencing more demand, “local image processing software would be more efficient as it gives more capacity and flexibility to the image processing team”. The experts also note that there are limitations to the cloud, with both Griffiths and Weber agreeing that, if UAVs are planned to be part of your long-term business model, the cloud will probably not offer enough sophistication to be able to meet all your needs. As Griffiths says: “Cloud-based solutions don’t have the options to improve the quality of a photogrammetry model, use of GCPs is sketchy at best, and there is usually no ability to merge models together”.
The importance of staff training
It is helpful for operators to have photogrammetry or field survey skills, and due to the expense of a drone fleet (and the accompanying hardware and software) it is important to invest significant time in staff training. Not all training is created equally, though, and some courses focus more on issues such as air law than on drone operation, so understanding the limitations of training is essential. Mishaps can occur, and it is worth investing considerable time to ensure adequate training is provided, drones are taken seriously as a data collection tool, rules are obeyed and the mission checklist is followed closely. As Tom Wren states, “drones make everything easier… as long as you know what you’re doing”.
Andrew Griffiths suggests that skilling up dedicated staff to become drone specialists could be a wise decision for the business, and these experts could then “manage the equipment, suppliers and support the use of the drones in the wider organization”. All five experts emphasized how critical comprehensive training is, with Griffiths explaining that his team at Droneflight undertook multiple evaluation exercises of real-world jobs to gain a complete understanding of the potential of the equipment, investing heavily in their drone pilots. This approach of deploying and completing a task from beginning to end gives pilots responsibility for the quality of the project deliverables for clients, which works for the business. Jakub Karas has organized his team in a similar way, finding that it improves the process when pilots and operators have insight into the processing, planning and mapping components of the work. Other experts differ on this, with both Wren and Cruz preferring to maintain employee specializations. They keep the data collection and data processing teams separate but ensure that the data processing specialists are exposed to drone work in order to appreciate the spatial context of the image acquisition component.
The limitations of UAVs
It is important to consider the limitations of drones. Most drones are small, which means a limited payload (i.e. carrying capacity) for critical components like cameras and sensors. Another limitation is that most drones rely on battery technology, meaning fairly short flight times. Whilst longer-lasting batteries can extend flight time, these tend to be heavy, adding to the payload, and data collection activities across large areas are therefore likely to require multiple flights or manned aircraft. Reliance on GPS technology, which is susceptible to interference from various wireless sources, is another challenge.
Cruz reminds us that UAVs are not the answer to every geospatial surveying problem, stating that in his experience they cannot cover all his company’s mapping needs: “For large and difficult areas, we still opt to use manned aircraft. Urban areas and high-wind areas such as mountains are more safely and efficiently mapped using manned aircraft”. It is worth thinking about the ways in which drones could expand the range and increase the quality of the products and services offered by your business as a complementary method rather than seeking to completely replace traditional methods with drones.
Cruz reflects that “drones have become a real game-changer for us”, noting the positive effect they have had on his business in terms of opening up new opportunities and enhancing the products and services delivered to clients. Griffiths notes that “when the use of drones becomes part of the ‘business as usual’ of an organization, the benefits of the technology can really be leveraged”. Thanks to the use of UAVs for surveying projects, the results obtained are likely to be more up to date, detailed and indeed far superior than those obtained with traditional tools. UAVs equipped with remote sensors can offer mapping and surveying companies unprecedented capabilities to achieve precision and accuracy, resulting in cost savings at both the data collection and data analysis levels. The impact that UAV technology is having on the geospatial industry is certainly disruptive, but it is important to navigate regulatory issues, seek expert advice, do your research and consider the challenges as well as the opportunities for your own enterprise.
Author: Katy Barbier-Greenland