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.
by Scott Howe
Here’s how you measure a successful construction project: It must be done on time, come in at or under budget, and meet the requirements of the client and the community.
To achieve that success, construction professionals need experienced staff, reliable equipment, solid plans, safe worksites, and competent management. Increasingly, they also need UAV technology.
The use of drones in the construction industry has been growing at an annual rate of 239%, according to a recent survey. The report explains that construction firms are deploying drones to reduce equipment loss, provide on-site security, and perform tasks in hard-to-access places with the goal of improving worker safety. In addition, the study states that drones are being used to collect data on construction projects, monitor the depreciation of equipment, and facilitate transportation of equipment and personnel.
“The rapid advancements in drone technology have continued to amaze me over the past few years,” said John Delp, Chief Pilot for the North American Division of AECOM, an engineering and infrastructure consulting firm. “The airframe and camera sensors continue to get better and better, with higher resolutions, multiple camera options, and more features available. From simple marketing photos to orthographic imagery to stockpile analysis, the drones can provide of wealth of knowledge for a construction project.”
Delp also stated that “survey-grade LiDAR, ultra-high-res cameras, and easier-to-obtain airspace authorization have all made the use of drones immeasurably better than they were just a few years ago.”
Given these developments, Delp stated that many construction leaders have been eager to adopt UAV technology. “Once upper management sees the benefits and realizes the cost savings that can be gained from using drones, it really makes the decision of implementing the technology a no-brainer,” he said.
There are countless examples of how construction outfits have been deploying drones to cut costs, save time, and boost safety. “I’ve talked to many members of the construction industry, and I’ve heard just the amazing examples of how companies have been able to set up their own internal drone practices and reduce costs significantly,” said Susan Eccles, an attorney with Adams and Reese LLP.
“For example, I know of one company that had to conduct frequent crane inspections,” she reported. “For the inspections, they had to first move the cranes and then lay them down, and that put them at risk for damaging work on the project and injuring personnel.”
In time, the company turned to drones. “The drones flew around the cranes and conducted the inspections. It was fast and safe, and it saved the company several hundreds of thousands of dollars,” Eccles said.
Despite the clear advantages of incorporating drones into construction work, there are several challenges that must be overcome. Delp believes that technological advancements must continue, particularly concerning battery power.
“The one area of drones that hasn’t kept pace is battery technology, which has, in my opinion, stalled from being developed any further,” Delp asserted. “The only way of flying longer with a battery-operated drone is to fly a bigger battery, which requires a bigger drone.”
For Eccles, adherence to regulatory and safety measures are primary concerns.
“I work with insurance carriers as well as general contractors, and I try to make them aware of what the rules are currently, as well as where we see this going in the future,” she explained. “Many companies want to use drones, but either they are not aware of the FAA regulations, or they are not complying with them.”
Adherence to rules is critical, Eccles said, because “there are multiple risks in flying a drone. For example, a drone can fall and hurt workers, which is an OSHA issue. There are also concerns around the use of unlicensed pilots. So, I think part of the future of drones in construction will involve educating the owners and contractors as to what rules are and what they need to do.”
Fortunately, there are signs that the industry is moving in the right direction. “Some insurance companies are starting to identify the use of drones in investigating construction defect claims, as well as on the front end with potential underwriting,” she reported. “Drone programs aren’t required right now, but, in the future, construction companies could be required to have a drone policy or program. That will help ensure that drones can be safely integrated into the construction field.”
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