At their best, drones or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have the potential to revolutionize a wide range of industries, including energy, mining, agriculture, telecommunications, transport and construction, to name just a handful. The applications range from cost-saving, time-saving and optimized work processes to improved safety and security, and reduced risk to human life.
However, not just any industrial drone can achieve these objectives without considerable and costly human intervention. In many instances, the automated functions are limited to the ability of the drone to fly on autopilot. Full automation, on the other hand, removes the human hand from every facet of operations, from powering the UAV prior to flying a mission to the completed data collection cycle. Following the initial setup, an automated drone essentially takes care of itself with only a bare minimum of maintenance or programming.
The five must-haves for true automation
- Power supply maintenance. Not being able to maintain an adequate power supply on its own presents many drawbacks for a drone, especially when it comes to emergency or on-demand services. Automated drones may use inductive charging, or even better, come with an automated system that replaces batteries using a robotic mechanism.
- Payload swapping. Leading automated drones offer industries an efficient and effective multi-tool capable of a wide range of applications. However, this efficiency and effectiveness is reduced if the payloads and gimbals required by the drone for different applications need to be manually swapped. Automated swapping allows a drone to complete a variety of preplanned missions such as stockpile inventory, blast site inspection, and perimeter monitoring, without any human intervention.
Shelter. On-demand and emergency drone applications are also negatively affected by the need for a person to take a drone out of a protective storage environment when the drone is needed, and then replace it there when finished. For true automation, a drone needs to be able to launch itself from its shelter and land in it again when finished.
Integrating such a shelter with the automated drone also opens up opportunities when it comes to further automation. For instance, manufacturer Airobotics has designed a shelter that functions as a smart airbase docking station, that provides constant information on the state of the drone as well as battery changing and payload swapping.
- Launch and land capabilities. Some may think that an automated drone must be able to both launch and land without requiring human intervention, but the reality is a bit more complicated. While there are many drones capable of launching and landing in ideal conditions (e.g. not on a windy day) or in a controlled environment, conditions are seldom ideal in the real world, and truly automated drones need to meet a far more exacting standard. The fact that a drone can land a few times autonomously under laboratory conditions is no predictor that it can repeat the success thousands of times. Furthermore, it needs to perform launches and landings optimally even in inclement weather, including winds and rain, and to land each time with the highest level of precision – not in an open field but rather on a landing pad where every inch counts – if it is to truly function without any human involvement. Given the demands placed on autonomous UAVs in industrial use – security operations, health and safety monitoring, incident response, and even preplanned inventory checks at mines or infrastructure inspections at electrical sites or on oil rigs – the ability to launch and land accurately and reliably needs to extend to any condition-related difficulties, to avoid hindering operations or damaging the system.
- Data processing. Automated drones are able to collect unprecedented amounts of data, but processing that data remains an inefficient manual exercise in the case of less-than-fully automated drones. Typically, for such drones, an operator has to first remove the memory card or hard drive from the system, download the data into a computer, and then manage the processing of that data, a labor-intensive and time-consuming exercise. By way of contrast, a truly autonomous system should be able to download the data directly from the drone without any human intervention whatsoever.
The price to be paid when the data processing is dependent on human involvement is that the drone’s data collecting capabilities will slow down operations instead of making them more efficient. Ultimately, the test of full automation in UAVs is the ability of the device to analyze the data with software, deliver it, and give actionable insights, with true automation.
The price of non-automation
Any time operating a drone requires human intervention, both the efficiency and economy that UAVs promise is undermined, both by unnecessary operational delays and by the cost of personnel that full automation would render unneeded.
One area where this can be seen clearly is in incident response applications. In some industrial settings, the difference between life and death can be seconds, so when a drone is tapped for incident response, it needs to be able to get to the site and begin data collection as quickly as possible, without an operator being required to launch it or otherwise assist with its operations.
Similarly, automation significantly enhances drone security operations such as perimeter security, allowing for reliable detection of intruders or other anomalies without the need for a human babysitter.
The same efficiencies extend throughout the rapidly proliferating uses of drone technology in industry. Preplanned missions such as stockpile inventory in mining, infrastructure inspection in the energy sector, and land surveying across a number of industries are also made significantly more efficient by automation in launching, flying, and landing, as well as in data processing and payload swapping.
Automated drones are positioned as one of the ‘next big things’ in many industries. However, it will take more than the average industrial-grade gadget to accomplish the cost-saving, time-saving, operation-enhancing, and safety-increasing objectives being eyed by leading organizations around the globe.
In order to have the impact drones promise, automation needs to be much more than a marketing buzzword. It needs to be an everyday reality in which a drone can operate with the near-complete elimination of human intervention.
This post is part of our contributor series. It is written and published independently of TNW.