Drone Tech Digest - December 2016

Submersible drones could find life on other planets

Scientists working for the Keck Institute for Space Studies (KISS) from various institutions (Jet Propulsion Lab, Caltech, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and Remote Sensing Solutions) have carried out field tests in Monterey Bay, Santa Cruz, California, into the viability of using teams of autonomous underwater vehicles (AUV) to map underwater environments. Three drones were used in the test and performed their mapping task well using coordinates and data provided by the team from the shore.  The team see this as a step in the right direction, although admit that for this tech to be used to explore alien oceans (such as that of Europa) it would need a higher level of autonomy and intelligence to plot its own course. The team are hoping to conduct further investigations in 2017 with increased artificial intelligence. 

New battery could increase underwater vehicles’ abilities

Steatite are developing pressure resistant Lithium Sulphur batteries for use in Marine Autonomous vehicles (MAS). In a recent project update Steatite have outlined the progress which has been made. Lithium Sulphur batteries have the potential to increase the marine vehicles’ natural buoyancy, as the mass density of Lithium Sulphur is similar to that of water; to improve safety (Li-S batteries are safer than Li-ion, owing to lower reactivity); and to offer high energy densities; all resulting in higher speed vehicles, greater endurance and capability to carry larger payloads. Li-S batteries would enable the diving vehicle to stay submerged for longer, reducing launch and operational costs. Steatite claim that the battery will be demonstrated in a deep-sea dive in mid-2017.

Minisub coming soon

A minisub created by ecoSUB Robotics, was unveiled at the UK’s National Oceanography Centre’s Marine Autonomous and Technology Showcase in November. What makes this 50cm long – three times smaller than current AUVs – sub special is that it can be deployed from a robotic surface vehicle.
Minisubs are more cost effective and environmentally friendly than larger AUVs and the developers can see this being used for regular monitoring of infrastructure such as underwater piping or cabling. Another use is to have a group of minisubs working together to 3D map ocean environments. 
The next phase is testing. The team hope to see it come to market in April 2017.

From the ocean floor to the vault of heaven

Boeing has entered an agreement to acquire Liquid Robotics. The two companies have previously worked together: in September 2014 they modified the Wave Glider to create the Sensor Hosting Autonomous Remote Craft (SHARC), which integrated Boeing sensors, allowing for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities ranging from satellites, manned and unmanned aircraft and subsurface craft.   This technology will allow Boeing – which owns more than a dozen satellites – to have an autonomous seabed-to-satellite information service.
Wave Glider, manufactured by Liquid Robotic, is a wave and solar powered autonomous ocean vehicle which moves along the water surface dragging an underwater payload such as acoustic sensors for sonar mapping. Having travelled more than 1 million nautical miles the wave glider addresses many issues facing defence, commercial and science customers; it makes ocean data collection and communications easier, safer and immediate.

Pizza delivered by drone in New Zealand

Domino’s Pizza Enterprises has partnered with Flirtey, drone delivery specialist, to launch the world’s first commercial drone delivery service. The service has been delivering pizzas within the Whangaparaoa area north of Auckland in New Zealand since mid-October 2016. 
Following a trial of the system in August Dominos were granted regulatory approval. The drone is controlled autonomously by GPS navigation, supervised by drone pilots and experts, to avoid any issues. (Under New Zealand regulation drone operators must maintain line of sight, but they can use observers for extended visual line of sight, and can under some circumstances apply for an exception.)
The pizza was delivered within 3 minutes, which is half the time it would have taken a delivery driver. 

Boeing submit patent for pit-stop style drone bases

A problem with any commercial, industrial or military use of drones remains battery life. For drones to be able to deliver goods long distances they need to regularly stop to recharge. Boeing, recognizing this problem, has submitted a patent for drone recharging stations called ‘Vehicle Base Stations’. In the patent Boeing explain that the idea is that the base station eliminates the need for charging, as when the drone the lands the battery is replaced with a battery which is already charged, allowing the drone to swoop in, swap battery and resume its task. These stations could be solar powered or simply attach directly to mains electricity.
They have already tested the concept and say that its deployment into real-world usage would not be difficult. 

Sonar could open up commercial drone activity

Echodyne believes that it may have solved the beyond visual line of sight issue which is holding back the widespread commercial deployment of drones – a radar system, which it plans to release in early 2017. Echodyne has developed a way to make a radar’s phase shifter – a device controlled by a computer, which can alter the radio waves’ direction – much smaller – being about the size of an iPhone 6. Radar allows for the drone to see through obscuring material such as fog, snow or rain which pose problems to other solutions put forward by the likes of Intel, of camera sensors. The radar system is currently being tested by numerous drone companies. And in promotional material one can see the drone tracking other drones and light aircraft.
Large-scale drone delivery in the USA cannot currently be done due to prohibition by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The FAA say that it is too dangerous to have drones piloted without being in line of sight of the operating human, as such the FAA has put forward the following guidelines: there must be systems on the drone which allows the drone to detect and avoid other aircraft. 
Due to the penetrability of radar, and the reduction in size and cost by Echodyne’s technology they are looking into its potential to replace lidar and light based systems in autonomous cars. 

Uber plan to join mile-high club with air taxis

Uber plan to take to the skies by offering flying ride-shares. In a recently released paper Uber outline their vision for electric VTOL multirotor air taxis. Uber believe that its Uber Elevate project can provide safe, efficient, low cost and low noise air taxi services from and to specially constructed airports similar to helipads. By using multiple rotors to provide lift the company expects to be able to produce a reasonably quiet 67Db craft and provide the craft with a high level of stability. The craft is expected to be capable of carrying 3-4 people. Once aloft, the aircraft would enter cruise control, moving the rotary blades from a horizontal position to a vertical position, effectively just like a plane - this should reduce power consumption over long distances. 
Uber air taxis are projected to travel at a speed of 150-200mph (240-400km/h), and fly at an altitude of up to 10,000 feet (3000 meters). 
Uber see the taxis becoming entirely autonomous with a team in a control centre monitoring them and taking over in case of emergency.  
Uber believes that this is achievable in the coming decade if regulators, vehicle designers, communities and network operators all collaborate effectively. Although they do admit that there will be some challenges to overcome including: battery tech; vehicle efficiency and reliability; cost and affordability; and the one they call their greatest barrier, building or finding existing locations for vertiports in cities. 

Fleetlight: lighting service at your beck and call

British insurance company, Direct Line, has recently released plans for a squad of assistance drones to provide light to those in need, like someone walking home late at night or driving on dark country lanes. In a project named Fleetlights, Direct Line outline their plan to use teams of drones equipped with 200Watt tungsten lamps which can illuminate from a distance of up to 7 meters from the ground, to respond to a customer’s call for help from a mobile app. The project outlines two drone types - a ‘personal drone’ with two lighting units; and a larger drone made with aircraft grade materials equipped with three lighting units, capable of illuminating a car’s path at up to 60 miles/hour. 
The fleet of drones which can be summoned or dismissed by a smartphone app, will automatically return to base when they use up their power to recharge. Direct Line’s Rover technology allows the swarm to be responsive to a human controller on the ground while keeping formation. It also uses real-time kinetics, a military technology meaning the drones’ positioning systems can lock to within 10-22mm of the user’s smartphone. Lastly, the drones also use mesh networking to communicate with each other. 
Fleetlights is currently in beta trialling. Direct Line lists a number of obstacles which need to be overcome before it can be rolled out commercially: 
1) Better collision detection – would eliminate the need for waypoint mapping. 
2) Hydrogen power units would be a better power source than lithium ion batteries, increasing flight duration.
3) Civil aviation authority legislation needs to be clarified.
Fleetlight technology has been made open source to the developer community, allowing anyone to make improvements.

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