Drones Tech Digest - February 2017

Drones in service

Drones are increasingly being used in real-world applications, here are some recent innovations:
In China drones are being used to clean powerlines – with flamethrowers. In Xiangyang, Hubei province, a local power company is using eleven kilogram drones with flamethrower attachments to incinerate the collected debris that forms on powerlines. 
In Singapore, the transport regulator, Land Transport Association (LTA), put out a request for drones to be used to map out and inspect subway tunnel networks. The aim is to have drones working as an adjunct to human inspectors to reduce time and increase accuracy of the manual inspection process. Currently, drones are being used in a single segment of the underground system for photography and video capture. If the trials are successful the plan is to expand drone usage to cover the whole system within five years.
Sunpower, a solar panel and solar systems provider, has integrated drones into its solar farm planning to reduce the amount of land used by farms. The drones are used to map and survey large areas of land, the data from which is then evaluated to pinpoint good locations for solar farms. The company claims that this process provides more profit and lower cost of energy compared to conventional manual-based approaches to project design and development.
Anglian Water, a water company, has deployed floating drones to survey the 4km of used-water sewers under Milton Keynes, UK. The drone uses laser, sonar and HD CCTV to scan the pipes to identify any issues with the pipes including silting.

Microsoft’s drone sim platform

Microsoft research has recently announced a new platform to help developers build autonomous and robotics systems – its Aerial Informatics and Robotics platform. The platform provides developers with realistic simulations from which training data can be extracted. It is hoped that this will accelerate drone development in several areas, for example in perception abilities i.e. the drone being able to distinguish between a door and a shadow. The platform also includes a library of software, helping developers quickly write code.

Pollinating drone

A team from the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST) in Japan has used a USD100 quadcopter drone, smeared its horsehair enhanced underside with a sticky gel, serendipitously discovered by the same team a few years ago, to pollinate lilies. The drone’s “clothing” traps the pollen which can then be flown to another flower to pollinate. The team sees this being used in the future, after addition of GPS and AI, to help the dwindling bee population by learning pollination paths and pollinating flowers.

UPS Drones

UPS, a delivery company, has tested a system which sends out drones from a UPS delivery truck. The drone dangles a cage through a roof hatch in the truck allowing a worker to insert a parcel for the drone to deliver on a programmed route. After delivering the package the drone returns to the dispatch vehicle. The Workhorse Group drone can fly for 30 minutes and can carry a ten-pound payload. UPS see this as a time-saving, cost-saving method to deliver things to remote locations.

AI for drone autonomy

A spin-out of the University of Pennsylvania’s GRASP Labs, Exyn has revealed its AI software that enables drones to fly in dark, obstacle filled environments and without GPS. In a recent demonstration, the Exyn-software-programmed drone flew through a complex office environment without any outside assistance or programmed route mapping. The drone is told a relative goal and start location. After take-off the drone is able to map its environment in real-time through fusion of multiple sensors’ data. 

Gesture controlled drone

At the New York Toy Fair 2017, KD Interactive displayed its Aura drone that can be controlled by hand gestures. Gesturebotics technology enables the user to control the drone by donning a glove that enables a tilt or rotation of the hand to control the quadcopter. The drone is inside a plastic cage to protect it from crashes. It will cost USD 100 when it is shipped in autumn 2017. 

Microsoft Ventures invests in mapping company

AirMap recently announced its USD26 million round of funding, led by Microsoft Ventures with Airbus, Qualcomm, Rakuten, Sony and Yuneec. AirMap, a Californian startup, offers real-time mapping services that enable drones to broadcast flight paths, and provides drone operators with important information like no-fly-zone restrictions. Microsoft Ventures expressed its excitement about the expansion and growth of commercial and recreational applications for piloted and autonomous drones. Microsoft Ventures also indicated an interest in feeding its platforms, AI and resources into the drone ecosystem. AirMap has also recently partnered with 850 of the largest airports around the US to share drone pilot information with air traffic controllers.

Amazon dropping packages from the skies

Amazon’s latest patent for drone delivery systems reveals a plan to drop parachute-equipped parcels from the sky. This method would eliminate the need for drones to land, saving time and hassle. The patent explains that if the parachute-aided parcel is forced off course then the hovering, monitoring drone will instruct it to correct itself by deploying one of many methods e.g. bursts of compressed air or opening wings. 


A group of Russian engineers at Hoversurf have recently released a video of a quadcopter-drone-inspired hoverbike, called Scorpion 3.  In the video the bike is demonstrated taking off, moving up, down, forward and backwards. The electric powered vehicle is seen by the company as having uses in extreme sports but they also see the potential for future use as a transportation device.  The team claims to have been involved in the Ehang drone taxi system which is to be trialled in Dubai in mid-2017.

Huawei cell tower drone charging

Huawei’s X Labs project has recently proposed a solution to poor battery life in drones – cell tower charging and cell tower GPS boosting. The proposal demonstrated at Mobile World Congress 2017 is to wirelessly charge drones via cell towers as they carry out cell tower inspections. 

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