14 March 2019
Next Gen Drones Now Set to Zone In on Outer Space and Ocean Depths
With international air space now looking increasingly unwelcoming and tightly regulated, many drone manufacturers are looking at less congested options, including the unexplored marine landscape and even off-world video observation.
The UK drone industry is growing at a staggering rate, with Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) proving to be both popular kids' toys and commercial necessities. As a clear indication of this, according to the country's Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), as of August 2018, 4,530 drone licences had been granted to commercial operators. Back in 2010, the corresponding figure was just five.
In line with this, at the recent Drone & Technology Show Live, it was more than evident that the industry was increasingly keen on appearing wholly legitimate. This saw many exhibitors looking to promote standardised safety regulations, while others were offering dedicated drone insurance policies or bespoke consultancy services.
Keen to promote both aspects of its business – consumer retail and professional aerial consultancy – was Lancashire-based Caelus Drone Services. Outlining the company's offer, Managing Director Richard Ellis said: "We're a one-stop shop really. On the one hand, we do a lot of inspection work, largely using the M210 RTK [a commercial drone produced by Shenzhen-based DJI that incorporates the Real-Time Kinematic positioning and navigation system], largely because of its dual-payload capability, comprehensive sensors and the level of accuracy it offers. Then, on the retail side, DJI's camera drones are probably our main products, although we also offer fixed-wing products from all over the world.
"On the corporate side, we particularly promote the ways that drones can enhance safety procedures, an aspect of the business that seems to especially appeal to scaffold-users. At present, companies may have to spend anything up to £20,000 (US$26,000) on installing scaffolding when they need something inspecting. They then need to pull it all down and then pay to put it back up again when they need something fixing. Half that cost can be avoided by using a drone to do the inspection work. It is also safer because you're not putting a human being in a perilous position."
Another company on a mission to demonstrate the increasing ubiquity of such systems was Worcestershire-based Team UAV, a specialist in drone inspection and survey services, as well as the manufacturer of the Dronecage range of strong, lightweight, protective carbon-fibre drone shells. Launched in July last year, the cover is said to be suitable for most of the popular compact drone models used by commercial inspection operators, including DJI's Mavic Air, Mavic Pro, Mavic 2 Enterprise and Phantom 4.
Outlining the benefits of the Dronecage, Lewis Pritchard, Chief Executive of Team UAV, said: "Basically, it allows drones to operate indoors in confined spaces and hard-to-reach places. There's long been a problem with conducting indoor inspections and surveys. While drones are great outdoors, indoors they can't always get a GPS lock, so they often crash into walls.
"As well as protecting the drones themselves, the cages also make it safer for operators and bystanders. Understandably, there are a lot of concerns about safety, especially with regard to propellers coming into contact with staff or onlookers. The UK, in particular, has been very hot on introducing regulations designed to minimise such incidents, with the CAA basically taking a global lead with regard to such legislation. We believe that the Dronecage will, inevitably, help ensure compliance with any such requirements."
Indeed, in terms of regulatory environment, the UK has one of the world's most restrictive regimes when it comes to drone usage. In the case of recreational UAV users, for instance, the CAA has introduced a 'drone code', the first phase of which was formally adopted in July last year. As a result, within UK airspace, it is now illegal to fly a drone within 1km of an airport, while all UAVs must maintain an altitude below 120 metres and stay at least 50 metres away from all buildings and people.
Perhaps in response to such restrictions, some drone manufacturers were looking at applications that took their latest innovations out of conventional airspace. One such exhibitor was Van Dijk FEM Engineering, the Netherlands-based company behind the Se@ Drone aquatic photography system. Essentially a compact underwater quadcopter that users can operate remotely via the 4G mobile network, the Se@ Drone comes fitted with a camera and a solar panel as standard. Its modular design allows consumers to construct, adapt and upgrade their own units, including possibly integrating an optional 'crab' add-on designed for collecting items from the sea.
Introducing the unit, company Founder Ronald van Dijk said: "In the very simplest terms, it's a drone optimised for underwater surveying, video capture and photography. Our intent was always to make it as easy to operate as possible so, via a computer, from behind your desk, you can see exactly where the Sea Drone is and plan its onward route.
"It's very much our own development and also a work in progress. For now, it's a proof of concept and we're building a second prototype. We hope to have the first commercial version ready sometime in the middle of 2019."
Another company looking to dispatch drones where no (or, at least, very few) drones have gone before was Send into Space, a Sheffield-based business that bills itself as "the global expert in near space". This year, it made the relatively short 100km trip to Birmingham to promote the Astropod, a balloon / parachute-based system said to be able to fly 20 times higher than a standard propeller-driven drone. Capable of reaching an altitude of 25km, its onboard camera has been designed to give users the facility to capture unique footage from the very edge of space.
Detailing the underlying simplicity of this seemingly high-tech system, Dan Blaney, the company's Head of Operations, said: "The technology that underpins the Astropod is actually very straight-forward – its flight computer, for instance, is a customised Android smartphone. For our part, we wanted something reliable and familiar, something that most people would be able to master very quickly.
"Accordingly, it features just two key apps. The first records video, filming at a resolution of 720p for an entire two-and-a-half to three-hour flight. Then there's the built-in location app, which is extremely accurate."
Given the UK's legal restrictions on flights above 120 metres, at present the Astropod can only be launched from one of 10 dedicated sites across the country. Despite this, demand for the product seems to be robust, with the company claiming it has already secured a significant number of pre-orders.
This year, as well as deep-sea drones and potential UAV UFOs, also saw the Drone Show branch out in a new direction with the co-located The Technology Show Live, a showcase of cutting-edge developments that didn't necessarily involve remotely operated flying craft. One of the inaugural exhibitors was Southampton-based Motion Robotics, a two-year-old business with a focus on the development of "light weight and agile robots".
To date, the company's innovations include a proprietary Circumferential-Flux Motor designed to be incorporated into large-scale drones, enabling them to carry weighty packages or even a human passenger. As well as looking to exploit its commercial potential, the company was also keen to highlight its possible recreational applications, including its facility to transform the jet-powered water-skiing experience.
Expanding upon the Motor's more leisure-oriented uses, Aeronautics Development Engineer Soh Andu said: "At the moment, we're talking to theme parks and fun fairs, places where people are willing to spend a bit of money just to enjoy the frisson of actually flying, with the Motor able to keep people aloft for up to 15 minutes between recharges."
In other moves, the company has also been working with the Shenzhen Institute on the YOBAN, a combined walking / sitting aid and smart cloud-enabled companion for the elderly. Providing an update on the project's current progress, Andu said: "As well as its core features, it also boasts an integrated camera, allowing the user to be tracked in real time. On top of that, it also has an inbuilt collision-avoidance sensor."
The 2018 UK Drone & Technology Show Live took place from 1-2 December at Birmingham's NEC.
Catherine Jones, Special Correspondent, Birmingham