By Dr. Kandis Y. Wyatt, PMP
Faculty Member, Transportation and Logistics
The 2nd Annual Space Education and Strategic Applications Conference was held virtually on September 23-24, 2021. This event was sponsored by several groups, including the University, and included a wide array of topics including science, technology, education, and policy. During this event, I not only moderated a session, but also served as a presenter to share my research in artificial intelligence and advancements in drone technology.
While most people think of drones as a mini-plane, there are many uses for drones that extend beyond the standard use of an airplane. Some advancements in drone technology include:
- Mission and path planning
- Aerial surveillance
- Image processing
- Wireless multimedia communications
- Drone-based deliveries
- Autonomous navigation
- Human/drone interaction
- More precise landings
Photogrammetry Using Drones
Many people use drones to take pictures from an elevated position. However, one area of significant advancement includes the use of photogrammetry, which is a way to use triangulate geometry through similar images to create 2-D and 3-D maps of a particular area.
According to the American Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing (ASPRS), photogrammetry is “the art, science, and technology of obtaining reliable information about physical objects and the environment, through processes of recording, measuring, and interpreting imagery and digital representations of energy patterns derived from non-contact sensor systems.”
Drone images have proven especially useful for military applications. For instance, drones can scan a road for miles in advance to ensure there are no roadblocks that could hamper military operations.
Drones Can Perform Reconnaissance to Ensure Safety
Drones are also used for reconnaissance. Instead of sending first responders into a dangerous situation, drones can provide a quick aerial perspective to detect hazards and help teams to perform their work safer and faster.
A perfect example of this drone reconnaissance occurred after Hurricane Ida. First responders used drone survey images to ensure the roadways were safe to travel before venturing into damaged areas. An added bonus included relaying this information via public officials to local citizens, so that they could use drone images to make informed decisions about returning their homes in a devastated area.
Smaller, Faster Surveillance Drones Are in Development
In the areas of surveillance and reconnaissance, drones need to be less detectable to avoid their destruction by an enemy force. Work is in progress to develop a drone that is smaller and faster than current drones.
According to The Defense Post, the South Korean military has purchased low-noise hydrogen drones that use technologies such as an improved “aerial structure design” and “flight control algorithms.” Other advancements to make drones smaller include creating tailless drones and using a polymer-based material to avoid detection by radar.
Drawbacks to Drones
However, there are drawbacks to drone use. One drawback is that the skies are becoming more crowded; the cost of drones is steadily decreasing as more companies enter the commercial market, making them more affordable to users.
It is relatively easy for someone to purchase a drone for under $150. With a flood of drone owners, airspace can definitely get crowded. As a result, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) now requires owners to register drones weighing more than 0.55 pounds.
A second drawback is the coordination of drone activity. With a flood of drone users, many people can provide drone footage of the same event. However, using the footage can be problematic if the drone’s technology is not advanced or if the footage is not relayed to the proper officials in real time.
Other drawbacks to using drones include:
- Short flight times – Most drones have a short flight time, which means they need to frequently return to base to recharge. In addition, the ability to use drones at night is severely limited. While it is rare, drones have collided with people, buildings, planes and trees.
- Weight limitations – Drones can only transport items weighing less than 20 pounds.
- Environmental restrictions – Heat, wind and precipitation can halt a drone’s flight at a moment’s notice. In addition, geographic barriers such as buildings, trees, power lines and airports limit the space in which a drone can operate.
Another area to consider is drone retrieval. Liability can range into thousands of dollars of damage if the drone crashes or damages something.
There’s also the ethical aspect of using drones. For instance, there are ethical implications regarding using drones for warfare or invading personal privacy by using drones to spy on people.
Benefits to Using Drones
Despite their drawbacks, drones have provided incredible advancements regarding drone payload, the weighted cargo a drone can carry. Drones can provide blood, medication, food and water to people in distress when first responder access is limited by road conditions. Saving time and increasing delivery efficiency can be life-saving in such situations.
In our current socially distanced environment, drones offer companies the ability to deliver products without human intervention. Drone deliveries offer a safer alternative to in-person deliveries.
Using Personal Drones to Help Communities after Disasters
Drones can be especially helpful in community disaster situations. Here is some advice:
- Contact others ahead of time – Notify researchers and officials that you are interested in using your drone to provide a particular service. There are websites you can use to reach out to local/state officials and to list the availability of your drone for a particular type of service.
- Follow the chain of command – If there is an emergency, communicate with local authorities before venturing out with your drone. In some cases, local officials will encourage drone users to post to social media and use a particular hashtag to ensure aerial footage is relayed to decision makers in real time.
- Practice – Using your drone is a skill, especially in different environments. Understand both the benefits and limitations of your drone before using it.
- Teach others – Flying a drone is far more complicated than simply taking it out of the package and using it. While there are drone programs to help people use a drone, they are often geographically limited and costly. Share your understanding of drones with others to increase awareness about each drone’s capabilities.
- Know your limitations – Understand the technology, the maneuverability and the time and distance needed for an average flight. This can help officials determine the best drone to use for the situation at hand.
The Future of Drone Research
There are also innovative projects, such as Autonomous Data Acquisition and Processing Technologies (ADAPT), that are advancing research in drone technology. Highly specialized drone products and services in the future will include adding a microcomputer to drones as well as the ability to connect to Wi-Fi to relay imagery in real time.
Advancing drone technology research could potentially solve challenging environmental problems. There is a real need to use drones beyond line-of-sight operations to predict when catastrophic events (drought, flood, wildfires, hurricanes and tornadoes) will occur. Through more accurate forecasting, communities could have more time to react and prepare local citizens for disasters, which could potentially save lives.