sábado, 5 de marzo de 2016

Professional Personal Drones: They Have Come To Stay

The recent technological advances have made possible the designing and manufacturing of a wide range of UAVs  (a kind of non tripulated aerial vehicle mostly associated  with the military until a few years ago ) for the general public, sporting little size, low weight, remarkable maneuverability, plenty of flight modes, uncommon prowess in low and very low flight and a phenomenal versatility and adaptive capability to get pictures and make HD recordings in any environments with the top-notch tiny high definition videocameras they boast, enabling the users to rack up an immersive "cockpit" view.

These new unmanned aerial vehicles aimed at the civilian domain, able to capture fantastic aerial footage and known as drones, have already become a hugely widespread trend in the mass market scope (because the technology has evolved so that the cost is much more accessible to the general user and they are becoming more and more popular), feature a remarkable degree of miniaturization and are equipped with a vast array of devices such as 1080p HD video cameras like a GoPro, photographic cameras, GPS, infrared beacons, first person view (FPV) sending a view from the drone itself to a tablet or phone and even video goggles to get a breathtaking pilot-seat flying experience.

On the other hand, drones provide customizable and programmable traits turning them into really autonomous devices able to take their own decisions, with a large assortment of available choices for different types of flying and budgets.

Drones are remote-controlled and can fly in an autonomous way by means of the symbiosis between software-controlled flight plans in their embedded systems and GPS.

Most drones use a remote control with two joysticks: one for controlling the altitude including roll (shifting left and right) and pitch (shifting up and down) and the other one controls the throttle and rotation alike.

From the very beginning of the arrival of the first personal drones — which can be deemed both small unmanned aircraft and flying robots — a few years ago, they were mostly used for aerial photography and video recording, because they can attain a lot of advantageous points and angles for photographing or filming impossible to get otherwise and with amazing levels of stability, to such an extent that drones have added to the gear of a lot of photojournalists who had already used photographic cameras featuring HD recording for some years.

Therefore, a kind of new dron journalism is starting to build up.

But little by little, it became apparent that the potential and use possibilities of the drones were immense and manifold, so they have also become exceedingly profitable in a number of tasks like surveillance, weather monitoring, geographical mapping, construction sites, search and rescue, traffic monitoring, home security, child monitoring, virtual tours, mining, golf courses, stadiums, manufacturing plants, etc.

And particularly since 2013, there has been a highly significant surge in the use of drones in two specific scopes: Agriculture and Sports.


The use of professional personal drones monitoring crops from the sky has brought a farming revolution enabling to capture highly accurate images of fields, encompassing hundreds of hectares or acres in a single flight.

The final goal is the creation of a large orthomosaic image from the different shots made by the drone using image processing software linked to the drone and beget a reflectance map of the crop applying algorithms like Normalized Difference Vegetation Index.

This mapping will be pivotal to boost yields, because it focuses exactly on the areas of crop needing a closer examination, which results in less time of spent scouting and more quantity of time treating the plants that need it, also assisting the farmers with how and when to harvest, the best ways to irrigate, the assessment of crop damage and the development of improved drainage plans, to such a degree that the A UVSI (Association for Unmanned Vehicle System International) published a recent economic rundown which foresaw that the agriculture will lead the drone market with around an 80 percent of commercial drones aimed at the agrotech sector.

All in all, it means pushing the agricultural business forward, and last but not least to cut costs, because the traditional services in this regard provided by companies offering airplanes, helicopters and satellites are much more expensive including aircraft and pilots, and the resolution and stability of images achieved by the professional drones intended for these assignments is far superior in terms of sharpness, contrast, acutance and level of detail, since they can fly at high, intermediate, low and very low altitudes (the best high resolution pictures and maps are obtained taking advantage of the impressive low-flying abilities of drones), avoiding any shaking during the shooting through their small size and great stability.

As to the choice of images captured by professional drones, a farmer can have available RGB images, 3D models images, thermal images, near infrared images and maps.

Needless to say that the very precise crop scouting from above accomplished by the drones makes possible to optimize the economical benefits of any product yield (potatoes, soya bean, wheat, etc), because most times it is difficult for farmers to collect data about their farms, since they are usually spread on large areas of terrain, so drones ease very much their work by collecting information on a very big area within a very short time often not exceeding 40-50 minutes, which means in practice a great advantage for the grower: to have same day data after checking the information provided by the drone.

The key factor for farmers is to get as much information as possible to support their real-time business decisions, and in this regard, professional drones pose a stunning advantage with their ability to transform data into operative information, with the invaluable aid of state-of-the-art specific sorftwares for agriculture able to identify diseases and insects, nutrient dearths and materials for raising yields with fewer resources and investments.

As a matter of fact, the best agricultural professional drones are currently able to improve the fertilization by detecting symptoms of deficiency in nutrients, to detect if the plants are receiving excessive moisture, to carry out an early detection of biotic stress that optimizes the pesticide input, to do tiling and drainage evaluations, to control the irrigation of crops through the identification of zones where water stress is suspected, to measure the chlorophill levels, to work out topographical drainage estimates and pathogen tracking, and to analyse and exploit the agronomic indices bringing about a fairly accurate estimation of the crop yield, sides that become decisive when it comes to achieve the conservation of resources and economic savings through examination of fertilizers, pesticides and water.

And even some of them feature GPS, IMU (Inertial Measurement Unit), a multispectral sensor recording images of crops in four different spectral bands for Green, Red, Red-Edge and Near Infrared along with a 64GB built-in memory and a 16 MP RGB camera, greatly enhanced by the existence of a separate luminosity sensor recording ambient lighting conditions and automatically calibrating the four multispectral sensors, being also possible to raise its storage capacity thanks to a SD card slot.

This way, the technology of professional drones — whose cost effectiveness is virtually unbeatable in these tasks— , can be used to glean valuable information in the agriculture sector as to a myriad of different aspects, including to avoid the damages caused by pest infestation, and consequently can help very much in the enhancement of productions, as well as enabling the farmers to make better decisions with regard to the management of their farms.

There are at present even high-end professional drones aimed at agriculture that make feasible to create their own flight path according to the surroundings, with the drones automatically gathering the needed information and returning to ground if they detect that the conditions are not viable.

And from a scientific viewpoint, the increasing use of highly sophisticated and automated algorithms add value to the high resolution images, to such an extent that some models of professional drones featuring 4K UltraHD videocameras have already appeared in the market.

It all will greatly boost the future of agricultural businesses, significantly improving the crop yields and making synergy with both the aforementioned softwares and a growing rage: the cloud-based drone softwares created to greatly diminish the learning curve and reduce the costs related to setting up drones to draw up maps, acquiring knowledge and carrying through agricultural operations more profitably.

Anyway, a fundamental nub on developing softwares will be to make drones accessible to everybody, not just those people with specific knowledge and technical skills.


The very low flying ability of the drones is so awesome that they´re able to advance through forest areas avoiding the trees and they have been succesfully used in cross-country skiing competitions, having proved their efficiency and reliability tracking the skiers both on snowy ground and on wooded zones from different angles and in various flying modes, getting very spectacular images impossible to capture with any other devices. And there are even some professional drones which can be configured in " follow me " mode, traling after the user and allowing a surfer, motocross rider, skier or mountain biker to be his/her own film crew, with the small UAV flying behind you, lead you, fly directly above you, orbit you or fly on either side of you, with a boundless range of potential shots.

Sports are another of the fields in which the use of drones is nowadays most widespread, something which was greatly strengthened after the 2014 Winter Olympics Games held at Sochi (Russia) in which different competitions were successfully filmed with drones, so highly spectacular images were broadcast to the world.

Definitely, drones are changing the way a lot of sports — both mainstream and extreme ones —are filmed.

Obviously, drones are not going to replace the very expensive top-of-the-line CableCam systems installed worldwide in the most important stadiums of sports like basketball, football, tennis, hockey, etc, but their ease of setup and use along with their very low operating cost turns them into a very interesting alternative choice to obtain CableCam-style views with full HD great quality of image enhanced by the drones great stability based on their small size and low weight, which enables their high definition cameras to shoot with negligible levels of vibration.

On the other hand, the potential of drones for outdoor individual sports like cycling — for example the Tour de France —, golf, olympic rowing, marathon, decathlon, canoeing, 20 and 50 km walk, skiing and others is boundless and is beginning to change the way we were used to watching all those competitions, with utterly new perspectives and angles of viewing through exceedingly dynamic shots.

It must be also underscored that the improvement in drones speed has taken place at a dizzying pace and the best current  professional personal drones in the market are able to fly at speeds oscillating between 45-55 mph (72.42 km/h - 88.51 km/h), while the drones featuring 9 inch props and participating in the DRL (Drone Racing League) founded and promoted by its CEO Nicholas Horbaczewski are able to reach speeds of 80 mph (128.7 km h) at full-throttle and with a FPV system installed on board.

But if there´s a kind of sport in which drones performance excel, it is in the field of extreme sports ranging from surfing and mountain bike to skateboarding, BMX racing. snowboarding, jet surf, wakeboarding, motocross, powerboat racing, etc, where these fascinating miniaturized unmanned aircraft featuring staggering technology display unmatched levels of excitement and a new imagery dimension through the aerial shots they´re able to offer.

But technology advances by leaps and bounds, and along with the currently existing drones needing at least one person operating them to fly correctly and being suitable for vast majority of tasks, there will be in the civilian market new types of drones able to do new assignments, capeble to fly fast on their own, not needing any human being to handle them and featuring an astonishing ability to dodge obstacles.

They will be inspired by the FLA (Fast Lightweight Autonomy) program of the military´s DARPA (Advanced Research Projects Agency), which has been the first entity manufacturing drones of this kind boasting a new class of algorithms which are the scientific spearhead in its sphere and make possible that these small completely autonomous drones can quickly navigate through a labyrinth of rooms, corridors, stairways or other environments full of obstacles, and generally speaking, to examine the inside of any building without a remote pilot.

Text and Pictures: José Manuel Serrano Esparza