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The Current Development and Application of Autonomous UAVs

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Autonomous UAVs and their recent development

Autonomous drones are unmanned aircrafts that are flown autonomously, without any human control. They have developed vastly over the past 50 years in terms of technology. A significant stage in the development lifecycle of autonomous drones has been the use of machine learning algorithms, including feature detection and change recognition, and the generation of application specific analytics, directly transforming drone data into useful information for users. This has allowed for autonomous drone systems to be integrated into business and application systems in order to generate novel workflows.

A key point in the future advancement of autonomous drones is the development of obstacle avoidance technology. Although obstacle avoidance has advanced in the past few years, it must be improved if autonomous UAVs are to become a widespread reality and used in challenging environments. The same goes for battery technology, in order for drones to fly longer and further. It is projected that rapid advancements in these areas will allow for the more prevalent use of autonomous drones in the next few years.

Applications and projects

Autonomous drones serve a wide range of applications. These include infrastructure inspection, field surveying, scientific data collection and security monitoring.  Furthermore, they are suited for the delivery of goods, open-pit mining, and mapping and precision agriculture, as with the right technology, they can save time and money, increase efficiency and reduce man power within these applications. For example, autonomous UAVs can spray fields with pesticides, deliver medicine during natural disasters and reach areas in open-pit mines that are otherwise difficult to enter, reducing flight time and human error compared to flying with a pilot, and allowing manpower to be deployed in other areas.

Current ventures that use autonomous drones include the start-up Flytrex, with the first autonomous UAV system that delivers consumer goods and foods. NVIDIA has built an autonomous UAV that is capable of flying without a GPS. Originally constructed to fly over forest paths to look for fallen trees or lost hikers, this UAV has the potential to fly in areas where a GPS signal is restricted, such as inside and between buildings. SenseFly has developed autonomous, light-weight mini-drones for professional mapping and photogrammetry. Additional popular autonomous drone manufacturers include DJI, with their Inspire 2, which has the ability to automatically avoid objects in its flight path.

Communication essentials

As part of the specific technological requirements, there are several key communication characteristics necessary for autonomous drone applications. These include using a private, secure and encrypted network to prohibit unauthorized users from entering. An example of this is using encryption for the sensor channels on board the UAV. Long-range line of sight is key for applications that require a strong communication link over particularly long distances, such as in the monitoring of large scale mines or when inspecting powerlines that run for miles. Drones with a relay system can overcome limitations associated with flight paths that require long distances and contain obstacle barriers with the use of a relay station that enables communication with the drone. The relay station permits communication between the UAV and ground station at greater distances. A redundancy set-up, such as the use of two transmitters and two receivers, increases the security and reliability of an autonomous UAV system, whereby if a problem occurs, the standby can be used.

In the next few years, research, innovation and investment are critical for the advancement and widespread implementation of autonomous UAVs, for example the integration of LiDAR and artificial intelligence for obstacle avoidance, and the development of a standard drone communication procedure, as with airplanes and other airborne vehicles, to manage air traffic and air safety.