Key Components for Safe Autonomous Drone Operations

By Ben Gross | October 19, 2022

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Along with BVLOS (beyond visual line of sight) flight, autonomous operation is one of the essential factors that will allow the commercial drone industry to scale up to the next level, enhancing both productivity and profitability. A vast range of drone applications will benefit from automating the entire workflow from takeoff to data collection through to landing – including inspection, mapping, delivery, precision agriculture and more.

Full autonomy differs from automated operation. While both may involve a preset route being defined by the operator before the mission, the latter requires a human pilot to always be on hand and observing in case of emergency. Full autonomy takes the human out of the loop entirely, expecting the drone to react appropriately to unpredictable situations, and may use artificial intelligence to make decisions without any external intervention.

While full autonomy is still some way off from both a technological and a regulatory standpoint, we are beginning to see trials of systems that mix together various degrees of automation and autonomy. A range of different technologies are under development that will push commercial drones closer to the fabled Level 5 of autonomy (as originally defined by the Society of Automotive Engineers’ levels of driving automation, and later applied to unmanned systems)

If you are looking to develop a drone platform that uses some level of partial autonomy to carry out tasks, there are a number of components that will be essential to incorporate into your system and workflow. Currently, many aviation regulators are approving non-standard operations, such as flights with a high degree of autonomy, on a case-by-case basis. Presenting a thorough and robust suite of safety features and precautions is key to gaining this approval.

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Detect-and-Avoid

Detect-and-avoid (DAA), also sometimes referred to as sense-and-avoid, involves systems that can observe the surrounding environment and recognize potential obstacles and hazards such as buildings, trees, power lines, birds, and other aircraft. The drone’s flight computer can use the information supplied by this system to alter its flight path, thus avoiding a collision.

DAA systems typically use either passive optical imaging sensors or time-of-flight sensors such as LiDAR scanners. Optical imagery provides a convenient method of detecting and identifying objects in the environment, but requires further computer vision processing to calculate distances, and also needs clear conditions and sufficient light. LiDAR units can provide highly precise estimates of object position and distance under a wide range of conditions, but tend to be bulkier and more expensive. Some DAA systems will use a mix of both technologies to cover all the bases.

Parachute Systems

Drone parachute systems reduce the risk of harm to people, buildings, and property in the event of a system failure. Their inclusion will thus make them highly attractive to the decision-makers in charge of certifying your drone platform for safety, especially if you are planning to perform operations over people. Parachutes will also maximize the chance of recovering the drone, as well as any expensive payloads that it may be carrying, in one piece.

Many commercial off-the-shelf parachute systems are designed for specific drone models or for particular MTOW (maximum takeoff weight) ranges, but a number of manufacturers also offer custom design services.

Insurance

While not a physical component of the drone, insurance is worth mentioning as it is critical for commercial operations and is already required under many jurisdictions. Specialist drone insurance companies can provide policies that include not only protection against equipment damage or theft but also public liability cover in the case of damage to property or injury to people.

Many providers also offer flexible cover that is highly scalable to suit the needs of emerging and expanding drone companies, allowing you to select specific cover periods or pay as you fly. Some also have no limits on the number of drones, flight hours, or pilots that can be covered in your organization.

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High-reliability communications for C2 and data

The technology required for full uninterrupted drone autonomy that can handle anything the environment may throw at it does not yet exist. Until this technology has been developed and fully matured, aviation regulators are going to require that drones operating at any level of autonomy be equipped with a robust command and control (C2) link. Reliable communications are also essential for a wide range of applications that require data transfer between the drone and its base station.

A safety-critical drone connectivity solution must be able to provide as close to 100% uptime as possible, and for many applications will need to be reliable at long distances and in a variety of different communications environments. Operators must be able to step in and take command of the system remotely at any time.

A connectivity solution for current and future autonomous operations

Elsight’s Halo platform has been designed from the ground up to provide a long-range connectivity solution that is ideal for autonomous and BVLOS operations. It uses AI-powered cellular bonding to aggregate up to four distinct datalinks from multiple carriers into one, providing essential redundancy as well as optimal bandwidth management and automatic traffic balancing.

The easy-to-integrate Halo is available in board format, with a low-SWaP (size, weight, and power) footprint that will provide minimal resource drain on an autonomous drone design laden with other equipment.

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To find out more about how Halo could be an asset to your next-generation UAV design, please get in touch!

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