Drones are data acquisition computers and this conference looked at many of the ideas that are being developed for the underlying infrastructure of thier future. There were a lot of talks about security and authorizations to fly or otherwise run a routine on a drone, much like you have to log into active directory on a windows domain to gain access to use a program. Other talks were about the innovations being made in industrial use of drones like mapping and worksite automation. There were demos and displays as well as a field day of flying and fun. This conference really echoed the thoughts and direction I have been seeing all this year. In every conference of 2015 like CES, NAB and this Drones, Data X conference we have been watching drones and drone technology grow rapidly from a very small number of manufacturers into hundreds worldwide. In just the past year the drone industry has exploded.
New ideas and new innovations are leading the charge in the prototype and startup market. Data acquisition has always been what drones are best at but now the data they can capture is being used in new and different ways. Photography and filmmaking may be the highest ranking uses of consumer drones, but in the corporate sector mapping and resource management are the two top uses at this point. Yes drones are used in production of many shows and movies, but that pales in comparison to the number of drones that will be used for mapping. Mapping has the ability to give industry, planning and accountability data. Drones are being used to map construction sites and manage the resources there. Mapping can tell us volumetric data that can measure stockpiles, like sand and gravel. Top down imagery taken daily can locate and track equipment movement over time. Mapping annotations and measurement features help planners figure out what’s next, and continued mapping after the project is finished can yield maintenance and inspection data, to help facilities and operations do their jobs. Future aircraft being developed will have the airtime to do 24 hour surveillance and keep assets from going missing before, during, and after construction. Drones are really a cradle to grave technology for any industrial project. They will be the first and last technology that is physically used on the premises. In almost every application drones are gathering data to determine what is next from what is currently the situation. their versatility and multitasking nature make them perfect platforms for all kinds of innovations.
Robert Scoble moderated a panel that discussed the automation of simple tasks to make drone operation more productive and safe. Peter Rexer form Airware and David Merrill from 3D Robotics discussed the benefits of onboard programming platforms and the usefulness of a flying API. Up until now much of the focus in this industry has been on the hardware. The next few years will see a shift towards more software and less hardware, just like any other computing platform. Next month 3DR releases their Solo Smart Drone which will bring the flying API concept to a consumer RTF drone. By the end of the year I would expect to see some pretty cool features developed by the open source community. New options like this coming to the consumer level hardware will advance aerial technology faster than we ever expected.
Some of the presenters, like Romeo Durscher, VP of Education at DJI Global, talked about this year being the “year of the drone”. In the data that he showed from a recent survey of drone pilots, industry was the next highest use of drones listed. Considering that mapping and most data acquired is done using the same equipment as photography and filmmaking the shift will happen very fast.. Basic camera sensors and gimbals are used on almost every drone setup. The only ones that don’t are really industrial like crop spraying drones and package delivery drones like Amazon Air. Even those will use cameras down the line for better automated flight and landings. New servers are being launched all the tie that can process aerial imagery into useful informative data driven maps. Groups like Maps Made Easy, Sky Catch, Drone Deploy, Propeller, Agribotix, and Pix4Dmapper, are all building great servers to process mapping imagery and provide high level data based maps for industry.
As hardware progresses its gets more standardized and new innovations become harder to develop. The power shift then turns to programming and automation. This conference really focused on that aspect of drone innovation. The thought that a drone pilot will need to biometrically prove his or her identity and be in a planned area of operation before being able to enable the drone for flight was discussed. All type of industrial strength security will need to be built into drones and their operation. Operating a drone will be like logging into a corporate computer on the domain before seeing your email. New protocols for employees that have piloting job descriptions, will fly automated routines and not manual control. They will be in charge of making sure the drone is operating correctly and tell it what to do next. Drones are becoming autonomous geospatial computing sensor pods. Humans will be increasingly unneeded as pilots or even operators. But just as any other potential “SkyNet” scenarios, security and identity will become failsafes for the future. Computational drone innovations should start to outpace hardware innovations in the next year or two from what I am seeing.
As I said earlier Photography and Filmmaking are the top uses of drones today, and I got to see the two newest drones in action. Both the DJI Phantom 3 and the 3DR Solo were demoed at the conference. I have written about both aircraft in a article that will be published soon and I will link that article at the bottom of this one when it is released. I have been promised a private demo and chance to fly the 3DR Solo soon and I just received my DJI Phantom 3 Professional this weekend. I will be reviewing both of these top consumer drones in the coming days and weeks.
The conference also had a FPV racing and demo day out at the local high school football field. Here are a few images showing just how fun these events are. If you ever get a chance to see an FPV race, do it!
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