Feature Story

How real-time drone data is saving lives

by Melissa Jun Rowley

real-time drone data

A look at the value of drone data, real-time processing, and where the drone industry is going.

According to the UAV Drones Market report by Type, the UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) drones market will be worth $5.59 billion by 2020. Once upon a time, the military was the sole beneficiary of the UAVs that took the place of officers when flight was considered too dangerous. Now fields including disaster relief, air quality, agriculture, film and television, real estate and industrial inspection are taking advantage of the aircrafts.

Cisco is running initiatives in the drone space, leveraging huge amounts of data produced by sensors carried on drones. Real-time processing is vital in making the most of this data. 

Angelo Fienga of Cisco Italy says real-time analytics can benefit a number of verticals in the following ways:

    •       Cost savings (e.g. Quick info about smart watering of crops)

    •       Reducing risk for people (e.g. Instantaneous info about deadly substances in the air)

    •       Optimizing resources (e.g. Water saving)

For the aerial drone services company FlyWorx, reducing risk for people means inspecting high towers so they don't have to make the climb.

"In traditional tower inspections, a team works rigorously from a scaffold, scaling structures that can be up to 170 feet high," says Flyworx President Roman Molla. "The workers employ ropes and rely on their eyes, as they put their lives in danger taking photographs. We deal with a client that has water towers, which require visual inspection once a year. We collect photos and videos and do photogrammetry, or turn 2D still photos into 3D models that are geo-referenced in space." 

See also: VC investment in IoT companies continues to soar

Molla explains that some of this data can be used for roof inspections of all kinds. After the 3D model is made, engineers import it into their software to calculate precise measurements of the inspected structure. The engineers are also able to collect volume measurements of gravel or dirt in the surrounding areas.

The next evolution of drone imaging and mapping is real-time processing. Molla says that while real-time is a little bit behind because of connectivity issues, quite a few drone projects of this kind are in the R&D phase.

"The idea is to get all the data in the cloud as it's being collected," shares Molla. "That's done through LTE service or 4G service, and then it goes into the cloud, and the cloud processes it in real-time."

The drone software company DroneDeploy has built what CEO Mike Winn has referred to as "what might be the world's-first real-time mapping technology." During a demo of its app for Android and iOS done in March in Sonoma, CA, DroneDeploy showed that its technology can create aerial maps in real-time before the vehicle lands.

How can the convergence of real-time data and drone mapping further aid humanity?

"Real-time data paired with streaming video unlocks new use cases and adds additional value to time sensitive applications like search and rescue and emergency response."

- Nick Pilkington, CTO, DroneDeploy
"We'll continue to push the envelope and reduce 'time-to-data,"' says DroneDeploy CTO Nick Pilkington. "Real-time data paired with streaming video unlocks new use cases and adds additional value to time sensitive applications like search and rescue and emergency response."

What's the next stage of processing drone data?

Molla says machine learning and AI (artificial intelligence) will be instrumental in making use of drone data in the future. FlyWorx collects anywhere from 15 to 200 photos from different angles and altitudes when its drones fly over water towers. For the time being, humans sort through all these images to determine whether or not they appear accurate. However, AI will come into play soon, as a means of saving time.  

See also: Cisco's disruptive innovation flies higher with drones

DroneDeploy is on the same path. Pilkington explains that as the volume of data they acquire increases, the company will be deploying more advanced machine learning methods to extract deeper insights automatically.

What does the future hold for the drone industry? 

While the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) seems light-years behind what technology can do, Molla says its new rules for commercial drones (known as part 107) are allowing more players to enter the drone industry, which is good news, as this will cause prices to fall.

Put into place at the end of August, the new drone rules mandate that people take a test to operate drones, and must be at least 16 years old. To stay in the sky, they'll have to pass a written test every two years.

According to the FAA, the industry estimates the regulations could lead to more than $82 billion for the U.S. economy and create more than 100,000 new jobs within the next decade. This definitely sounds positive. As for any potential air traffic jams, we'll have to see what's in store for invisible highways.


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