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March 17th, 2015
What happens when drones get much more powerful processors?

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Did you catch the recent news that Qualcomm has become a major investor in the unmanned aircraft system maker 3D Robotics? 3D Robotics raised $50 million on this round and has indicated that more money is flowing in. This could be a game-changing alliance, giving the chipmaker an interesting platform for robotics research and development, and giving 3D Robotics an edge with first-of-its-kind functionality.

In company news around the alliance, 3D Robotics CEO Chris Anderson states that the company’s drones are modeled after Android cellphones, so it makes perfect sense to extend their platform development with the assistance of a cellphone chip maker. While the drone movement has risen thanks to cellphone technologies getting smaller, faster and cheaper, such a high-profile alliance to create chip sets specific to drones hasn’t yet happened at this scale.

Drones have been taking advantage of the improved clarity and video capacity of smartphones, making them an interesting Earth observation platform. Drones will also benefit from improved sensing, communication and storage capacity. The end goal is that these small and capable machines will be as common as our phones.

Added Autonomy

One of the more interesting and perhaps creepier DARPA experiments recently was the use of a neuromorphic chip on a small drone. The chip learns through input from optical, ultrasound and infrared sensors, mapping rooms to the point where it can tell if it has been there before. This early artificial intelligence points to a lot of possibilities as processors get more powerful.

With improved autonomy where the chip can learn, many mind-bending scenarios could exist. A first responder scenario is one area where a dispersed team could improve their response times by having a drone that efficiently knows what to look for and could image, catalog and even assign work based on set parameters. At that point our drones will be overlords, but hopefully in a more benign and helpful rather than diabolical sense.

Small Form Factor

The FAA’s hints that small UAS will get their own set of regulations as they pose less of a danger. This early indication of relaxed restrictions is making microdrones one of the most promising business development pathways, with a great R&D expected to ramp up to address such glaring issues as sense-and-avoid mechanisms.

The miniaturization of phone processors plays neatly into this technology trajectory. Just as the combined sensors for autopilot have come dramatically down in size and price for UAS applications, we can expect that the onboard processors for UAS applications will do the same. Phones have replaced computers as our first device of choice, and they are the technology battleground of today. These factors play in nicely to a fully capable microdrone that autonomously assists us, adding sensor inputs and helping us to navigate and get our work done.

Translating the App Experience

Just as phones run on apps, we might consider a similar environment for small drones. We might download apps to help remind us where we put things, to track our progress on hikes or runs (complete with views over the hills ahead), and a countless other number of tailor-made apps for specific applications.

This app mentality could also work neatly for the many professional applications that we have in mind. The ability to survey and map, with detailed instructions and workflows perhaps even running on the device with the need of little assistance, could mean major breakthroughs in how much we map and how detailed our maps become.

Sensors and apps tuned to the applications would be helpful for farmers, but also for the backyard garden, taking NDVI readings on our own small patch to know if we’re giving our plants enough water or fertilizer. Similarly, a thermal sensing capacity comes in handy for search and rescue, and we might also like it to go check out what’s banging around in our garbage bins.

The accessibility of these UAS technologies is absolutely on a rapid and mainstream rise. The explosion of DIY drones took off and soon matched what the military was paying 100 times more for. It’s a good bet that many innovations will come from the bottom up in this fashion, as individuals and companies continue to add perfect tiny and capable airborne robots.

The geospatial industry has long been aligned with cell phone apps and location-based opportunities. This next wave of drones and phones could pose the greatest challenge yet to entrenched players, but also the greatest opportunities.

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