Drone technology and its flying journey into the future

The day of the drones may sound like the overtaking of a male bee colony or some science-fiction movie, but in reality this unmanned aircraft vehicle (UAV) deserves a day of recognition because it has gone to extremes…even putting a man back in the drone.

A Chinese-made passenger-carrying drone, called an eHang 184, recently made its debut in Dubai and is expected to be flying commuters through the city in July. The 440-pound aircraft can carry up to 220 pounds, has a battery life of a half-hour of flight time and can travel up to 31 miles- which will be monitored remotely by a control room on the ground. The top speed of this machine is 100 mph, but will operate around 62 mph for travel. Once the passenger puts on the seat belt they select a destination on a touch-screen pad and the drone takes it from there.

The passenger-carrying drone was first introduced in January 2016 in Las Vegas, Nev., at the Consumer Electronics Show. Since the Federal Aviation Administration has no guidelines for its use, these egg-shaped, four-legged vehicles will remain grounded, for now, in the United States. But the smaller, unmanned versions are welcome in America’s air space as long as the owner/operator follows the FAA rules and regulations.

UAV’s have gone from being a recreational play toy to a useful tool in the workplace. To capture data
correctly with ease of navigation, these aircraft come in different shapes and sizes. In North Dakota what looked like a swarm of bees at this year’s Drone Biz, were really small eBees, a type of fixed-wing drone, that were used to collect data that can be analyzed and used to create maps, isolate problem areas in crops and track plant stand counts.  These eBees were shown off at Drone Biz, a monthly event held in Grand Forks that focuses on the unmanned aircraft industry.

One method known as swarming required staff to synchronize flight paths for the eBees and send them out to survey a field. The eBees were released on five flights with a duration of 36 minutes and each covered about 350 acres. Over the course of the flights, about 2 billion data points were created- a gain of 300 times the normal graphical density for survey data.

Drones that look like bees have even taken on some of their daily tasks. With concerns over the dwindling bee population and their ability to pollinate, a company based out of Japan has produced a bio-inspired drone prototype that could help bolster pollination. The short term solution could lie with drones.

Horse hairs were added across the bottom of the drone and then painted with an ionic liquid gel so the pollen would stick. During the simulation, the drone gathered pollen from one flower and flew to another to artificially pollinate a different plant. The plan is to train these robotic pollinators to learn pollination paths using global positioning systems and artificial intelligence.

If bees aren’t your thing then how about a Bat? Researchers at CalTech and the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, have developed a drone prototype called a Bat Bot. The three-ounce flying robot was found to be more agile at getting into treacherous places than standard drones. It mimics the unique and more flexible way bats fly, is smaller and has no spinning rotors.

The Bat Bot has nine joints and measures slightly less than 8 inches from head to tail. Its thin membrane wings span over a foot and can flap its wings as much as 10 times per second. The researchers still need to add cameras, build more drones and get permission from federal agencies before they can be debuted to the public.

Another drone getting attention by the federal government is a water sample collecting drone developed by scientists at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Normally a water scientist will haul equipment, boats and people to collect samples. A drone was made that can collect three 20-mililiter water samples. In 2013, the researchers received a $956,210 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture to continue their efforts. These drones will be able to help monitor water quality and quantity and lead to other UAVs that can collect air samples, take leaf clippings, measure crop height and recharge environmental sensors.

Drones got their start as safer and cheaper alternatives for manned military aircraft. They are now being used to perform tasks that could potentially be hazardous or dangerous to humans. These aircraft can be used to grab data from high altitudes at construction sites. They can even be used for search and rescue efforts by flying into areas that would be deadly for a human.  The demand continues to grow for drones from the commercial and civil government sectors.