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Drones took to the skys. Where are they going? – VI

Studies are ongoing to develop control systems to mange multiple drones, both for military and commercial applications. Image credit: Kongsberg Geospatial

We have already had 5 drone generations (not considering military drones) with the 6th in the deployment and the 7th in the making:

  1. Basic Remote Control
  2. Fixed camera, low res video recording and digital images, manual control
  3. Assisted piloting (obstacle avoidance), 2 axes gimbal camera mounting, HD recording
  4. Autopilot mode, 3 axes gimbal camera mounting, HD 1080 recording
  5. Intelligent autopilot, 360° gimbal camera mounting, 4K video
  6. All of the above plus commercial suitability, first  safety and regulatory standard compliance, intelligent autopilot with space awareness, payload and platform adaptability
  7. All of the above plus designed to have full compliance with safety and regulatory standards, platform and payload interchangeability, fully autonomous flight, full mission autonomy -take off, routing, landing, intelligent space awareness

This evolution ladder applies to single drones. Very little has been done, at least on the commercial and mass market drones, in terms of supporting infrastructure.
5G, as I noticed in the previous post, has been named as a “solution” to drones management, but mostly by Operators (in search for a revenue generating application). Additionally, so far 5G has been proposed as a very good connection infrastructure having low latency, hence able to react almost instantaneously to demand. It has to be noted, however, that 5G is just a (wireless) pipe, you absolutely need to inject meaningful instruction into those pipes.

A few companies are starting to address this aspect and are working to create and deploy platforms to manage fleets of drones. One of these is an Italian company, Blue Reply -part of the Reply group, that has announced a solution specifically targeting business customers (with a keen eye on Industry 4.0 customers). They draw from their experience on supporting automotive industry with IoT platform solutions and believe that drones in industry will be a big thing in this decade. (Disclaimer: my wife is a Reply partner but I discovered what they do on my own and have no ties with them).

Another interesting company offering drone platform is FlyBase, watch the clip, using artificial intelligence to help humans in controlling drones as well as developing drone applications.

The problem that I see is that the current approach works pretty well to control a few drones but I don’t see how they could scale to control thousands of drones in a urban environment. Notice that when Verizon says they want to be the first company to manage 5 million drones they are looking at each of them as an individual customer, a SIM, not as a swarm.

For scaling up my guess is that we will need drone “generation 8”, capable of creating an emerging intelligence out of a multiplicity of drones without external control.  This, of course, does not mean that we will not have “control”, it will be up to us, to a service provider, to define the context and the mission/goal, but the implementation and real time decisions will have to be taken autonomously by the drone “ensemble”.

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the Industry Advisory Board within the Future Directions Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.