Five Ways Drone Technology is Improving
Drone improvements include advances in autonomous flight, composite materials, next-generation batteries, extended flight times, and payload capacities.
Below, we list five ways drone technology is getting better.
1. Autonomous flight
Drones are becoming ever-more capable of flying without direct human intervention. Sophisticated algorithms and sensor technologies are enabling drones to complete tasks with minimal instruction. AI and machine learning allow drones to advance their own decision-making based on real-time data from sensors and other onboard systems. A recent advancement is MIT’s development of an autonomous drone that utilizes an advanced liquid neural network to fly—allowing it to navigate complex environments such as cities and forests without collision, as well as react to noises and other sensory inputs.
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2. Composite materials
Carbon fibers and carbon-reinforced composites are preferred for drone bodies because they are inexpensive, lightweight materials that have high strength-to-weight ratios. However, when higher strength is required, alloys made from metals such as aluminum, titanium, and magnesium are the materials of choice. Coatings are also important for improving flight dynamics and protecting drones from harsh environments. The thinnest coatings and nanocoatings are measured in angstroms and microns. Parylene coatings are ultra-thin, lightweight, and provide superior thermal stability and high tensile strengths. Because they are applied using a chemical vapor deposition process, these thin films are highly conformal and can wrap around every edge of the drone.
3. Next-generation batteries
Lithium-ion batteries are still the go-to power source for most drone users; however, drawbacks such as high cost and short charge life limit flight range, making them less than ideal for long-term drone use. Fortunately, new battery technologies are being developed that will extend flight times. For example, solid-state batteries and lithium-sulfur batteries both improve energy density and extend lifespans, compared to lithium-ion batteries. Researchers are also working on developing solar-power systems which would could provide in-flight recharge and potentially unlimited range.
4. Extended flight time
Drone developers are searching for ways to enable drones to travel greater distances over longer periods of time. This is especially important for longer-range applications such as package delivery or monitoring and surveillance. Factors that impact flight time include drone weight, battery fail-safe settings, and payload power draw. Lithium-polymer batteries are often sold as flight packs that provide longer flight times. Hydrogen cells can extend drone flight time to two hours or longer and outperform lithium polymer batteries; however, with costs ranging between $2,400 and $4,000 per cell, many drone operators find hydrogen cells too expensive to be practical.
5. Improved payload capacity
Drones are being designed to carry larger payloads. An easy way to increase payload capacity is to reduce the weight of the drone, as well as the cargo containers (carbon-based composite materials). According to JOUAV, a drone manufacturer, the three most important components of a heavy-payload drone are heavy-lift motors and propellers and a heavy-lift drone gimbal. The gimbal’s sophisticated technology allows for an almost completely automated process, removing the concern that the pilot must keep the drone stable while flying.
More advances to come
Improvements in drone technology will accelerate as cutting-edge technologies continue to converge. Drones are being integrated with other technologies, such as AI and machine learning, to enable new capabilities and expand the range of applications. Increasingly, drones can analyze data from sensors in real-time and make intelligent decisions based on that data. Researchers are investigating how to scale up the operational capacity of drone platforms across larger distances, possibly even accessing autonomous launch/land/recharge docking stations.
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Equipped with sophisticated imaging and sensing equipment, future drones will be expected to capture a variety of heterogeneous data, such as ultraviolet and thermal images, video and audio recordings, and sensing and monitoring data from a growing array of drone-enabled applications, including precision agriculture, environmental monitoring, and crowd analysis.
Current drone technology is not yet advanced enough to effortlessly collect, store, and analyze this kind of diverse data. To achieve this level of performance, drone developers will need to develop and incorporate increasingly sophisticated algorithms and Industry 4.0 technologies to effectively process these large volumes of data.
Mark Crawford is a technology writer in Corrales, N.M.