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Drones: Integration Is Critical to Performance

When you carry an HD video camera, precision wireless control and stabilization electronics, motor control, and GPS and you want to fly, you'd better have a highly integrated system design. That's the state-of-the-art technology that a drone must have. A good example is the AR.Drone 2.0, a WiFi quadricopter. Yep, that's quadricopter, not helicopter.

Weight and size is critical to a drone's flying and agility. When your system is made of carbon fiber tubes, fiber charged nylon plastic, foam, sintered metal molding, and small but powerful motors — while weighing 380 grams measuring 451 mm square (outdoor hull) — you can't afford much more weight, or you become an anchor, not a flying machine.

(Source: Parrot)

(Source: Parrot)

Are drones an invasion of privacy? Can they be dangerous? Those are good questions, but with this blog, I want to look at drones purely from a technological point of view. I want to examine the engineering that goes into such a device and future possibilities for advances in this technology. Any device can be menacing — including a smartphone or camera — but let's not judge the motives to use a device. Let's be engineers with the curiosity to see what makes it do what it does and how it can be improved.

Let's open it up, take it apart, and examine it, just like when were kids. Our curiosity got most of us interested in engineering in the first place. Keep watching EDN’s Analog Design center, as well as Planet Analog, for an in-depth view of drones, how they work, and what the future looks like for added capabilities. I will also examine the courses that some engineering universities have begun on drone technology.

When it comes to the legal aspects of drones, let the politicians worry about where or if these devices should fly and what restrictions (if any) should be applied to them. For those of us who are engineers, let's just look at the technology and see what it takes to deliver a package from a drone. Let us look at from a purely technological point of view. I do not advocate or condemn this technology, but I look at it as a platform for future innovation and electronics content mixed with clever design. Let's see where it takes us as engineers of future technology.

Let us know what you think of drones. Have you had a chance to work on one? Will Amazon bring the technology into the mainstream? What about the military's increased use of drones as weapons? Tell us your opinion on the message boards below.

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30 comments on “Drones: Integration Is Critical to Performance

  1. goafrit2
    December 16, 2013

    >>  Will Amazon bring the technology into the mainstream?

    The smart marketers like Amazon.com and taking the shine out of engineering firms. It turns out the startup that is helpning Amazon create this drone service is lost in the global narratives. The US Military and DARPA will help shape this sector if they can open up to ideas they have acquired over years to the tech community

  2. goafrit2
    December 16, 2013

    >> When it comes to the legal aspects of drones, let the politicians worry about where or if these devices should fly and what restrictions (if any) should be applied to them

    I was in a conference last month in San Frascisco, a  presenter who spoke on the sensors that can be used in drones on these legal issues. He gave a really good answer. There is no legality in drones, “the strongest country imposes its will”. I am not sure we need any debate on the legal issues on drones because there is none. It could be an arm race when everyone has one. It is very scary what could happen in 50 years with drones!

  3. Steve Taranovich
    December 16, 2013

    @goafrit2—I strongly agree—-the tech side of drones will bring innovations and products/services that can benefit the world. But first, the technology and good tech companies must be acknowledged as to the great innovative work they do now and will do in the future. Aside from the US Military and DARPA—there are so many humanitarian services drones can perform, but I do not want to get into the political arena—my goal is to display the technology and engineering expertise

  4. Davidled
    December 16, 2013

    To my view, Amazon want to keep the latest technology for internet based online shopping in order to survive their business. I do not think that drones will be a major transportation soon and future. But, it sounds like Amazon would like to invest drones technology to supplement their business.

  5. Victor Lorenzo
    December 16, 2013

    Will Amazon bring the technology into the mainstream? ” Regarding Amazone's marketing video, in my oppinion as of today it is not practical due to it's current limitations and for safety reasons and, correct me if I'm wrong, my feeling after watching the video was “just another quad/octo/or simply n-copter”. But the designers and developers must certainly have had a lot of fun working in this project.

  6. Victor Lorenzo
    December 16, 2013

    Steve: “the tech side of drones will bring innovations and products/services that can benefit the world “, depending on the drone's target application it could be more accurate replacing “can” by “could”. At present military drones seem to be causing more “damage” than “benefit”.

  7. Steve Taranovich
    December 16, 2013

    @Victor Lorenzo—I always look at the positive aspects of a technology. There will always be people who strive to use technology for the wrong purposes (Internet scams and ID theft for example)

    I will not comment on the military and drones especially because we are not privy to all the information

  8. amrutah
    December 16, 2013

    Drones are one important innovation.  Apart from delivering packages these have a potential to lead us to reach places which we have never seen due to extremes (middle of a Amazon rain forest or Antartic circles), live monitoring and so on.

      I would be more interested in knowing the mechanics of it. With MEMS, graphene devices, carbon nanotubes (longer battery life) these drones can hit the scales of nanometer making Drone-on-a-chip reality in near future.

  9. samicksha
    December 17, 2013

    I agree you completely Steve, There will always be people who strive to use technology for the wrong purposes (Internet scams and ID theft for example) and one of the most promt formula these days is ransomware. But i am little curious to understand is it that Amazon will replace its staff with actual Drones.

  10. Steve Taranovich
    December 17, 2013

    @amrutah—You will likw my Tech article on drones

  11. Steve Taranovich
    December 17, 2013

    @samicksha—Humans will be enhanced but never completely replaced by drones. Drones are tools. People feared that computer technology would replace people as well. Instead, we found that re-training those who manually did the job that a computer can do better, allowed for a whole new area of jobs in software, computer usage, etc.

  12. eafpres
    December 17, 2013

    Hi Steve–good thought provocation.  I have a family member who works for a large aerospace firm that is a leader in UAS.  The technology is pretty amazing; while these little units are fun, consider the level of technology needed to fly a full-sized helicopter off the deck of a Navy vessel, conduct a mission, and return to the ship, all with the pilot who knows where.

    You are on the right track talking integration.  There are lots of challenges; you can take ordinary hardware and adapt it to become a UAS, but you may find it is too heavy or with other issues.  Without a lot of integration, from the electronics up to full systems integration, the full potential of a UAS can't be achievd.

    You mention sensors; that is of course one of the most active areas since just to fly you need location, multi-axis pitch, roll, yaw etc, velocity, airspeed, altitude, terrain sensing, engine status, fuel status, and many other things.  Then, you want to add optical sensors, hyperspectral sensors, perhaps some interesting radar or other systems.  You need to interface to all these sensors and condition the ouput and store data somewhere.

    As the industry has grown, many of the features I mention are already found in off the shelf integrated modules.  Today, a real enthusiast can probably build a one-off UAV on their own, all parts purchased over the internet.

    Final note on the comments about Amazon–I think the reason they are putting it out there is for (a) marketing, and (b) influencing mindset.  Why else tell the world on a major syndicated TV program what you are doing when your prototype is basically a toy?  We should consider what other vested interest a company like Amazon has in public acceptence of UAS, and therefore would like to make the public comfortable with UAS and thereby influence future regulatory decisions.

  13. Steve Taranovich
    December 17, 2013

    @eafpres—great points. As for Amazon—-I think they accomplished a great deal in discussing drone delivery of packages—-everyone is talking about them! Fantastic marketing!!!!!

  14. Victor Lorenzo
    December 18, 2013

    FYI, there are several open source projects covering from flying platforms to unmanned navigation control, obstacles avoiding (with ultrasonic and artificial vision), and a long etcetera. It is a growing community since about 5, or so, years ago.

    http://www.openpilot.org/, http://www.ardupilot.co.uk/, http://diydrones.com/, and more.

  15. samicksha
    December 18, 2013

    I was dicussing about drone in my office and someone in middle shouted, its time when terminator and skynet are coming. Any idea about sphero i think Sphero makes iPhone-controlled rolling spherical robots that light up and can play a number of app-enabled games using one or more units.

  16. samicksha
    December 19, 2013

    I guess Sphero charges cordlessly but do they require a proprietary adapter to plug. I was reading through the reviews and found that its initial model had trouble reconnecting to an iPad and an Android phone when woken up, requiring a trip to each device's Bluetooth settings.

  17. goafrit2
    December 20, 2013

    >> but I do not want to get into the political arena—my goal is to display the technology and engineering expertise

    Great idea especially in a sensitive topic like this one. Thanks for the piece.

  18. goafrit2
    December 20, 2013

    >>  I do not think that drones will be a major transportation soon and future.

    I do not see why not? They can have Drones Shipment Center where you can go and pick up your suff. I mean, that could another way of getting over the apartmnent issue. If it is powerred by solar, it costs them nothing to fly these things around the skies. There is no need to think they cannot get this done

  19. goafrit2
    December 20, 2013

    >> But the designers and developers must certainly have had a lot of fun working in this project.

    Sure – but do not count out the plans of Amazon on this. The risks you imagined are not that heavy provided government can offer a direction. The only challenge I see in this is if the govt thinks it must not be done. Techically, this can be done if Google can drive a human-less car.

  20. fasmicro
    December 20, 2013

    >> At present military drones seem to be causing more “damage” than “benefit”.

    It all depends how you see am…”DAMAGE” and “BENEFIT” are certainly not static. Use drones to kill bad guys, not necesary a bad idea. Yet, make mistakes and blow up a family wedding. Terrible.

  21. fasmicro
    December 20, 2013

    >>  Apart from delivering packages these have a potential to lead us to reach places which we have never seen due to extremes (

    How will drones help you get there? Carry you? Drones are UAV (unmanned aerial vehicles) which means they do not transport humans. How can they help you reach these extreme places?

  22. amrutah
    January 26, 2014

    Fasmicro: “How will drones help you get there?Carry you?”

       By the way of camera and wireless communications (you can call it “Drone communication”), much similar to how we interact with the satellite using satellite communication or deep space communication.

    “Drones are UAV “ , this is the whole purpose of having a drone.  Discovering and invading places of danger.  There are many countries/cities working on their model of microdrones or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV)

     There are interesting applications of Drone. 
      
    1> The deadly combination of DNA and micro drones (nanodrones).  The drones could land on you and then use its needle to take a DNA sample.   This is used for many medical applications like detecting the genome sequence and treating cancer. (more here…).  The scary part of it is, it could be used to inflict diseases…

    2> micro drones for sports, photography will change the way we enjoy the sports on TV…

  23. fasmicro
    March 3, 2014

    >> “Drones are UAV “ , this is the whole purpose of having a drone.  Discovering and invading places of danger.  There are many countries/cities working on their model of microdrones or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV)

    I heard a man in a gun show bragging that he will win an award as the person that hunted the most drones. After all, they are “birds”. We need to educate the populace besides the technology.

  24. amrutah
    March 3, 2014

    @fasmicro: ” After all, they are “birds””

       But hunting these birds might prove a very very costly affair as they would signal an attack by enemy (might be the biggest crime offence), these birds can relay each and every information before dying.

  25. fasmicro
    March 22, 2014

    >> But hunting these birds might prove a very very costly affair as they would signal an attack by enemy (might be the biggest crime offence), these birds can relay each and every information before dying.

    Here in America, people have lots of rights. From oil to land rights, we can be imposing air space. Does your drone has the right to fly through my air space? What is air space? Maybe my window, and close enough to it. The challenge for drone is not the technology but the legal and social issues that may derail them

  26. Davidled
    March 22, 2014

    Technology does not bring always any convenience and benefit to people. Some technology has been used for only special task such Robotic bomb detector.  Drone would be a similar type technology. Essentially, human requests their own privacy space and the right to protect this space. Drone need to be updated as installing the space detection sensor that senses the boundary of each people.

  27. fasmicro
    April 13, 2014

    Technology does not bring always any convenience and benefit to people. 

    I do not understand this statement. If we weigh it, technologies does bring more convenience and benefit. Without technology, we will be filling forms and going to the post office to share  insights on this “forum” and that will be in asymmetry. Yes, there are some cases where technology could seem to fail us because of our political views and moral inclinations, but technology has improved human lives.

  28. Davidled
    April 13, 2014

    In other aspect, Human could be slaver for technology.  For example, some people are addicted to smartphone.  While they are working and talking with people, smartphone has been checked. Also, high tech could damage the person privacy by breaking the security channel or monitoring all data traffic. Improving the life style is not always requiring to get the high tech. 

  29. fasmicro
    May 2, 2014

    >> In other aspect, Human could be slaver for technology.  For example, some people are addicted to smartphone

    I think I am one of such. I cannot imagine a week that I have not checked my email. I mean it will be truly challenging to be sane. Unfortunately, we all got ourselves into this. When people sent letters and they spent weeks to get to us, the world did not crash. But now, we want all NOW and Now.

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