Why Drones Are the Future of the Internet of Things

What if you could talk to a drone? No, seriously. You can already talk to a locomotive, so why not talk to a drone?

For those of you following the technology, you already know that unmanned aircraft systems (a.k.a. drones) are finding their way into Internet of Things (IoT) implementations. IoT applications are typically composed of:

  • A sensor “at rest,” e.g., on a highway or a bridge or a thermostat that gathers input (like weather conditions or seismic activity)
  • A connection (via the Internet) between the sensor and a back-end data collection infrastructure
  • A back-end data collection infrastructure that’s commonly based in the cloud

So why do I claim that drones the future of IoT? For one, drone technology is evolving very rapidly. Drones are already beginning to efficiently replace the connected sensors at rest with one device that is:

  1. deployable to different locations
  2. capable of carrying flexible payloads
  3. re-programmable in mission
  4. able to measure just about anything, anywhere

To illustrate the trend and these capabilities, I’ll highlight the developments of several companies. But first – so that we are all on the same page – let’s look at what I mean when I talk about drones.

A New Kind of Drone

All drones are not equal. Some like the Global Hawk are very complex systems that are connected to satellites and are only the purview of the military. Others like the Parrot A.R. Drone are mass-produced hobby aircraft that you can control with your mobile device. But a class of drones in the middle combines the capabilities of both complex and mass-produced systems and is specifically designed for commercial purposes. These drones weight less than 55 lbs. and are classified by regulatory entities as small unmanned aircraft systems or sUAS. We don’t see their ubiquitous use in the U.S. quite yet, but in countries like England, Australia, and France, you will find them operating in energy, mining, mapping, and surveying companies – and quite a few government agencies like those responsible for transportation and infrastructure.

Commercial drones are truly ‘unmanned aircraft systems’. They are not just remote controlled aircraft. They require many things in order to run, like avionics, ground control stations, communication systems, data collection and processing software, and of course GPS for geo-referencing. There’s more, but you get the idea. These are multifaceted complex vehicles whose mission is to fly sensors and collect data.

Commercial drones are also connected devices. So they are ‘things in motion’. Most are accessible or controllable over the Internet, and the data they collect is pushed to various cloud services. Some drones are beginning to carry on-board processors as well and are now part of the growing trend of fog computing devices.

Deploy a Fleet

So, if a commercial drone is a connected device, then shouldn’t you be able to ‘talk to a drone’? And shouldn’t you be able to – from your smartphone in California –control a drone in, say, France?

You can. And it’s because companies like DroneDeploy and U|g|CS have figured out how to make addressable drone management platforms that control multiple drones from anywhere on any device. DroneDeploy does it by marrying a simple 4G telemetry device to a drone’s avionics. This enables real-time data transmission, processing, and sharing. With this kind of hardware and software combination, you can plan missions (launch, go to point A, then point B, then to point C, etc.) in a browser, upload them to a drone anywhere, press start, and away it goes. You could do that with a fleet and monitor them all in flight.

Flexible payloads

So one of things commercial users want is the ability to mount different sensors such as thermal imaging, UV or multispectral cameras, sniffers, and microphones to sUAS. PrecisionHawk figured out early on how to offer an array of sensors that are hot swappable and just snap into place. The cool thing about their aircraft is that the body itself is made of circuit boards and processors. They’re hardened of course on the outside, but it’s an example of the innovation happening in the commercial drone industry.

Reprogrammable in mission

So, not only can you deploy these anywhere, but they are reprogrammable while on a mission. Let’s say you wanted to create a 3D map for a construction project and you programmed it to run its mission but in the middle you noticed something odd (because you are looking through the camera in real-time on your laptop or smart-phone). With SenseFly’s drone software, you simply point to that area on the map, and you can:

  • divert the drone
  • command it to perform another function in that area
  • then resume and complete its first mission
  • then come home and land

Measure just about anything

Every day, you can read about how measurement sensors are getting smaller and lighter. Such is the case with LiDAR, which allows you to capture minute details and measurements. Because these units have been heavy up to now, there have been only three choices if you wanted these sensors to measure something:

  • They had to be stationary
  • They could be roving (stationary on a truck or SUV)
  • They could be carried on a manned aircraft

Stationary is the most accurate but lacks the significance of an aerial perspective. You can get good results from aircraft, but not as good as from a drone. With a drone can get close to the object – and as I mentioned they can be deployable on-demand. LiDAR manufacturers like Riegl and Velodyne get this, and we now see offered in the GIS market new high-performance, remotely piloted aircraft system for unmanned laser scanning, like those from Phoenix Aerial Systems and Sabre Systems. These airborne platforms provide full mechanical and electrical integration of sensor system components into aircraft fuselage.

LiDAR data models are huge, but as more low-cost in-memory computing becomes available, service providers are storing the models in the cloud and then updating them to reveal changes over time. Of course, it’s the analytics on top of that that provides the real insights – insights like structural integrity and predictive failures. Soon, multiple infrastructure sensors – like those found on bridges and highways – will be obsolete.

What’s next?

We are only beginning to find out how drones can be used to replace multiple sensors, and hopefully I’ve successfully convinced you of how drones play into the future of the Internet of Things. Surely this technology will push the bounds of how we can measure and analyze ‘things at rest’ and ‘things in motion’ and how they can interact with both of them.

You can find a companion SlideShare presentation to this post here. I would love to hear your thoughts on this topic. Feel free to comment or write me at [email protected].

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Colin Snow
Colin Snow is CEO and Founder of Skylogic Research, LLC (also known as Drone Analyst®), a research, content, and advisory services firm for the commercial unmanned aerial systems (UAS) industry. Colin is a 25 year technology industry veteran with a background in market research, enterprise software, electronics, digital imaging, and mobility. His experience includes aerial photography as well as making, programming, and piloting remote control aircraft. Colin holds an MBA from Florida Atlantic University and is a member of all major UAS industry groups including: AUVSI, RCAPA, and AMA.