Geoscientists have more opportunities than ever to make working with drones and drone data part of their skill set and services rendered. But, there are often a number of misconceptions, especially when getting started. Welcome to an interview with Michael Nash, University of Oklahoma, who provides a reality check about drones and drone capabilities.
Please note that the drones references are the small drones used by the general public, and are not the large UAVs used by the military and other entities.
What is your name and your relationship to drones?
My name is Michael Nash. I am a doctoral candidate at the University of Oklahoma in Mechanical Engineering with a concentration in robotics. I have experience in aerospace system design and control systems and have practical experience combining the two in the design and development of drones from raw materials and mathematical modeling by integration as embedded firmware performing the sensor fusion to filtering to actuation.
What is a drone, from your point of view? How is a drone not quite what the public generally thinks it is?
The common conception places drones as somewhere in between automaton and remotely-operated vehicle. Most of the time they are imagined to be masters of their environments that live aloft.
The way people should define a "drone" is between a hobby RC aircraft and self-piloting aircraft following GPS waypoints. Both capable of collecting data with lightweight sensors, but none capable of spending a significant amount of time in the air (unless specially built by an aerospace/mechanical engineer).
In your opinion, what are some of the most realistic claims that are being made about what drones will do for you?
Drones can provide non-flying humans with an "eye in the sky".
What are some of the most outlandish?
Delivery drones come to mind, though not technically impossible. Let's assume a dedicated engineering team throws together a drone with a large enough battery to handle huge motors capable of lifting a package and flying against winds at whatever altitude for a significant amount of time (an hour would probably be minimum to allow for worst-case scenarios...this is becoming a very large battery). Use your imagination on how much each of these drones would be worth, and consider the rising theft of packages (which are delivered relatively discretely compared to a loud novelty a few hundred feet in the sky on a necessarily nice sunny day). Would you want to risk that thing delivering someone's toothbrush? I would be tempted to chase them down for the sensors, motors, and battery alone...the drone itself likely out-valuing the contents of the package by 100 to 1.
Please list and very briefly describe the types of challenges facing drone pilots?
Pilots of drones are pilots; piloting takes skill that takes time to develop. The lay-man cannot pick up drone controls for the first time and fly a drone effectively. Hundreds of hours of practice on a particular platform (be it rotorcraft or fixed wing) stand between the first-time enthusiast and competency. Ironically, pilots needn't be college educated but can often be found at the local middle or high school.
If the entity wishing to deploy the drone does not wish to employ an experienced pilot, they should plan for repairs. For rotary-wing aircraft such as helicopters and (tri, quad, hex, octo) x-copters, and propeller-driven fixed-wing aircraft, nearly all crashes will break propellers. Fixed-wing aircraft will frequently lose wings or receive damage to control surfaces; x-copters will break motor shafts, motors, and arms. The electronics are fairly robust, but very often get pulled. The most severe crashes will damage the on-board battery resulting in fiery explosion.
Hobby drones purchased for less than $100 made solely for flying in a gymnasium or low-wind field will be more resistant to damage and can possibly crash 100 times needing only propeller replacements, but they will not be capable of carrying special sensor systems (max payload likely less than 1kg). Drones capable of a significant payload (yet still less than 5kg) will be less user crash-friendly and can be $1500 up.
No multirotor aircraft will fly for an hour.
No radio controlled aircraft will be controllable outside a couple hundred meters; if the controller signal is not attenuated, you won't be able to see it. Professionals may argue this, but professionals don't need to use their drones to collect scientific data.
Please list and very briefly describe the challenges facing the people programming the drone? (please explain how a drone is or is not a robot)
If one is personally programming the drone's logic, then the skill can be shared with programmed responses such as low-altitude altitude hold using distance sensors (such as infrared or ultrasonic rangefinders to continually monitor how far the ground is), interpreting pitch and roll relative to global positioning using GPS, or even converting the controller to an input to select waypoints defined as global coordinates to which the drone could travel. None of these include interaction with sensory equipment, though for the most part it could be effective in a fixed position.
What are some of the challenges involved in working with drone-derived data?
Drone derived data has its own unique set of challenges.
The most significant is noise. If your sensors are analog signals being measured by on-board computer, you will be struggling to shield the sensor lines from electromagnetic interference from the motors.
The high current pulses can also wreak havoc on magnetometers.
Propellers or motors that are slightly off-balance will cause vibrations in the entire craft that can reduce image resolution on cameras at best, and rattle loose hardware at worst.
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Michael will be giving a full presentation at the "New Opportunities with Drones" GTW Dec 1-2 in Houston.