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TECHNOLOGY SHOWCASE: Drone Systems For AV

11/21/2017 3:43 PM Eastern
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Their potential uses have been known for some time now but with drone hardware in the hands of just about everyone, imagination has been unleashed and the number of practical uses has been booming. Everyone from wedding photographers to bridge inspectors and police departments are using these new vehicles and the AV world has certainly not been bypassed by this technology. At the same time, drones have brought related technologies along with them in the advancement of cameras, camera stabilization systems, batteries, and many other devices. Our survey examines some of the basic features of AV drones including flying time, brushless motors, batteries, and control systems.

Autel Robotics has equipped the X-Star Premium with 4K Ultra HD video and up to 12MP photo capability. The free Starlink app can be downloaded and used to observe and control camera shots from up to 1.2 miles away and the drone can operate in Orbit mode while it circles, keeping the camera centered on the operator. It can also fly in Follow Me mode or fly a course by waypoints. Each of the 6000 mAH rechargeable Li-Ion batteries can provide up to 25 minutes of flight time and when the X-Star Premium senses a 25% battery it can fly to its home point. If the battery power goes down to 10% the vehicle will make an immediate and gentle landing. For newbie pilots it can be run in Beginner Mode that limits speed, distance, and altitude until operator confidence builds and its handsfree hover keeps it right where it was the last time the controls were touched. The camera’s frame rates are 4K30, 2.7K60, 1080p120, and 720p240. Its video modes include 4K Ultra HD plus QHD, FHD, HD, and Superview. The vehicle’s top speed is 35mph and its maximum takeoff weight is 3.5lbs. The camera system can also do 12MP single shot, bursts, AEB, bracketed frames, and time-lapse. The control system operates in the 5.727GHz-5.8GHz band while the video link uses 902MHz- 928MHz. The splash-proof, zippered carrying case has enough room for the drone and up to six batteries, manuals, extra propellers, and a charger. Accessories include propeller guards for safety, sun hoods to prevent glare on the controller screen, and a dual control cable. The controllers it connects can be operated in training mode for flight lessons allowing an instructor to immediately take over the flight. In dual mode, one controller can be used for the vehicle while the other controls the gimbal pitch angle for more precise operation of the camera.

One of the largest drone manufacturers is DJI and their Phantom 4 Pro carries a camera with a 1in. 20 megapixel image sensor, wide dynamic range for good low-light images and it can capture slow-motion 4K video at up to 60 fps with a maximum bitrate of 100 mbps and H.265 video compression. The vehicle uses DJI’s FlightAutonomy system for navigation and obstacle avoidance enabling the drone to cope with complex 3D environments in a sensing range up to 98 feet at front and rear. Its Landing Protection function can detect and help avoid landing on uneven ground or water. With built-in GPS, compass, Micro-SD card slot, and HDMI port, the controller and vehicle can automatically switch between 2.4GHz and 5.8GHz once powered on in order to maintain best communication in environments with high RF interference. The controller’s Draw Mode allows operators to draw a line on the control display and have the vehicle fly that line. ActiveTrack can operate in New Circle, Profile and Spotlight mode to focus on and follow an individual or object from any angle while maintaining camera focus. Its brushless motors can take it into the air and maneuver faster than models with brushed motors, so it can be a challenge for newbie pilots to control.

Also from DJI the Zenmuse Z15 3-axis gimbal system for professional applications can be customized for either the Sony Nex5/7 or the Panasonic GH2. It provides 360 degree continuous rotation. Capable of maintaining a designated visual angle within ±0.05 degrees, the system can be operated in Orientation locked, Non-Orientation locked and Back to Midpoints modes while quickly switching from one mode to another. All of the wiring is integrated into the gimbal structure so there is complete 360-degree movement for the camera. The integrated wiring also makes the system stable and easy to assemble. The gimbal control includes a built-in independent IMU module, special servos drive module, and HDMI-AV module.

Draganfly Innovations makes the Draganflyer Guardian, a vehicle the same size as their previous models but it carries more powerful batteries and brushless motors along with greater payload capacity. It comes ready to set up in minutes by just snapping on the carbon fiber landing struts and then attaching the battery and payload. The quick connect payload system eliminates cables between the vehicle and the camera, a Sony QX100, 20 megapixel unit with 3.6x optical zoom. The drone can be fitted with an optional GoPro Hero 3+ 2 axis brushless stabilized gimbal or a 2-axis stabilized QX100 camera mount. For special applications a FLIR Tau2 thermal imaging camera can be fitted as well. The payload weight limit is 420 grams and the onboard processor has 11 sensors to assist in smooth flight. There is also remote controlled down-facing high intensity LED navigation lighting. The Guardian Handheld Controller (HHC) features a sunlight-viewable touchscreen and a central parameters display. It can operate in GPS position hold, attitude hold, or return to home mode.
Another model in the Draganfly Innovations stable is the Draganflyer Commander, a high endurance drone with up to 40 minutes of flight time capability. This varies with payload weight. Equipped with the DraganFly 2-axis stabilized Sony QX100 payload and digital video down-link system, the vehicle can sense range in the autopilot system and this works in conjunction with a precision barometric sensor for accurate altitude control. Detailed performance data is transmitted by an app that connects to the battery. Payloads are held securely with the Draganfly Quick Release (QR) to snap into place without cable connections. The Universal Control System, expected early in 2018, is capable of fitting a variety of tablets including the Panasonic ToughPad to control drones and other robotic vehicles. The device spreads open and snaps around the tablet but it can also be used as a complete control system on its own. The UCS can perform flight planning and perform automated operations while displaying real time telemetry. The software features include detailed flight logging data, digital video downlink display, video recording, and Pix4D aerial 3D mapping. Automated takeoff, grid following, waypoints, landing, data collection, and video downlink capability make it a remarkable tool.

Already famous for their go-anywhere cameras, GoPro has designed the Karma drone to take either the Hero 5 or Hero 4 cameras just about anywhere. Smooth video is provided by the Karma Stabilizer, a 3-axis, 8-ounce unit that can be carried on the drone, then simply slid out of its attach point and snapped right into the hand-held grip to be worn on the body or a helmet for stabilized video on the ground. Using the GoPro Passenger App (for iOS 9 and later/Android 4.1 and later) the operator can allow a friend to view and operate the camera while the pilot controls the vehicle. The Karma can fold up into a very compact size to fit into its padded backpack carrying case with room for extra batteries. Its field replaceable arms come with all the tools necessary for a quick change. Pre-programmed no-fly zones keep the vehicle out of restricted areas and when the Land button is pushed, the drone uses its brushless motors to fly back to its starting point where it settles to the ground. Using the Karma Controller, the pilot has a camera view displayed on a very bright 5in. 700 nits touch screen made for viewing in high ambient light. A modes and settings screen allows any adjustment necessary and the controls are very simple to operate with one-button takeoff and landing. For more experienced users, the Auto Shot Paths allow the Karma to automatically fly to the pre-designated area and shoot stills and video. No need to wrestle with a manual in one hand and the controller in the other. The on-screen tutorial and simulator provide all of the training necessary to fly safely. The drone’s maximum speed is 35mph and it can be flown to nearly ten thousand feet away. Operating in the 2.4GHz band, the controller has a battery life of 4 hours and it weighs only 22 ounces. The 14.8V 5100mAH Li-Po battery provides up to 20 minutes of flight time and it recharges in an hour. The Karma Controller recharges in about 2.5 hours.

Prodrone is a Japanese company with an office in Mountain View, California and in addition to manufacturing the Prodrone standard models, they can also provide fully customized airframes for specific requirements including custom commercial camera plat - forms. The PD6B-AW is a hexacopter design at 41lbs. with a payload capacity of 44lbs. which will handle many cinema cameras. It spans a distance of 35in. from each motor to the opposite one while the model is about 31in. high. The PD6B-AW can operate in a wide range of weather conditions including rain and can fly up to 37 miles per hour with a maxi - mum operational altitude of over 16,000ft. Equipped with the optional Prodrone Safety Unit (PSU), the vehicle can be run in a predetermined flight area and if it goes outside of this zone it automatically goes into landing mode. As an additional safety measure, when it enters its larger red zone it can even stop the propellers and deploy a parachute for a gentle power-off descent. The PSU flight recorder can also note operating parameters and if a crash were to occur, it can help determine the cause. Designed primarily for night survey and photography, the Prodrone PD8-AW-HS can operate in a wide range of weather conditions and it is equipped with Canon’s new 2.2 MP high sensitivity camera for precise images in very low light conditions. The PD8-AWHS is a fairly hefty machine with a distance between motors of over 60in. and the overall height of 34.5in. The whole unit with battery, gimbal, camera, and lens weighs in at a tad over 21lbs. The power of the motors is delivered through 21.4in. propellers to lift payloads of up to 44lbs. With its power and large propellers, the vehicle can zip along at close to 50mph depending on its direction relative to the prevailing winds. The PD8-AW-HS has a flight duration of up to 20 minutes using its twin 16,000mA batteries and it has been flight tested in winds of up to 17.9mph. The Canon ME20F-SH Multi-Purpose Camera has a high sensitivity 35mm full-frame CMOS sensor for producing detailed color images and HD video at selectable frame rates up to 60fps. With its 3G/HD-SDI and HDMI output terminals, the camera can connect with a wide variety of peripheral equipment including external recorders and monitors.

The X PlusOne from XCraft has a combination design using the familiar multi-rotor layout for hovering and low speed horizontal flight along with a fixed wing used to produce lift at high speed. The multiple rotors are used to lift off and climb but to achieve more horizontal speed the craft can nose over 90 degrees while using the rotors for speed and the 32.5in. wing for lift like a fixed wing airplane. The X PlusOne is capable of reaching level speed of over 60 miles per hour. Pitch, yaw, and roll control are provided by varying the rotor speeds rather than using conventional air deflection surfaces such as ailerons and elevators. Its flight duration is about 20 minutes and it carries a GoPro camera. Options include a 2-axis brushless gimbal for the GoPro, a fixed GoPro mount, a fixed micro DV camera, and a GoPro Hero HD action camera.

The xFold Dragon is a heavy lifter capable of carrying up to 110lbs. and it comes with an eight or twelve motor/propeller set, a system for dual operators, gimbal system, a travel case, and two Lipo batteries. Protected with a 12-month xFold Service Plus Warranty, the vehicle can be fitted with a variety of payloads, staying aloft for over 25 minutes. Compatible with all commercial grade flight controllers, the Dragon folds down to less than 1/3 its flight size for easy carrying and setup. The quick release sliding gimbal mounting system provides simple payload attachment and removal. The base frame can be arranged in a configuration with four, eight, or twelve motor arms and these are field interchangeable. Selection includes four different frame sizes to best suit the job and the load being carried. Depending on the frame size, propellers can range from 26in. to 30in. Designed for carrying Red, Alexa mini, FIZ systems, and large cinema lenses, The XFold Cinema model has a payload capacity of 44lbs. and can accommodate two separate operators for the drone and the camera system.

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