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Tech Roundup: Drones 2020

Unmanned aerial vehicles have become a huge force in photography and surveillance. Their roles in these and other areas have expanded along with their performance specs such as lifting power, endurance and ever more sophisticated control features. In addition to drone technology their prolific spread has also pushed the boundaries of domestic regulation, international relations and social behavior. Commercial drones can now conduct autonomous missions and navigate a maze of physical hazards to return to their predesignated home location. Those displayed here represent the current state of UAV technology and commercial application.

The Mach 4 commercial drone from AEE Aviation Technology has a compact and foldable design for transport to the takeoff point and its 14,000mAh LiPO battery enables it to have a 40-minute flight time. RF and EMI shielded, the vehicle can fly in very heavy radio signal environments. It can carry hot swappable payloads for quick ground service and its one kilogram payload lifting capability allows it to use a variety of accessories including the 4K data camera and the DAT 9 zoom camera. The Advanced ruggedized ground station controller operates with 2TB of storage. Flight modes include Manual, GPS and Automated Flight with guidance using GPS, accelerometer, barometer, gyroscope and magnetic compass. The Mach 4 can be controlled at distances up to four miles at speeds up to 40mph. The pilot receives video on the 2.4/5.8 Ghz band and shows it on a 7in. touch screen controller preloaded with HERE Maps.

Aerialtronics developed the eight motor Altura Zenith with an IP55 rating to operate in heavy rain and dust for up to 40 minutes at a time using redundant IMUs and carrying its “click and go” payload attachment system. The drone is capable of conducting complex automated flight plans and the pilot has control of all payload features from the ground. Its secure 1080p video stream can be pushed to the cloud or to an external video monitor. Payloads up to nearly 7 pounds can be lifted and the maximum flight distance is about 11 miles. Designed to work well in magnetic fields, the Altura Zenith can also hold its own in wind speeds up to 35mph. This model can be fitted with more than 35 different types of sensors and cameras. Among these is the Pensar dual spectrum computer vision platform. The Pensar can read text, recognize objects of interest, blur areas for privacy and overlay daylight and thermal vision images on the same screen in real time. Several types of cameras made by different manufacturers can be carried. Real time AI apps can be programmed by the operator or learned autonomously.

The Autel Robotics EVO II represents a breakthrough in sensory aptitude and data manipulation with its 19 groups of sensors including 12 visual sensors, main camera, ultrasound and IMUs. Sophisticated three-dimensional map building and real time path planning are used with the system’s ability to identify up to 64 objects simultaneously. These capabilities are built on a solid foundation of 40 minutes flight time, transmission range of 5.5 miles and a maximum flight speed of 45mph. The LiveDeck streaming provides multi-port HDMI real-time video output while its phase detection auto focus tracks fast objects with precision. 4K 10-bit HDR captures over a billion colors through EVO II’s 48-megapixel sensor and 1-8x zoom. The drone’s maximum takeoff weight is 4.4lbs. and its 7100mAh battery provides power for all the vehicle’s features. Working in the 2.4GHz band, the controller can run for up to 3 hours with a 2-hour fast charge time.

DJI maintains a leadership position in the drone market with the new neatly foldable Matrice 300 RTK that boasts up to 55 minutes flight time and 6-directional sensing and positioning along with advanced AI capability. The system has a transmission distance up to 9 miles or more and its IP45 rating assures its toughness and weather resistance. The vehicle beams multi-channel 1080p video while its hot-swappable battery and multiple payload configurations make it very versatile. Mission actions can be recorded on the controller and used to construct an autonomous mission flight plan with up to 65,535 waypoints. Objects can be easily marked, relocated and smart-tracked with auto-zoom. Two operators can share and transfer control to each other. All sides of the airframe have dual vision and ToF sensors to detect obstructions and the Health Management System displays current status, notification logs and a preliminary troubleshooting guide.

Versatility is the foundation of the Draganfly Innovations Draganflyer Commander that can be ordered in a number of pre-assembled packages customized for the specific type of mission. Among these is the Commander Photography Package with high speed, secure communication. Available cameras range from 18 to 100 megapixel models and there are multispectral and hyperspectral imaging (including infrared) devices with passive and stabilized gimbal mounting options. Among the wide variety of devices, custom payloads can be arranged with the company. The Dranganfly Universal Control System (UCS) allows precise control, data collection, video display and two-way audio through snapping a tablet computer to it but the vehicle can be controlled without the tablet attached. The UCS software maintains detailed flight logging data, digital video downlink, video recording, and Pix4D aerial 3D mapping.

The Hercules 20 from DRONE VOLT has the right name to tout its 33lb. maximum payload capacity and its carbon fiber frame with anodized aluminum fasteners is as tough as they come. Adaptable to perform a wide range of missions, the drone can operate in any of several flight modes including waypoints, survey, rally points, follow modes and tap to fly. For photographic flights it can carry the Pensar SDK camera or the FLIR Duo Pro for up to 40 minutes flight time. The control unit displays flight data and video and its smartphone application shows all flight information while providing a transmission distance over one mile. Missions may be automatic or manually flown through AES 256 data encryption and the control app also provides a pre-flight checklist for safety and mission success. For pilot training, Drone Volt Academy has ten training centers worldwide with indoor and outdoor facilities.

Freefly Systems describes their new Alta X as an industrial workhorse and it lives up to the name using its four large ActiveBlade propellers to lift a range of payloads up to 35lbs. Carrying lighter loads it can remain in flight for up to nearly 42 minutes. With minimal effort, the vehicle folds into a compact unit only half its flight size. The Alta X is designed, constructed and extensively tested in the USA. The Freefly engineering team provides payload advice and training along with real time tech support. A variety of cameras, sensors and even LED lighting can be carried and operated to perfectly adapt the drone to perform any mission. For payload power, it has three battery voltage power outputs and optional 5V and 12V converters. 12C and CAN ports connect accessories. Freefly provides onsite and factory located training.

For some specific applications, endurance trumps range and when it comes to providing continuous video coverage over a local spot the LIVESKY SENTRY from Hoverfly has the particular advantage of a tethered drone. Multiple vehicles can be operated simultaneously from a central command center launching them from rooftops, pickup trucks or using the tether kit as its landing nest. IP54 rated resiliency allows it to work in tough environments and the fact that power is sent along the tether rather than using batteries, means that it’s at the top in staying power, capable of hovering as high as 200ft. all day long. Payloads can be easily swapped and its RF secure 1080p video and data sent over the tether is jam proof. Simple 5-button control facilitates operator training and gets the Livesky Sentry straight to work in any of its system configurations; SkyBox Covered, SkyBox Mobile or Landing Nest.

The Intel Falcon 8+ System is an eight motor design with a carbon fiber body, complex flight planning capability and superior weight-to-payload ratio. The V-shaped design assists in getting an unobstructed view by the camera. The AscTec Trinity Control Unit provides three redundant IMUs for efficient and responsive in-flight handling. For signal security, the Falcon 8+ can be configured for closed system operation, recording video onboard rather than transmitting it. Reliability is assured through redundancies in communications, batteries, rotors and motors.

Among the payload options are the Sony Alpha 7R which is a 36MP camera and the inspection payload featuring two cameras mounted in parallel on one gimbal, a full sensor RGB camera and the FLIR Tau 2 640 camera. Through the Intel Mission Control software, 2D and 3D flight plans can be created and automatically verified for safety.

Parrot has developed the ANAFI USA drone to serve a wide range of clients from first responders to surveying and inspection professionals. Signal encryption provides for secure operation of its two 21 megapixel cameras with 32x zoom. Images are kept steady by coupling the stabilization of the gimbal with full 3-axis digital stabilization via image processing. Small enough for easy carrying, the vehicle is operational in 55 seconds and can be launched by hand. The sound level is only 79dB when 50cm off the ground and when a battery recharge is necessary a USB-C charger can be used. The ANAFI USA weighs in at a mere 1.1lbs. and can stretch its flight time up to 32 minutes so with the three batteries that come with it, the drone can operate for and hour and a half by just swapping batteries before recharging all three. IP53 rated, it can fly in rainy conditions and handle wind up to 15 meters per second.

The Flightline series of Pelican cases is a result of their teamwork with drone maker DJI. The cases provide maximum transportation protection for the Matrice 600 Pro, Matrice 200 Series V1/V2 and Inspire 2 vehicles. Each case has a watertight O-ring seal and double throw latches. The polymer structure is filled with black polyethylene foam to absorb drops, bumps and bruising collisions along with providing crush protection. Contrasting red foam allows each drone component, battery and accessory to be instantly identified and placed back into its special space. Nothing is left loose or misplaced. The cases are perfect for getting the packed drone through airports, truck loading and construction sites. The case handles are built-in and impossible to come loose or tear off.

Unfold the dual-reversible rotor arms of the Prodrone PD8X and you have an eight rotor ship that is capable of very intricate flight patterns using its PRODRONE GCS (PD-GCS). The system can set up specific functions such as Fstop, PTZ and shutter control to change at specific waypoints along the fight path. The PD8X also has redundant batteries that are hot swappable with the power on and there are retractable propeller guards. Camera system payloads can be easily changed and there is an optional laser surveying system and a loudspeaker. The forward stereo camera uses its image analysis for collision avoidance.

Carrying a precision GPS and inertial navigation, the X2 drone from Skydio can stay aloft for up to 35 minutes and venture out nearly four miles. Its Superzoom system blends the images of seven onboard cameras (6 4K and one FLIR thermal) to produce a 360-degree live view with up to 100x zoom and image stabilization. The Skydio Enterprise Controller features a touchscreen, glove compatible controls and the extended range wireless operation system. A custom payload up to 150 grams can be powered through a USB-C interface and the vehicle can track individuals and motor vehicles.

Walkera’s versatile Voyager 5 spins four propellers while carrying a choice of 30x optical zoom camera, thermal infrared camera or a low-light night vision camera. Its integrated safety assurance system combines a dual IMU, dual compass and a dual GPS system. Collisions are prevented through operation of the front facing infrared obstacle avoidance module. Capable of simultaneous 2.4 and 5.8GHz video transmission to nearly four miles and flight duration up to 41 minutes, the Voyager 5 can lift nearly 7lbs. powered by its three 4300mAh batteries. The vehicle has been tested at over 14,000ft. in high winds and its IP43 rating means protection from rain and dust. The controller has a maximum brightness of 2000 cd/m2 for easy visibility in direct sunlight. After performing all of these feats it folds into an incredibly small package even with the camera still mounted.

The Typhoon H drone from Yuneec features six instantly swappable propellers, 4K 30fps video capture, 12 megapixel still images and a flight time of 25 minutes while filming with the 3-axis anti-vibration CGO3+ 4K UHD camera. Its Android powered ST16 ground controller displays 720p video on its 7in. touch screen. The CGO3+ gimbal camera with high quality glass presents a 98-degree field of view while it is rotated through a complete 360-degree range of motion. The ST16 all in-one-controller allows the user to set up a wide range of autonomous flight operations and its integrated digital video downlink has a range of up to 1 mile. The additional Wizard controller can function in team mode with the ST16 and serve as a homing device for the drone while the operator can concentrate on high quality still images and video. Its flight modes include Orbit Me, Points of Interest (orbits a target autonomously), Journey (out and return), Curve Cable Cam (flying between preset coordinates), Follow/Watch Me (vehicle flies along with pilot) and Dynamic Return to Home (returns to operator on command). The retractable gear and foldable arms make it easy to transport.

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