We are going to discuss drone technology, its working, and the underlying factors that contribute to their functioning in an easy and comprehensible language. Every few months or so, we are witnessing a never-ending rush towards new drone technology as advanced drones are being thrown up regularly in the market.
In this article, we will be discussing the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle technology in some of the most popular drones available on the market. Most of the drones come with similar drone technology incorporated in them.
UAV technology encompasses everything ranging from the aerodynamics, materials, circuitry, chipset, and software of a drone.
DJI Phantom 3 is one of the most popular drones available on the market. This drone has gained massive traction among aerial photographers and cinematographers. It has become slightly old, however, the more advanced drones incorporate similar technology. It is a great example to discuss UAV technology since it wraps up everything in a single package. It includes UAV, gimbal, and camera along with some cutting edge technology that is being used on the market.
Some of the latest and more advanced drones include the DJI Mavic Pro, DJI Phantom 4 Pro and DJI Inspire 2. The pace at which drone technology is evolving is simply mind-boggling. We will also be discussing some of the latest innovations in the drone industry in our post.
How drones function
A conventional drone or an unmanned aerial vehicle consists of lightweight composite materials to reduce its weight and enhance its maneuverability. The strength gained via the use of composite materials grants military-grade drones the enviable power to traverse incredibly high altitudes. Military-grade drones are loaded with cutting edge technology such as GPS, infra-red cameras, and laser. Drones are maneuvered by a radio-controlled system which is also referred to as a ground cockpit.
A UAV has essentially two parts: the drone itself and its control system.
The sensors and navigational systems are all housed in the nose of the drone. The rest of the body is lightweight and no space is required to accommodate a pilot as well. Highly complex composite materials are used to build a drone that
has the ability to dampen vibrations and hence reduce noise.
What is a drone?
We will be discussing the technology involved in DJI Phantom 2 Vision +. Here is a detailed article on drone components overview. You will be able to find the individual components that are part of a drone.
Drone types and sizes
Drones are available in a wide array of sizes with the largest called Predator being used for military purposes. The next in size is the unmanned aircraft that come with fixed wings and short runways. These are used to patrol large areas to accomplish tasks such as geographical surveys or combat wildlife poaching.
VTOL drones are the next in size. These drones can take off, hover and land vertically. Most of these drones are quadcopters but not all of them.
The latest drones such as the DJI Spark can be launched from the palm of your hands.
Radar Positioning and Return to Home
- The current position and location of the drone with respect to the pilot is displayed by the flight radar
- The Return to Home protocol is initiated in case the drone flies out of the control range of the radio controller. This means that the drone automatically flies back to its original position of takeoff and lands in a safe manner
On being turned on, a quadcopter searches for the GNSS satellites. Once a specific number of satellites have been detected, the quadcopter identifies its home station which is called the Return to the Home point.
Most modern-day drones are equipped with three kinds of Return to Home technology:
- A return to home feature initiated by the pilot as he or she presses a specially designated button on the transmitter or in the app
- A return to home feature initiated by the low battery levels of the quadcopter makes it return back to its original position of take-off
- A return to home feature initiated by the loss of connection or an attenuated connection between the quadcopter and the radio controller makes the machine return back to its original position of take-off
The latest DJI Mavic Air boasts a Return to Home (RTH) feature that involves the machine actively avoiding obstacles on its return to the original position of take-off. The DJI Mavic Air RTH feature functions in a manner mentioned below insufficient lighting conditions:
- The drone decelerates when an obstacle is sensed
- It stops and starts hovering, flies backward, and then goes higher until the obstacle gets out of the way
- The return to home process is resumed and the Mavic Air gets back to its original position of take-off
Gyro stabilization, IMU, and flight controllers
The smooth flight of a drone is due to its gyro stabilization features. The gyroscope needs to function right from the moment the drone is airborne against the forces working to destabilize its flight. The central flight controller is furnished with mandatory navigational data.
By using one or more of the accelerometers, the current rate of acceleration is determined by the Inertial Measurement Unit (IMU). It also gauges the rotational characteristics such as pitch, roll and yaw by virtue of one or more gyroscopes. Some Inertial Measurement Units are also equipped with magnetometers to calibrate the flight in case the drone sways away from the appropriate orientation.
The gyroscope is a part of the IMU and the IMU is an essential part of the drone’s flight controller which is the central brain of the gadget.
Drone motor direction and propeller design
The motors and propellers are responsible for making sure that the drone gets into the air and fly in a certain direction or even hover over a certain point for that matter. A quadcopter has motors and propellers functioning in pairs with a pair of motors/propellers rotating clockwise (CW Propellers) and two motors/propellers rotating counterclockwise (CCW Propellers).
Data is acquired from the flight controller and electronic speed controllers (ESCs) regarding drone motor direction whether to fly or hover.
On-screen real-time flight parameters
These features assist the pilot in monitoring the flight telemetry data and view what is being seen by your drone on your mobile devices.
No-fly zone drone technology
The no-fly zone is a feature incorporated in the more advanced drones in order to ensure enhanced flight safety and prevent accidental flights in sensitive areas. The no-fly zones have been segregated into a couple of classes: A and B. The no-fly zone feature can be updated by the manufacturers using firmware updates.
GPS read to fly mode
Once the compass has been calibrated, the drone searches for the location of satellites. On finding more than six of them, the drone can fly in the Ready to Fly mode.
Internal compass and Failsafe function
This feature provides exact details of the flight location to the drone itself and the remote control system. A home point is set up after the compass has been calibrated. This is the location where the drone will return in case the signal gets attenuated between the drone and the remote control system. This is referred to as the Fail-Safe function.
FPV live video transmission
FPV is the acronym for First Person View and this is the scenario when a camera is mounted to the nose of the drone and a real-time video is transmitted to the pilot of what is being viewed by the drone. It seems as if the pilot were sitting inside the cockpit of an actual aircraft rather than controlling it from a distant location on the ground.
FPV lets the UAV fly at a higher altitude and to distant locations as compared to when maintaining a line of sight with the drone. This technology allows for accurate flight, especially around obstacles.
It also enables safe and secured indoor flights through forests and around buildings where it would not be possible to fly from a certain fixed location on the ground while maintaining a line of sight.
Thanks to amazing drone technology such as FPV, the drone racing league has gained massive traction among consumers and enthusiasts throughout the world.
FPV technology utilizes radio signals to transmit and receive real-time video footage.
The drone comes with a multi-band wireless FPV transmitter and an antenna. Depending on the drone, the receiver of the real-time video signals can be either the remote control unit, a computer, a tablet, or a smartphone device.
The real-time video feed depends on the strength of the signal between the ground terminal and the drone. The more advanced drones such as the DJI Mavic Pro and the DJI Phantom 4 Pro can broadcast real-time video footage up to 7 Km. DJI Lightbridge 2 transmission system is incorporated in the DJI Phantom 4 and DJI Inspire 2.
Integrated controllers and employed in advanced drones such as the DJI Mavic Pro. Moreover, smart algorithms are utilized to configure a new standard for wireless high definition image transmission by reducing delay and enhancing range and reliability.
Real-time video broadcast and optimized control range is exciting drone technology. Here is a detailed article on Understanding FPV Live Video Transmission.
FPV Over 4G/LTE Networks
The year 2016 came with the Sky Drone FPV 2 drone technology via which real-time video is broadcast over the 4G/LTE network offering unrestricted control range and reduced delay. The system consists of a camera module, a data module, and a 4G/LTE modem.
Firmware and Flight Assistant Port
The flight control system establishes a communication connection with a PC assistant via a micro-USB cable. This enables the user to configure the drone and upgrade the drone firmware.
A drone may be described as a flying computer with a computer or sensor mounted on it. Similar to computers, drones come with firmware that is similar to software that issues commands to the physical components in the drone or radio controller.
Firmware upgrades are released by manufacturers to resolve bugs and augment new features to the drone, remote control unit, or software if it is used to fly the drone.
LED Flight Indicators
These are positioned at the front and rear of the aircraft. The front LEDs help in identifying the nose of the drone while the rear LEDs light up to portray the current flight status when the flight battery is turned on.
UAV Remote control system
This is the wireless device that utilizes the 5.8GHz frequency band. At the time of manufacture, the remote control system and the drone are synchronized.
UAV Remote control receiver
The 5.8 GHz receiver technology link is positioned underneath the UAV.
Range extender UAV technology
This is a wireless device that operates within the 2.4GHz frequency band. It enhances the range of communication between the mobile device and the drone in an unhindered region.
The transmission range can reach a distance of 700 meters. Each range extender boasts a unique MAC address and network name which is referred to as the SSID.
As mentioned above, the latest drones can fly to a control range of 4.3 miles or 7Km out of the box. Products such as FPV range extenders are immensely popular and enhance the control range further.
Smartphone app featuring ground station function
A large number of drones can be flown by a radio controller or from a mobile device such as a smartphone or a tablet app which can be downloaded from the Google Playstore or Apple Store. The app allows the user to exercise complete control over the device.
Different manufacturers have their own apps such as DJI have their own Go 4 app.
The advanced drones from DJI, Walkera, Yuneec, and many other manufacturers now incorporate cameras that can capture video footage in 4K video and can take 12MP photographs.
A large number of earlier drones came with cameras that were not conducive to aerial filming. Most of these drones came with barrel distortion owing to the wide-angle lens.
Having said that, the latest 4K video drones such as the DJI Inspire 1, Phantom 3 Professional, and Phantom 4 are incorporated with a camera that is particularly designed for aerial videography and photography.
Drones with zoom cameras
The years 2016 and 2017 saw the arrival of integrated gimbals with optical and digital zoom.
DJI released Zenmuse Z3 which is an inbuilt aerial zoom camera and has been engineered for still photography. The Zenmuse Z3 had a 7x zoom consisting of 3.5x optical and 2x digital lossless zoom creating a 22 to 77mm that is equal to the focal length range. These features make this camera an ideal device for industrial applications.
The Zenmuse Z30 was released by DJI in October 2016. This is another incorporated aerial zoom camera that has 30x optical and 6x digital zoom for a total magnification of up to 180x. It allows the users to use the camera for industrial uses such as inspecting cell towers or wind turbines to get an in-depth look into the structures, wires, modules, and components to identify damage. The Zenmuse can be used with the DJI Matrice range of drones.
Similarly, the Walkera Voyager 4 comes with a prolific 18x zoom camera. The camera allows for unhindered omnidirectional shooting while being able to record video footage at 4K Ultra High Definition and at a frame rate of 30 frames per second. It uses a high definition image transmission system that employs a triple-axis brushless stabilization gimbal technology.
Gimbals and tilt control
Gimbal technology plays a vital role in capturing aerial photographs, video footage, and 3D imagery. The gimbal prevents any undesired vibrations from the drone to reach the camera. The gimbal lets the pilot tilt the camera mid-flight while creating versatile angles. Most of them are triple-axis stabilization gimbals with a couple of working modes: Non-FPV mode and FPV mode.
All the latest drones come with inbuilt gimbals and cameras. DJI is the pioneer in developing state of the art gimbal technology with their Zenmuse series. Here is a detailed post on drone gimbal design.
Cinematography drones without gimbals
Ambarella announced the H22 chip for cameras in drones at the CES 2017 which allows the camera to capture video in 4K Ultra High Definition (UHD) and includes electronic image stabilization; thereby eliminating the requirement of camera gimbals.
Drones with sensors
Sensors such as multispectral, Lidar, photogrammetry, and thermal vision are now being incorporated in drones to furnish 3D models of buildings and landings; Digital Elevation Maps (DEMs) of land and furnish accurate data on the health of crops, flowers, fauna, shrubs, and trees.
The year 2016 witnessed the arrival of Time of Flight sensors. These sensors can be used on their own or with the above-discussed sensors to furnish different solutions across a diverse range of sectors.
The drone is configured to fly over a certain area using autonomous GPS waypoint navigation with Lidar and photogrammetry mapping. Still, images are taken at intervals of 0.5 seconds or 1 second which are then stitched together utilizing smart software to create 3D images.
DroneDeploy is an entrenched leader in the creation of 3D mapping software for the agriculture sector. They have come up with their latest software which is known as the FieldScanner and is compatible with most of the advanced drones.
Obstacle detection and collision avoidance technology
A number of drones are loaded with collision avoidance technology. These drone vision systems make use of obstacle detection sensors to monitor the surroundings while software algorithms and SLAM technology convert images into 3D maps; thereby allowing the flight controller to sense and avoid objects. These systems combine the following sensors to sense and avoid objects:
- Vision sensor
- Time of flight (ToF)
- Monocular Vision
This kit assists in keeping the stabilizer and camera attached to the drone.
Video editing software
Post-production requires top-quality video editing software. The advanced drones available today can capture videos in Adobe DNG raw format which ensures that the original image information is retained for further processing.
Operating systems in drone technology
MS Windows operating system is used in some of the drones. However, most modern-day drones are using different variants of Linux. The Dronecode Project was a dedicated project launched by the Linux Foundation in 2014.
It is an open-source project that is being carried out by multiple partners and aims to bring together current and future open-source UAV projects under a non-profit umbrella overseen by the Linux Foundation. This will create a common, shared open-source platform for drones.
Drones are similar to flying computers. They are equipped with operating systems, flight controllers, primary boards with programmable code and can be hacked as well. Here is how you can protect your drone from being hacked.
Latest innovative technological drones
DJI is the entrenched market leaders in the world of drones. They have come up with the following top drones equipped with cutting edge technology:
- DJI Spark: it is a compact selfie drone that can be launched from the palm of your hand
- DJI Mavic Pro: It is yet another compact drone that can be folded with collision avoidance sensors located at the front and underneath the drone. It offers stable flight and 4K videography features.
- DJI Phantom 4 Pro: The drone is loaded with Vision collision avoidance technology. It is a multipurpose drone that can be used for capturing 4K UHD aerial videos, images, and photogrammetry.
- DJI Inspire 2: It is a drone with a patented design and motors. It is yet another multipurpose drone that is equipped with gimbals for professional 5K aerial cinematography, photography, photogrammetry, multispectral and thermal imaging.
- Yuneec Typhoon H Pro: It is a drone that utilizes the patented Intel’s Realsense collision avoidance technology which is great for aerial cinematography and photography.
- Walkera Voyager 4: The Walkera Voyager 4 is a professional drone that is loaded with an 18x optical zoom camera which makes it an ideal choice for site surveying and searches and rescue missions.
- DJI Matrice 200 Commercial Quadcopter: This quadcopter comes with integrated redundancy as it has dual batteries, IMU, and a satellite navigation system. It enables a pilot to attach two cameras underneath the drone. For instance, you can attach thermal and zoom cameras separately. You can also mount a camera on top of the drone which makes it a handy choice for conducting surveys of bridges. The drone offers collision avoidance in six directions and uses TOF, laser, ultrasonic, and vision sensors.
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Smart flight systems
The modern-day advanced drones come with smart flight controllers and are equipped with modes of flight such as Follow Me, Active Tracking, WayPoints, Return to Home, and several others. The DJI Phantom 4 Pro is loaded with the most cutting edge, autonomous, and intelligent flight modes than any other drone ever built. The following intelligent modes of flight are loaded in the DJI Phantom 4 Pro:
- Active tracking mode
- Draw waypoints
- Terrain Follow Mode
- Tripod Mode
- Gesture mode
- S-mode (sport)
- P-mode (position)
- A-mode (altitude)
- Beginner mode
- Course lock
- Home lock
- Obstacle avoidance
Drones are being put to tons of uses. You can simply expand the range of drone function beyond the realm of imagination by attaching cameras or sensors such as the Lidar, thermal, time of flight or multispectral ones. Here is an interesting read of the different uses of drones.
Top videos on drone technology
Here are a couple of video footage that will elaborate on drone technology further. The first video has been compiled by a leading UAV scientist Rafaello D’Andrea who endeavors to present a magnificent view on the software science involved in drones. He discusses the software algorithms, control theory, and model-based design related to unmanned aerial vehicles.
The second video portrays in-depth details about the present and future of science technology that is being employed in military drones such as the Predator and the Reaper. These are a couple of medium-sized military drones that are referred to as the MQ-1B Predator and the MQ-9 Reaper. These are being extensively used in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
We are more interested in the usage of drone function in our everyday life so that we get assistance in our enterprises, professions, and even hobbies. For a few years, the technology employed in military-grade drones is being utilized in consumer drones. The previous few years have seen huge amounts of investment in the drone industry and we should expect to see bigger things to come.