The Low-Down on High-Flying Drones in Engineering Industries

The civil engineering industry desperately wants to use automated drone technology in the United States. 3D Robotics recently announced that they were actively using drone technology along with Autodesk’s Forge Platform to capture construction site data and map entire construction sites. Similarly, Komatsu, a global mining and construction equipment manufacturer has worked alongside a drone data software company named Skycatch. These companies are setting the bar for the future of drone technology integration in construction industries.

Drones can now fly around a site and scan the entire site, simultaneously uploading it onto a virtual 3D model. Additionally, the drones’ scans will provide data pertaining to the site that civil engineers would be able to peruse immediately. The safety of a project can also be measured based on the drone software that provides everything on-site engineers and managers might need. The contribution of the new technologies is just another element that is furthering smart construction. A project manager with the Smart Construction division at Komatsu said that on-site drone data would provide data that in the past would have taken two weeks to generate. Skycatch says that these drones can be automated and perform complete aerial mapping without a driver.

However, the Federal Aviation Administration in the United States has thrown a wrench in several companies’ plans regarding automated unmanned aerial vehicles. The FAA released new guidelines in June that stipulated a pilot must be in eyeshot of a drone at all times, meaning that automated drones will not be allowed for right now. Therefore, companies like Amazon and Alphabet who were planning on automated drone parcel delivery will have to wait a bit longer until automated commercial drone operation gains its approval at the FAA. On a more positive note, the FAA’s regulations would allow more businesses to utilize drone technology, as long as a pilot is still controlling it. Analysts say the relaxing of the drone laws could see 100,000 new jobs in the industry over ten years and could generate up to $82 billion for the U.S. economy. 

A company that violated the FAA’s current guidelines was a little company named Facebook. They recently took their automated, solar-powered drone for its first test flight without any formal body’s permission. The drone forms part of a new telecommunications endeavor named Project Aquila. Basically, Facebook wants to provide internet access via drones. The company points out that only 40 percent of the world has internet connectivity, the rest live in remote locations where internet infrastructure has been too costly to build. Therefore, Facebook’s Connectivity Lab has been working on “high altitude aircraft, satellites, free space optics and terrestrial solutions”. A host of these “high-altitude aircraft” would be their solar-powered unmanned aerial vehicles.

Facebook’s intention is not to override government ability to provide internet infrastructure to their people, but rather to sell the drone technology to governments who can then supply their populations with internet coverage. The drone will utilize laser communications technology to ‘beam’ the internet down to earth. Facebook, in a statement, said: “Our optics team has designed and lab-tested optical transceivers that improve upon the state-of-the-art by approximately 10x to data rates in the tens of Gbps.” Facebook is employing engineers specializing in aviation laser communications and electro-optics to design an interconnected communications network that will provide internet to hard-to-reach areas.  However, none of the communications technology was tested in their test flight - the technology that will be supplying the internet is still in development but Facebook promises more details on this soon. 

Nonetheless, the drone technology can still be tested. The drone will go up to heights of 60,000 and 90,000 feet which will allow it to reap the full benefits of the sun’s energy, and avoid any other aircraft or weather. The drone has the wingspan of a Boeing 737 and weighs approximately 216 lbs (98 kilograms). To see the engineering of the carbon-based drone and the technology behind how it will work, take a look at youtu.be/RQxXf6MYpzw. The future work for the team consists of storing solar energy in battery packs (most likely lithium-ion battery packs) to keep the interconnected technology powered and to keep the rotors spinning. The work is done by a British company named Ascenta that Facebook bought back in 2014. 

Drone technology and robot technology are becoming an important mechanism in engineering industries. Not only will they revolutionize the wireless telecom industry but they can also be used to go into areas where humans were previously unable to venture into. They can restore power and assess damage to substations during storms, as previously shown by FPL, a power utility in tornado-riddled Florida. The safety of engineers can be guaranteed after drones are sent to ensure that substations are safe to enter in emergencies. Perhaps it is time that you investigate how unmanned aerial vehicle and unmanned aerial systems can improve your engineering world.

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