4 Amazing Drone Companies to Watch!

As more press releases emerge detailing the extent of Drone Strikes across the middle-east, from both RAF and USAF/CIA drones, it is more important than ever to show the other side of the drone industry- the side that is pioneering for better healthcare, better disaster response and better environmental protection through their efforts. Detailed below are 4 of the most exciting, inspirational companies and organisations that are taking the world by storm- or will be soon! 

Conservation Drones

Conservation Drones is a brilliant non-profit that leverages technical UAV expertise to assist various excellent ecology and biology projects across the world. This has involved practical data collection, such as working with the Ugalla Primate Project, part of the Jane Goodall Institute Tanzania, as well as training up organisations and individuals to make impacts themselves. Having operated in dozens of countries across the world, from the Democratic Republic of Congo to Suriname, Indonesia to Nepal, Conservation Drones have amassed an incredible amount of knowledge on the use of UAVs in an ecological context.

Led by the notable Professor Serge Wich, of Liverpool John Moores University, Conservation Drones often use their airframes that they have developed themselves to achieve their goals in the field. From lightweight, rugged platforms ideal for carrying across the jungle, to big, long-range endurance platforms, this organisation is truly at the forefront of environmental UAV innovation and design. WWF DRONE.jpg

EnviroDrone

This is a new company, but believe me, you are going to hear ALL about them in the coming years. Launching fully in early 2017, EnviroDrone seems to offer something a little different, offering an end-user orientated approach to geospatial data collected by drones. Not only will they offer their own all in-one UAV system, integrated with multiple sensors, they also propose an in-house software solution, making the data more easily accessible to those who need it on the ground. EnviroDrone possibly heralds a different approach to ConservationDrones, offering a more commercial option in comparison to the latter’s relatively democratised approach. If it takes the difficulty out of geospatial data collection and analysis across environmental industries, it could be hitting a very valuable, untapped niche in the market- and are thus are well worth keeping an eye on during their launch year. Based in Canada, it is worth noting that they have collaborated with Conservation Drones in the recent past.

Enviro drone.png

WeRobotics

Led by the impressive Dr. Patrick Meier, best known for his work on open-source disaster mapping, We Robotics is at the forefront of democratising geospatial technology across developing countries. Far from keeping UAV technology and skills in the hands of the privileged few in the west, WeRobotics uses ‘FlyingLabs’ to help scale the impacts of development, humanitarian and environmental projects. This involves the direct transfer of technology from partners including Parrot and DJI, as well as skills transfer through training sessions.

The Flying Labs are created with training and technology from We Robotics, collaborating together on initial operations with local organisations, providing initial impacts. The Flying Lab then takes up the torch after We Robotics leave, working on their own projects with local social and environmental-good organisations. Across developing and at-risk countries, the approach removes existing barriers to technology, and puts incredible geospatial technology in the hands of those who need it most.

tan-drone

I’m a big fan of Patrick Meier- he has some excellent Ted Talks as well as a great book (‘Digital Humanitarians’) that are all well worth a look if you are interested in this field.

Zipline

In a similar ‘development’ vein, Zipline is the company that is seriously making waves in the global media. Raising some $25 million in venture capital, Zipline is starting operations in Rwanda this year, and is widely regarded as one of the great hopes on the drone industry. Why? Zipline could change everything we know about healthcare logistics.

Zipline.jpg

Rwanda is known as the land of a thousand hills for a reason. It’s beautiful if unforgiving topography makes logistics by road especially challenging, and with healthcare, that can cost lives. Enter Zipline, using cost-effective drones to deliver blood samples, vaccinations and medicines to health centres across the country. Taking infrastructural issues out of the equation, Zipline really does represent a pioneering new concept in healthcare logistics that should have great value across the world.

Think of the number of nations with infrastructural gaps, poor road networks and major remote settlements- there are several in Central Africa alone, before you even consider the likes of Myanmar and Nepal. This is an incredible concept, my only worry being that they overstretch themselves too early. They say they are looking to expand into other countries this year already- I would want to ensure the success longevity of the Rwanda project first. This is a competitive field, however, and other companies will soon be snapping at their heels- and with $25 million in funding, one would assume they have done their due diligence. rwanda-1

(All images taken from respective websites, unless otherwise noted).

 

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See The Future of Drones!

The Past

In the space of just 3 years, we’ve seen huge developments in the consumer drone sector. The DJI Phantom was launched in January 2013, heralding the arrival of personal drones and being marketed as the first consumer drone with GPS technology- my, how far we have come.

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The market still largely belongs to DJI, the huge Chinese company that brought the drone to the masses in the form of the Phantom series. Whilst still relatively highly priced in the UK, around £500 for the Phantom 3 and just under £1000 for the latest Phantom 4 model, it was the Phantom that put cutting-edge tech in the hands of the consumer, beginning with basic flight tech and ending up transforming the marketplace with the advent of object-avoidance, something I think we can all expect to become standard in the future. DJI even dipped into the video market, producing drone cameras in the form of vision series that rivalled the quality of the GoPro. The advanced stabilisation tech they helped pioneer is now standard on consumer drones.

There are other brands, of course. 3D Robotics and largely open-source DIY Drones community pushed the capabilities of drones in a way that was accessible to all around the world. I personally fly an IRIS+ for research, and the SOLO is another excellent drone to rival the Phantom series. Parrot are catching up to DJI, but are targeting the market in a slightly different area, generally offering very tough, portable products but are not usually marketed as a world-class video option, as the DJI series are. Yuneec, on the other hand, shook up the market with the release of the Typhoon Q500, an affordable professional video option with tremendous features at that price point. Don’t forget Hubsan, of course, mass-producing hundreds of thousands of microdrones at the bottom end of the market.

All this, however, is history. The future has just arrived, in the form of the DJI Mavic Pro and the GoPro Karma. 

Why? 

Portability

The Phantoms and IRISs of old are surprisingly large, cumbersome aircraft, requiring specific carry cases made for each drone. The weight is significant too, and if you are going on a long hike (or trekking through the jungle, as I did), then you may well think again. Aching shoulders and limbs galore.

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Trust me, that’s a big, cumbersome drone.

The new DJI Mavic Pro blows the competition away in this respect. This thing is tiny. It literally folds away in the palm of your hand, and is small enough to easily fit into your day bag or messenger pack. It weighs just 783g, nearly half that of a fully loaded Phantom 4, and yet comes with an impressive flight time of 27 minutes, and all the software feature of the latter, including object avoidance. It even boasts a better transmission system, offering a 4.3 mile range- though that could just be marketing speak, of course. It makes the existing Phantom designs look enormous in comparison, and this is going to radically change the market. I’d use a drone this portable one hell of a lot more- to be able to just sling it in my backpack and go, as opposed to having to buy an uncomfortable, poorly designed drone-hugger like the Lowepro CS400, is a massive plus. I’m not sure either drone will be suitable for academic research (my field), but portability would be a huge plus to the research community, enabling us to operate in isolated, remote locations, so we obviously welcome this development in a big way!

mavic-pro

The KARMA also folds away, but is a little larger, and comes with its own carry case. Nonetheless, since folding is largely ‘new’ to market feature, this is an impressive development for a new entry to the market, and represents an exciting trend in drone developments.

gopro-size

Video Quality

The KARMA utilizes the tried and tested GoPro series, relying on the new Hero 5, Hero 5 Session or the previous Hero 4 Black/Silver. The image quality on these cameras is excellent, as is to be expected of a GoPro, but is not necessarily optimised to use on a UAV, with the wide angle lens providing less than optimum performance. There is a reason why aftermarket lenses and filter kits exist for GoPros, and I have no doubt this will follow on to the new models, even more so as the centre of a UAV system. The cameras offer 4K, of course, in a variety  of flavours. In theory, you could use a competitor’s camera on the KARMA- a MAPIR for surveys, for example.

karma-drone-main

DJI have somehow shrunk their already small Vision camera for the Mavic, including a miniaturised 3-axis gimbal. The image quality is proven to be very good, and will also include 4K, though with a more limited feature-set than that of the GoPro. Nonetheless, the advanced video and photo software that comes standard with DJI’s drones will help differentiate it from the crowd. The one annoyance? It’s non-removable, which is damn annoying for the scientists out there.

Software

You know from the Phantom 4 that the DJI tech is there. We have object avoidance, excellent range, vision sensors for precise hovering without GPS (and GPS/GLONASS of course). The Mavic Pro will obviously be subject to firmware improvements over time, too!

Little details exist of the KARMA’s software, but from pre-release footage, it looks like an impressively stable platform to fly, designed to seamlessly interact with smartphone/tablet devices as well as the controller itself. The controller itself is a very simple design- this is designed to be used by everyone, no previous knowledge needed- and for it’s target market, whether this will actually be delivered is critical to a successful release.

Price & Release

Both products are being aimed at the holiday season, so expect a mid-October release before the biggest drone marketing drive of it’s kind before Christmas. It’s going to be big, seriously. 

DJI Mavic Pro: $999

($1299 with additional accessories kit, not essential for flight).

GoPro Karma: $799 without camera (£719.99)

$1099 with Hero 5 Black (£999.99)

$999.99 with Hero 5 Session.

The Industry

I’ve already shown you how both drones are aggressively priced, but here’s the really exciting thing: GoPro are entering the drone market in a big way, and this is a HUGE deal. Since entering the stock market, GoPro has actually struggled in a market suddenly saturated by action camera companies, and with high-prices, lost significant market share to them. You are now just as likely to find a cheaper GoPro alternative in the shops than a GoPro itself, or at least that is what I have found in the UK. How are they going to rejuvenate the brand? The KARMA. They’ve designed an ecosystem around the drone, including a gimbal that can be used handheld, like the DJI OSMO, and with GoPro’s standard release schedule, improved models are never far away.

drone-build

GoPro have poured a lot of money into this project, and it is the centrepiece of their new range, stealing attention away from the new Hero 5. What is really exciting though, is how serious DJI have taken the GoPro threat. GoPro brings a pool of marketing funds that DJI can’t really compete with, and thus by releasing the Mavic, and pricing it very aggressively, DJI have gone all out to steal GoPro’s thunder.

DJI haven’t ever truly had a major competitor, with 3DR rapidly dissapearing into the distance and Parrot producing different products. It’s the end of 2016, and at last they have one- a huge one too. This is great news for the industry and the consumer, as each company is going to seriously have to raise the stakes in the future. The drone market finally has it’s Xbox/Playstation, Samsung/Apple & Canon/Nikon rivalry, and this is wonderful news for you and I, the drone consumer.

mavic

Whilst I think the Mavic Pro looks like the technically superior drone, it is all about the long term- DJI might win this battle, but at last we have a drone company ‘war’ on our hands- and GoPro will be ready.

Verdict

This is the future! Ultra-compact drones with impressive feature sets at a competitive price. The question now will be whether they can go any smaller with ever-improving software and video quality, or whether there will be a natural plateau where improvements become marginal at best, a bit like the stagnating phone industry of the time. For me though, this the drone industry’s IPhone moment- the moment absolutely everything changed. These are the first truly personal drones, that fit in the palm of your hand… Look out for one near you this winter!

Both as a drone enthusiast and as a scientist, I can’t wait to see what the future holds.

Mavic Pro Size.JPG

 

#DronesForGood: Search and Rescue

The word ‘drone’ has become a loaded term for many, and it is through the hashtag ‘#DronesForGood’ that UAV Scientists and professionals are fighting to reclaim the word. In the first of this series of blog posts, I will explore the use of drones by Search and Rescue teams. 

Search & Rescue 

Drones provide numerous advantages to search and rescue teams, enabling them to cover large areas of ground much more quickly than they could on foot. They are also able to access dangerous areas, such as inside collapsed buildings, without placing personnel at risk. They aren’t infallible of course, and people can be missed, such as by human error or a poor quality sensor. Thermal imaging would obviously be ideal for this application, but sensor miniaturisation hasn’t quite reached where I would like in the thermal world just yet. There are a few lightweight, portable options, such as the FLIR VUE, but the very best thermal version is still restricted to military applications.

DRONE RESCUE.jpg

 

Nonetheless, drones have seen increasing success as SAR tools across the world, and will inevitably become more popular as the platform matures. Close to home, Cornwall Search and Rescue has access to a drone on some searches, something reflected by other SAR teams up and down the country. The Italian Red Cross has been quite forward in trialling the technology, whilst organisations across the world have adopted drones in one form or another. Notably, a drone was used in the past month at the scene of a major warehouse collapse, helping to locate an unscathed casualty amid the carnage, which underlines their value as a tool both indoors and outdoors. Interestingly, a network even exists that offers volunteers with drones to organisations in an emergency situation, something that is a great way of utilizing existing skillsets for limited cost, provided the operators are capable. The UAV Challenge, started long ago in 2007, used to task students and innovators to build a drone capable of finding a casualty in a short period of time, underlining how some had the foresight to see drones as a great rescue tool long before they became popular.

PATTERDALE DRONE

There are limitations of course- you can’t fly a drone in a hurricane, and they generally have quite short flight times; but the potential is surely there. Devon and Cornwall Police even have their own drone for search operations, and they can be invaluable in searching challenging terrain, with them seeing recent use on Dartmoor, for example. Personally, I believe that the drone, in one form or another, will become a standard part of the SAR team toolkit. The commercial race to offer leading SAR Drones has already begun, with companies such as Microdrones starting to offer solutions, whilst DJI has been busy donating platforms to various trial units across Europe, as part of a EENA strategy. It offers some ideal advantages which will surely increase the success rate of search operations- and that is, ultimately, the name of the game.

DRONE AERIAL SAR

A Good Week

After a few days of self-pity and demotivation, I’m back on the path forwards again! The weather is turning down here, with the sea getting ever choppier, the wind becoming more biting and the rain heavier still. It is becoming more of a struggle to slowly lumber up the hill in the morning to the bus-stop, but I shouldn’t moan- I was 10x further away from it last year!

I got to play cricket the other night at the Truro Cricket Centre with Perranarworthal CC (a great bunch), and despite not having any kit managed to get a bat thanks to a very kind friend. Imagine my horror when it turns out we have a new player, who is faster than said friend, is left-armed, and likes to bowl at my ribs! I remembered to get in line with the ball though, and didn’t get hit, which is a plus. More excitingly, I managed to launch someone into the netting high at the other end of the hall, which is very, very rare when I bat! I bowled atrociously, and even resorted to medium pace which got me a wicket, but I take comfort in the fact that even Adil Rashid went for the most expensive test debut ever, and still took 5 wickets in the 2nd innings. There is hope for us all, it seems!

Much more excitingly, I’ve been fortunate enough to secure a research internship with the University’s Drone Lab, which should see me learn a variety of highly valuable skills related to fixed-wing and multi-rotor craft. The use of UAVs for scientific study is an incredibly exciting field and I’m very lucky to have this opportunity to learn first-hand about their use. I’m not naive to the role this could play on my PhD application, and I’m keen to make the most of this opportunity

Perhaps even more excitingly, I’ve managed to secure a job with Hawkshead in Falmouth, working with a fantastic team whom supported me well during and after the Malaysia Expedition. Hawkshead are a kind-of combination between Regatta and Craghoppers (my favourite brand), so I am in very good hands indeed! I’m looking forward to starting in the next couple of weeks, and with a trip to Michigan in December, things are looking rosy once again.

Today marks the one year anniversary with my wonderful girlfriend, Catherine, which is the most wonderful gift of all. I can’t wait to see her in December, but I take comfort in the fact that, despite the 3600 mile distance between us, we remain closer than ever. It has been a long wait, and Michigan’s winter may have a fearsome reputation, but it will all be worth it in the end. I’ve never been in a serious relationship before, really, but with Catherine, everything is right. My world just seems complete. Here is to many more wonderful years together! ❤

It has been a while in coming, but my life is really starting to work. I’m heading towards my PhD application goal, I have a new source of income in a lovely environment, and I have a brilliant partner.

And at this stage of my life, I don’t think I can argue with that!

Back to the Perhentians?

With some good news today, it seems like I will be heading back to the Perhentian Islands in 2016 to carry out further research on the terrestrial environment. This is pending a few important things; securing a research permit from the Economic Planning Unit of the Malaysian Government and securing funding, for a start. I intend to team up with Neil Hinds, of Blue Temple Conservation, who will be welcoming researchers to his HQ starting next year.

There are a vast number of options for my research on the islands, and it will take a while for me to come up with a final plan- and I’ll certainly need lots of advice from university faculty! I’m looking to go down an interdisciplinary path, as my current research interests involve the impact of development on the environment.

I’d be interested in measuring the abundance of Varanidae (Monitor Lizards, of which there are two species present) in certain areas- comparing their numbers at different distances from major resorts. I suspect that at a couple of sites, particularly in a landfill area, their abundance would actually increase close to the resorts. The number of Varanidae is very high on the islands due to a lack of predators, and thus the Perhentians offer a relatively unique opportunity to study their response and adaptations to human encroachment on their territory.

Other than that, it would be amazing to be able to use an IR-Converted camera on a drone in order to create an NDVI image of the Perhentians, hopefully displaying environmental degradation around resorts and also revealing where the last pristine refuges are the species on the islands. It is in these areas that I anticipate further species that are new to science to be found.

In any case, I’m delighted to be able to put Perhentian Research back on the calendar, and to have the opportunity to continue the work I started in 2014.