As drones grow in popularity with increasing software capabilities, more businesses and governments are putting them to good use.
By Gopi Kancharla, Senior Manager, Lead Software Engineer
With their technology getting exponentially more complex day by day, drones have become among the world’s most versatile flying machines, able to carry out many more functions than are featured on nightly newscasts for the masses to see. U.S. consumers, for example, likely know about the military’s powerful Predator drones, and they probably are aware that Amazon is looking to use modestly sized drones for package delivery. But how many are aware of the massive “flying truck” that Boeing built? Known primarily for building unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for U.S. defense, Boeing has created an 18-foot-long, 750-pound, commercial “octocopter” drone that will work further behind the supply-chain scenes to ship goods out of public sight but not out of mind for drone enthusiasts who keep up with such developments.
Another marvel of the air has pivoted from its role in agriculture to help tackle today’s most pressing problem: the pandemic. The DJI Agras MG-1 drone was specifically created to provide farmers with high-quality data on the status of their crops and to care for crops through the spraying of pesticides and other treatments. Recently, however, the Agras MG-1 has been retrofitted to fight against the spread of COVID-19 by spraying disinfectants in high-risk areas throughout the world. Other drones have played a role in the pandemic by delivering essential personal-protective equipment and by inspecting or surveying the construction of temporary hospital sites.
Drones are built the world over for a myriad of uses where piloted flights prove to be too difficult or too risky. They deliver medical and humanitarian supplies in hard-to-reach locations. They help put out forest fires. They assist the commercial real estate sector in checking building envelopes. They serve the entertainment and film industries by grabbing those priceless celebrity and beauty shots. They provide emergency response; track chipped animals; help forecast weather; inspect refineries, mines and towers; assist in ocean navigation; and provide a bird’s-eye view of construction sites. They provide reconnaissance for border security. They even help us explore other planets.
No software, no use
They come in all sizes and shapes, but all drones have one feature in common. They depend on software to function properly, purposefully, or at all. That’s why makers of drone software see tremendous growth potential. According to researchandmarkets.com, the world market for drone software is expected to rise by a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 24.7 percent for the next seven years, starting at $5.7 billion in 2020. Another research firm, Stratview Research, puts that CAGR at 28.2 percent.
So where will this growth appear? Here is a look at the applications such software has the greatest potential to support.
- Keeping charged. Whether they carry an onboard solar panel for self-recharging or know when to dock at a hub for a recharge, drones will be programmed to avoid potentially fatal power failures and to take themselves in for maintenance. During this recharging time, drones also will back up their own data.
- Avoiding collisions. Drones fly fast and furiously, so the ability to constantly maintain a safe distance from obstacles or other drones at a three-dimensional, omni-directional range is imperative. For this, drones carry obstacles sensors (ultrasonic, infrared, visual, etc.) and use scanning technology to create 3D “maps” of where to fly and what to avoid. Some drones already come wrapped in “cages” to provide protection; future software will make collision avoidance proactive vs. reactive.
- Communicating and making decisions. When there are multiple drone clusters performing tasks in unison over a wide range of space, communication is essential. As in any distributed system, clusters have “leaders” to perform specific operations. Should a cluster leader fail or need to leave its respective group, decision-making software will support node-to-node and even cluster-to-cluster communication to autonomously select a replacement leader. In defense, for example, if one attacking drone must recharge, another will automatically “know” to take its place.
- Ensuring security. Future software will support multiple types of encrypted wireless communication (Bluetooth®, infrared, Wi-Fi, radio, etc.) but, most important, it will provide the resiliency to recover from any network communication failures.
- Controlling air traffic. Tomorrow’s drones will have software that helps them choose a generated GPS-coordinates path, detect obstacles in those paths, identify the right “attack” path, and create a mesh network so that failures are prevented via back-up.
- Streaming video. Simply put, the software will allow the streaming of video to be encrypted and not encodable by others.
Software is key to service
According to research firm Drone Industry Insights, the world drone market, registered at $22.5 billion in 2020, will grow to $42.8 billion in 2025, indicating a CAGR of 13.8 percent. Clearly, growth of the software segment outpaces the overall market as use cases for these machines increase beyond the imagination and extend across both public and private sectors. Thus, only when we equip drones with the full suite of software to help drive and support the growing number of uses intelligently, safely, and economically will business and industry be able to take full advantage of these flying robots and their ability to bring the most value to our society.
About the Author:
Gopi Kancharla is a full-stack software engineer with a master’s degree in software information systems. Kancharla is a continuous learner and builds software products that he hopes add value to the engineering world. For more information, please email email@example.com.