Drones have come a long way in their evolution. When we look back, we can clearly identify different eras in the brief history of drone technology. Let us take a quick look at what has happened so far, and where are we headed.
Till a few years ago, getting a basic drone to stabilise itself was considered challenging. I remember getting my hands on a Draganfly quadcopter in 2004, which used a wooden frame, brushed motors with gear assembly, and three individual analog gyros for active stabilisation. It did not use LiPo batteries, and the flight time was a mere 4-5 minutes. Looking at it get off the ground, with four-motors coordinating with each other maintaining stable orientation, was magical!
As part of the aeromodeling club, we used to build/fly control-line and RC planes. We used to talk about integrating electronics with our RC planes to get them to fly themselves. There were no off-the-shelf autopilots available back then. A lot of my work, as a student/researcher at IIT Bombay and later at University of Maryland, was focused on development of autopilot hardware and software. Making these drones do autonomous way-point-navigation with low cost hardware (implementing strap-down INS using small, light, low-cost but high-noise MEMS sensors) was an active area of research.
Drones 1.0: Dawn of a new era
Fast forward 10 years, and the state of technology has changed dramatically. You walk into any decent university or robotics club, and you will find a bunch of students building and flying autonomous UAVs. GPS-INS based way-point-navigation is a standard feature available on several low cost autopilots. All the hardware and software components required to assemble and build a custom drone are easily available, and a system can be put together in a matter of days, if not hours.
Rapid improvements in low-cost, small-size, high-efficiency processors, along with MEMS sensors (thanks to large scale production of smart mobile devices), LiPo batteries and inexpensive brushless motors have helped create an entirely new category of machines. Hobby drones have become a major segment, with DJI leading the race. Ready-to-fly systems are fuelling the imagination of an entire generation, who are putting drones to all kinds of use.
Several innovators and researchers have been contributing to development of this technology. Open-source community projects, such as Ardupilot and PX4 played a key role in making this technology accessible. Like-minded people across the world were able to collaborate, build, test and refine the technology that was considered top-secret and military-grade just a few years ago! The community quickly built other components, such as, telemetry systems, ground control stations, communication protocols, to form a complete platform for building autonomous drones. These platforms, in turn, enabled more researchers to jump-start their innovative projects, and sometimes, contribute back to open-source. A chain reaction has effectively been initiated.
Drones 2.0: The era of drone applications
With easy access to this technology, a number of entrepreneurs have started building their businesses around it. Announcement by Amazon on using drones for aerial delivery acted as a catalyst for the commercial drones industry. A new ecosystem is emerging to accelerate development of commercial drone applications. Starting from airframe components manufacturers, electronics and software/platform developers to system integrators and service providers, all have found their niche. Among the applications, aerial photography/surveys has become a major vertical, followed by precision agriculture and aerial delivery. This is just the beginning of Drones 2.0: the era of drone applications!
Having figured out the key technology pieces during Drones 1.0 in the form of hobby/DIY drones, the world is now turning its attention to making use of this technology for commercial applications. As Drones 2.0 unfolds, many of these applications will become mainstream and will forever change the way things are done in several industries. However, for that to happen, there will be a lot of experimentation required. There will be a huge number of startups, who will build interesting technologies. Many will fail; few will succeed. Those who succeed will establish new standards, and possibly scale quickly to become category leaders.
How do we accelerate this experimentation? How do we enable these startups build interesting commercial applications, faster and cheaper? How do we set off a chain reaction of innovation in drone applications, like what Ardupilot/PX4 did for Drones 1.0?
These are some of the questions that have been haunting us for quite some time. We realise the need for an open Drone Applications Platform, that provides the essential set of core-technologies, the framework for developers to build sophisticated commercial drone applications. What are these core-technologies and how will these help Drones 2.0? Let us talk about these in a different post. However, we are living in interesting times; and the drone applications are just taking off!