Drone Evolution Accelerates with More On-Board Intelligence

Drones have come a long way: Not only can they travel farther and faster, but they can also do a lot more, which requires an increasingly diverse set of electronic components to fly and perform their duties.

Memory, data storage, motor control, and even on-board artificial intelligence and machine learning are necessary for drones to perform functions across different use cases, including security and military, agriculture, first response and medical applications, and, of course, making deliveries. The drone services market size is expected to grow to $63.6 billion by 2025, having experienced substantial growth in recent years.

The evolution of electronic components and semiconductor technology is tightly tied to future advances in drone technology and unlocking more use cases.

Drone traffic has hit a turning point

If we’re to be historically accurate, the concept of the drone dates back as far as 1839, when Austrian soldiers attacked Venice with unmanned balloons filled with explosives.

The first examples of the modern drone today, also known as an unmanned aerial vehicle, were also military in nature when significant drone warfare began in 1982. Today’s military uses for drones include weapon strikes against targets, as well as jam communications, to seek out an enemy’s position, and even to act as a decoy to prevent the loss of pilot life.

Advances in drone development for military applications have informed the evolution and growth of commercial drones, which started seeing more widespread use in the last two decades, prompting the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) to begin requiring permits in 2006. It was a while before all that many were issued, but by 2013, Amazon announced it was piloting the idea of using drones for delivery, and by 2016, the FAA was issuing permits in the thousands.

The last five years have marked a turning point for drone technology as more companies look to build and sell them and others to deploy them for a wide range of purposes.

Drone deliveries are just the beginning

That Amazon was an early entrant in commercial use of drones for delivery should come as no surprise, but moving goods is just one of many applications for drone technology.

The introduction of Amazon Prime Air drone delivery in the summer of 2020 was preceded by China-based e-commerce company JD.com, which started using drones to reach customers in the country’s hard-to-reach regions in 2016. Approved by the FAA in 2019, UPS’s Flight Forward was the first-ever drone service operating as a commercial airline. Commercial drone delivery services can also be found in Australia and Europe. Besides being used to deliver packages to customers, drones are being used in warehouses as part of a broader autonomous robot deployment to help scan inventory, particularly hard-to-reach areas, without the guidance of lasers or markers.

A common benefit in many use cases for drones is that they can go where it’s not safe for or accessible to people, especially during emergencies and disasters. Drones are now being used for disaster-response prediction. Equipped with thermal detection, they can detect heat signatures to guide first responders to fire hotspots or be used for search and rescue by spotting people in distress, even when they are trapped under rubble after an earthquake. Drones can also be used to deliver medical supplies in remote areas or those made inaccessible due to a natural disaster such as a hurricane or flood. They can also be used as a temporary replacement for disrupted communication infrastructure.

Less dramatic uses for drones include agricultural settings to reduce the need for farmers to regularly inspect crops spread across huge tracts of land. Drones can be used for livestock monitoring to spot injured or missing animals and can create 3D maps of terrain to help better understand soil quality and identify nutrient deficiency or dead zones. Drones can even be used to plant seeds, spray crops, and monitor irrigation.

Whether it’s for agricultural or any other application, there are numerous electronic components necessary to support their functions, including memory, processors, motor controls, sensors, and networking capabilities.

Seeing and steering depend on sensors

The most essential components of any drone are sensors because they are necessary for precision flying as well as many of the capabilities required for many of today’s use cases.

A sensor for detecting barometric pressure allows a drone to stabilize its altitude and hover when necessary, such as when it is taking photos or video. For applications such as crop spraying, a differential pressure sensor provides the atmospheric data necessary for it to maintain a consistent speed and evenly distribute a pesticide. Some drone sensors are passive, collecting information present in the environment such as light reflection off of objects or noise from airborne objects, including airplane engines.

More active sensors used by drones include radar, which projects radio waves and listens to the reflection of the energy to determine the position and velocity attributes of the object that has been detected. LiDAR is light-based, projecting lasers to reflect off of surrounding objects. Drones use LiDAR for navigation, much like an autonomous car does for driving. Other sensors include actual cameras for taking aerial photos and recording high-resolution video.

No matter the type, sensors collect data that must be stored, processed, and communicated. As use cases evolve and become more complex, the electronic content of drones is becoming denser.

Drones are becoming the new autonomous vehicle

Like modern vehicles on the road, the diversity of data that a drone collects creates challenges for storage. A great deal of it is in the form of photos and videos, which not only need to be stored onboard for a period but also offloaded to be analyzed.

There needs to be an adequate amount of storage capacity on the drone, especially if it is collecting high-res video. This data storage must have security features because, essentially, the drone is a connected endpoint, which means it can be hacked while storing data or sending it. How smart the drone is also determining the amount of storage it needs. Today’s drones are now capable of processing what they are seeing and reporting in real time, rather than just sending raw data to be analyzed after the fact. A simple task drone may require only a removable SD card, but some applications could require a full-blown SSD.

The increasingly complex responsibilities of drones put pressure on memory and processing as well. Much like an internet-of-things device, the use cases of the drone dictate the memory, processor, and video-card specifications necessary. Both NAND and NOR flash are viable options for both on-board storage and processing, while lower-power DRAM will also be required for drones that do real-time AI and analysis.

Any data collected by a drone must be transferred to a central location. While some applications might be content to wait until after landing for data transfer, robust and secure connectivity is required on drones if only for accurate and safe piloting. Connecting via 5G will enable drones to autonomously navigate and support advanced analytical and AI programs by processing large amounts of data in near-real time in the field.

Similar to modern vehicles on the road, the future of the drone could transform it into a small server in the sky that can make decisions and support mission-critical services and smart cities as part of a broader edge-computing infrastructure.

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