Drones are everywhere today, from disrupting flights at JFK to filming your neighbors’ next reality TV segment. Like us, the eagle in the video below has had enough of annoying pilots giving robots a bad name…
All kidding aside, I marvel at the creativity of some drone applications from agricultural “bot-swarms” to autonomous UAVs for water management. The most impressive are robots that save lives, freeing humans from dangerous tasks. In this post I have highlighted two promising innovations.
I. LIVE OIL RIG INSPECTIONS
Since 2009, Sky-Futures has worked with more than 30 of the biggest oil and gas companies including Apache, BG Group, BP, ConocoPhillips, Shell and Statoil and offers drone inspection services in the North Sea, the Middle East, Southeast Asia and North Africa, and has recently opened an office in Houston to serve clients in the Gulf of Mexico. Sky-Futures is one of the first companies to receive FAA regulatory approval to operate in the US. Their drones collect HD video, stills and thermal imagery data, which is analyzed and delivered to their clients for safety site inspections.
Sky-Futures also established a new Safety Overwatch Service where the UAV provides real time video and high definition recording of heavy lifting or other topside operations. This provides an additional layer of safety to various operations both onshore and offshore that was previously unavailable with clients being able to view operations through electronic goggles if they wish.
Last month, Sky-Futures announced a new Rapid Response Service, available to operators and contractors in the North Sea, will mobilize an inspection team from Aberdeen (Scotland) within 48 hours. This will enable asset managers to make rapid assessments of their installations in order to minimize risk to personnel and prevent unnecessary shutdowns in production.
Steve Moir, Sky-Futures Engineering Manager, who will lead the new Rapid Response Service, said, “with aging assets and the current drop in oil price, Sky-Futures understand that now more than ever, preventing loss of production is critical. Our UAV Inspection Service is available at short notice, and for preventative routine maintenance of assets, both safer and more cost-effective than previous techniques.”
Before Sky-Futures, oil operators had to shut down production (costing millions in lost revenue) and have human inspectors suspended hundreds of feet over the ocean physically observe the rig. The value proposition in both human and cost savings is a no brainer.
II. TUNNEL DRONES FOR FIGHTING TERROR
Last summer it was discovered that Hamas, a Palestinian terrorist organization, built a network of tunnels into Israel from the Gaza strip. This threat eventually led to a month long war. Inspecting a tunnel could be one of the most deadly jobs given to a solider, however now the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) are experimenting with a new UAV system developed at by the Jerusalem College of Technology’s Lev Academic Institute.
So a JCT team led by Shimon Mizrahi has developed a low-cost ($3,800) idiot-proof navigation system for a sensor-and camera-laden drone (below) that can be used in a wide variety of safety and security scenarios.
“Our four propeller quadcopter is designed for use by an ordinary person who is not skilled in operating advanced remote controls,” Mizrahi said. “It’s the first indoor drone, and the ideal solution for use in structures or scenarios where it would be dangerous for individuals to venture.”
That would include, said Mizrahi, a Gaza terror tunnel…
“Finding the tunnels is actually the easier part of dealing with this threat,” said Mizrahi. “The IDF and Defense Ministry have gotten thousands of proposals over the past two years that claim to be solutions to locating tunnels, based on ultrasound and other technologies, and there are advanced practical solutions being developed for this. The question is, what do you do with a tunnel once you find it? That’s the problem our solution deals with, and it is the first one that can do this.”
In tunnel discovery, as well as tunnel exploration, the problem isn’t the technology – it’s the interface, said Mizrahi.
“Sensors and cameras for drones are not the problem, but controlling the drone to make sure that the equipment does what it is supposed to is the challenge. You have to look at it from the point of the operator, who in this case is an 18- or 19-year-old kid whose previous remote control skills were in controlling a television or video game. The interface has to be easy enough for that soldier to use in the field, without destroying the expensive piece of equipment he is using.”
To do that, the JCT quadcopter contains a “self-preservation” element that enables it to avoid crashing into walls or other obstacles.
“The drone has sensors that send back data about environmental conditions inside, such as atmosphere, temperature, and other data, as well as cameras that send back photos and videos,” said Mizrahi. “The drone is of course controlled by its operator, who is outside the structure being explored. In a small, narrow space like a tunnel, the chances of crashing into a wall are very high – but our quadcopter contains a mechanism that ensures that this won’t happen. Even if the operator’s actions advance it toward an obstacle, the drone will draw back or conduct other evasive action to avoid the problem.”
The drone is responding to a sort of universal self-preservation instinct – a “prime directive” – that places its survival as its primary goal.
“Of course this is programmed into the quadcopter,” said Mizrahi. “The challenge is to ensure that it can override user error. Many companies and research bodies have been working on that problem for a long time. We are the first ones to demonstrate that it is possible.”
JCT has presented its solution to the Defense Ministry as well as other rescue bodies – such as firefighters – who could use the quadcopter to explore dangerous venues, such as burning buildings.
“Right now it’s a proof of concept, but we have gotten a lot of interest from groups – public and private – who want to help develop this further.”
There has been a lot of talk about unicorns in the venture world, quite possibly Sky-Futures or Mizrahi could be the next big thing…