It’s no secret the commercial drone industry is soaring. With use cases spread across a diversity of sectors such as cinematography, construction, demolition, photogrammetry and solar, the commercial drone industry is predicted to be worth $100 billion dollars within the next year. Some experts say the sector will contribute around $82 billion dollars to the U.S. economy by 2025, creating more than 100,000 jobs.
It should then, come as no surprise that, as the drone sector grow, so do specialized, offshoot concepts such as unmanned traffic systems, drone insurance and aerial sensors. However, the new kid on the block of UAS innovation is the “drone in a box.”
The DIB paradigm is as simple as it sounds – a self-contained platform that can automatically launch several drones on almost continuous mission profiles and provide a constant trickle of charging power, often autonomously or semi-autonomously. The idea? Push a button and the drone in a box does the rest.
In addition to providing an efficient solution for constant drone flights, DIB virtually removes the need for human operators – saving time and payroll. Clients of DIB firms can have peace of mind, knowing the system is a “one-stop shop,” covering aviation regulations, insurance and liability. Several DIB platforms also interface with data-analysis software to seamless integrate flight telemetry.
Use Cases and Major Players
While use cases span the spectrum of applications such as inspection and surveying, most DIB mission profiles focus on drone security. “Aerial watchdogs” can patrol sensitive facilities or critical infrastructure such as nuclear power plants, military outposts, ports and government complexes on an automated schedule. DIB missions use cases also conduct autonomous inspection sorties for farms, mines and constructions sites. With the rapid emergence of the concept, it’s no surprise that a number of DIB startups have popped up like … well … like a jack-in-the-box. Meet a few players…
Israeli drone provider Airobotics has emerged as one of the top DIB firms, snaring more than $71 million in VC funding and deploying more than 30,000 automated drone flights.
Airobotics develops automated, autonomous DIB platforms to streamline workflows. Drones can survey up to a 3-mile radius in short missions under 45 minutes.
In 2018, the company partnered with one of Israel’s largest construction company, Shapir-Ashtrom, to provide DIB-fueled survey missions for a new seaport in Haifa. Gulf Port is a $1 billion port project “intended to further develop Israel’s coastline areas and increase maritime traffic and international commerce,” the company noted in a statement. Airobotics DIB platforms survey reclamation areas and monitors breakwater construction measurements across the 810-acre complex.
Airobotics also works with Chilean mining firm RockBlast, deploying fully autonomous DIB systems across several mines in South America. The drones patrol the mines, gathering data to improve stockpile volume counts, terrain mapping and security/surveillance.
Billed as “the world’s first autonomous drone-in-a-box system,” Israeli DIB firm Percepto specializes in autonomous security for maritime ports and terminals among other use cases.
In 2018, Percepto partnered with port automation provider CERTUS Port Automation to install DIBs in ports such as Rotterdam to enhance security.
Percepto’s Sparrow drone model is specifically designed for industrial environments. The quadcopter utilizes multiple advanced technologies, such as machine vision and AI, to conduct security, safety and inspection missions and collect/analyze data in real-time. The drone line offers standard and thermal visual power and can fly missions around the clock with individual flights clocking in at 40 minutes per mission.
“While drones are touted as the technology of the future, the ability to act autonomously unlocks their true potential, enabling them to act as a responsible, independent and smart ‘team member’ that provides not only a bird’s-eye view of facilities, but real, actionable insights,” Percepto CEO Dor Abuhasira said in a company statement.
One of Europe’s largest drone maker, Parrot, is soaring into the DIB sphere by partnering with French DIB startup Hoverseen to mount enterprise-level ANAFI drones inside the Hoverseen platform. An automated surveillance solution, the DIB is capable of dispatching drones and charging them from a lightweight docking and recharging station. In a July announcement, a Parrot spokesperson noted:
“[Hoverseen’s platform] is capable of easily integrating into any business’s existing security system and networks. Any professional system requiring livestream video or thermal metadata can take advantage of Hoverseen’s solution. Moreover, pictures and recorded 4K video footage from the drone can automatically download for later offline analysis into the organization’s database upon landing in the docking station as the drone simultaneously recharges.”
During surveillance missions, ANAFI drones fulfill pre-programmed flight plans without the need for human operators. Parrot drones are dispatched autonomously if an alarm signal activates and can also fly a regular “patrol.”
UK-based HeroTech8 manufactures a next-generation DIB system compatible with popular drone models – DJI, Parrot and Yuneec. Most HeroTech8 DIB missions provide security for maritime ports, energy plants or sensitive public facilities.
The startup’s DIB deploys one or more drones from a launchpad for security-facing missions. When complete, drones can land and recharge without human intervention. An automated recharging system keeps the drones on constant duty while system-monitoring tools monitor and evaluate the drones’ “health.” The DIB is also equipped with a proprietary guidance system, allowing an operator to recover drones in case problems arise.
Chinese DIB firm Heisha launched the Heisha D.Nest platform in August. Designed to work with commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) drones, the D.Nest focuses on automated charging stations (so, it’s more of a hybrid DIB solution).
Heisha D.Nest is based on a Heisha C500 charging pad and includes charging landing gear, tailored Mavic 2 /2 Pro battery, canopy, embedded AI-computer, local server, CS internet server and T3 HDMI camera monitoring.
During the mission, the DIBs canopy opens and closes to keep the drone protected during charging. Since it’s drone-model agnostic, the D.Nest is less expensive then drone-specific DIBs. The lightweight landing gear is designed specifically to easily fit the charging station. To keep an eye on the platform, users can watch the D.Nest via Heisha’s app as well as view video from the drone during missions.
Because the DIB concept is still in its infancy, it’s difficult to predict how high these autonomous systems will fly without being tossed around by the angry clouds of government regulation or public suspicion. The idea of security drones flitting around a nuclear power plant or sensitive defense installation may take an adjustment period – but then again – that’s been true for the entire UAS industry over the last decade.
Many officials, however, are optimistic. Writing for defense magazine SIGNAL, U.S. Army Maj. Ryan Kenny says drone-in-a-box has the potential to change the game for both military and commercial operations:
“Advances in unmanned systems themselves offer hope. Developments in autonomy, ease of use and coordinated actions bring new capabilities while lowering the bar for operation. Commercial drone-in-a-box systems illustrate where these trends are headed … [T]hese same systems no longer need experienced operators. The devices can execute preprogrammed routes, automatically adjust flight patterns based on changing environmental conditions, and execute a number of sophisticated tasks. From building rope bridges to staging dazzling light shows, the drones are nowhere near their ceiling for potential applications.”
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