Autonomous drone flight is a pretty exciting prospect for all kinds of reasons, from its potential to change how we transport important items to how we transport ourselves. But the technology invariably requires human intervention in one way or another as drones can't carry on forever on their own. Or can they? An Israeli startup has developed an end-to-end autonomous system for 24/7 drone flight that uses a robotic arm to swap out flat batteries and get the aircraft back in the air.
Drones are already making big waves in industries like agriculture, wildlife protection and emergency services. And while some models can fly for longer than others, they all need to come down to recharge or refuel at some point. Designed for monitoring and surveying tasks at big facilities in industries like mining, oil and gas, the Airobotics system is designed to erase this little inconvenience from the autonomous drone equation.
The drone itself, dubbed Optimus, is a customizable quadcopter capable of 30-minute flights and carrying 1-kg (2.2-lb) payloads. The company tells us the available attachments will include a 4K camera for mapping and surveying, an RGB and infrared camera for security or inspections, LIDAR, hyperspectral and multispectral imagers and a gas-sensing video camera. Alternatively, developers can tap into the open ecosystem to build their own.
"Thanks to the system's dynamic, swappable payload mechanism design, partners can create new payloads that integrate new sensors and other tools to the drone," Airobotics CEO Ran Krauss tells us. "The Airobotics' software is both a complete operating system and an open platform, designed with scale in mind. Third parties can build and customize the payloads, along with software apps to support and manage various new missions."
But the centerpiece of the Airobotics system is the Airbase, a station that serves as a launchpad, landing pad and refueling station. Once the drone completes a mission, a robotic arm reaches inside the drone to remove the battery module and slot in a fresh one. And just in case there is a change in mission objective in between flights, the mechanism is capable of changing over payloads as well.
The company says its purpose-built software allows for both mission planning, with repeatable, preprogrammed flight scheduling, and the processing of data gathered through its payloads. All of this results in what Airobotics says is the ability to execute a "nearly infinite number of missions," without the need for a drone pilot or operator.
We have seen a few different takes on this same problem, all aimed at minimizing the human role in autonomous drone flight. The SkySense device we covered back in 2014 was essentially a landing pad that doubled as a wireless charging station, but given the time it takes to recharge a drone (let alone without wires), it couldn't really lay claim to providing continuous flight. The Dronebox from earlier this year offers a little more shelter for long term drone deployment, but it too lacked the ability to get the drone back into action without delay.
Airobotics has just secured US$28.5 million in funding and has already put the technology through its paces at local firm Israel Chemicals, which conducted beta trials of the system and has now signed on as a launch customer. The system is available now and Airobotics tells us that because it is customizable, price will vary depending on the payloads and software that each customer needs.
The system is demonstrated in the video below.