Thursday, September 15, 2016

Drone Review and Reality Check: Capabilities, Flight Times, Costs, Best Brands - Interview with Michael Nash

Separating drone realities from drone hype is critical in an area that is seeing rapid development of technology, applications, and a legal framework that supports more uses of drones. Welcome to an interview with Michael Nash, Mechanical Engineering Ph.D. candidate with extensive experience in robotics (including drones).  In this interview, Nash provides a reality check as he details the capabilities of drones, their limitations, and discusses their potential.

Michael will be presenting a paper, "Drone Reality Check .. .What Drones Can't, Won't, and Flat-Out Refuse to Do" at the AAPG Workshop: New Opportunities with Drones:  New Needs,  FAA Rule Changes, New Technologies, Dec. 1-2, Houston, Texas.

1. What is your name and your relationship to drones?
My name is Michael Nash.  I am a doctoral candidate at the University of Oklahoma in Mechanical Engineering with a concentration in robotics.  I have experience in aerospace system design and control systems and have practical experience combining the two in the design and development of drones from raw materials and mathematical modeling by integration as embedded firmware performing the sensor fusion to filtering to actuation.

DJI Phantom 3
2.  What is a drone, from your point of view? How is a drone not quite what the public generally thinks it is?
The common conception places drones as somewhere in between automaton and remotely-operated vehicle.  Most of the time they are imagined to be masters of their environments that live aloft. 
The way people should define a "drone" is between a hobby RC aircraft and self-piloting aircraft following GPS waypoints.  Both capable of collecting data with lightweight sensors, but none capable of spending a significant amount of time in the air (unless specially built by an aerospace/mechanical engineer).

3.  In your opinion, what are some of the most realistic claims that are being made about what drones will do for you?
Drones can provide non-flying humans with an "eye in the sky".

4.  What are some of the most outlandish?
Delivery drones come to mind.

5.  Please list and very briefly describe the types of challenges facing drone pilots?
Pilots of drones are pilots; piloting takes skill that takes time to develop.  The lay-man cannot pick up drone controls for the first time and fly a drone effectively.  Hundreds of hours of practice on a particular platform (be it rotorcraft or fixed wing) stand between the first-time enthusiast and competency.  Ironically, pilots needn't be college educated but can often be found at the local middle or high school.

If the entity wishing to deploy the drone does not wish to employ an experienced pilot, they should plan for repairs.  For rotary-wing aircraft such as helicopters and (tri, quad, hex, octo)x-copters, and propeller-driven fixed-wing aircraft, nearly all crashes will break propellers.  Fixed-wing aircraft will frequently lose wings or receive damage to control surfaces; x-copters will break motor shafts, motors, and arms.  The electronics are fairly robust, but very often get pulled.  The most severe crashes will damage the on-board battery resulting in fiery explosion.

Hobby drones purchased for less than $100 made solely for flying in a gymnasium or low-wind field will be more resistant to damage and can possibly crash 100 times needing only propeller replacements, but they will not be capable of carrying special sensor systems (max payload likely less than 1kg).  Drones capable of a significant payload (yet still less than 5kg) will be less user crash-friendly and can be $1500 up. An example is the newest of the DJI Phantom series, the Phantom 4, with a fly time of 30 minutes.

No multirotor aircraft will fly for an hour (see the information at bottom).

No radio controlled aircraft will be controllable outside a couple hundred meters; if the controller signal is not attenuated, you won't be able to see it.  Professionals may argue this, but professionals don't need to use their drones to collect scientific data.

6.  Please list and very briefly describe the challenges facing the people programming the drone?  (please explain how a drone is or is not a robot)
If one is personally programming the drone's logic, then the skill can be shaved with programmed responses such as low-altitude altitude hold using distance sensors (such as infrared or ultrasonic rangefinders to continually monitor how far the ground is), interpreting pitch and roll relative to global positioning using GPS, or even converting the controller to an input to select waypoints defined as global coordinates to which the drone could travel.  None of these include interaction with sensory equipment, though for the most part it could be effective in a fixed position.

7.  What are some of the challenges involved in working with drone-derived data?

Drone derived data has its own unique set of challenges. 
The most significant is noise.  If your sensors are analog signals being measured by on-board computer, you will be struggling to shield the sensor lines from electromagnetic interference from the motors.

Parrot BeBop Drone

The high current pulses can also wreak havoc on magnetometers. 
Propellers or motors that are slightly off-balance will cause vibrations in the entire craft that can reduce image resolution on cameras at best, and rattle loose hardware at worst. 

Review of drones (quadcopters) with flight times and prices

A google search for "high flight time quadcopter", result #1 (for me):

Quadcopter Price (USD) with Flight time (min)

Holy Stone HS170
$40-$50 6-8 minutes

MJX X101C $140 8-10
Parrot AR Drone 2.0
$270 Up to 20 minutes

Traxxas 7908 Aton
$400 14 minutes

DJI Phantom 3 Std
$500 20 minutes

Chroma Camera Drone CGO2+
$600 30 minutes

Yuneec Q500+ Typhoon
$1400 20-25 minutes

3DR Solo Drone
$800 20-22 minutes

DJI Phantom 4 Pro
$1400  30 minutes

DJI Phantom 3 Pro.
$800 25 minutes

DJI Inspire 1 T600
$2000 25 minutes

From the next link, "5 Longest Flight Time Drones to Buy in 2016!" (

Quadcopter name with Flight time (in minutes)

DJI Phantom Aerial UAV Drone
15 minutes

Parrot Bebop Drone
18 minutes

DJI Phantom 3 Advanced
23 minutes

Yuneec Q500 Typhoon Quadcopter
25 minutes

Chroma Flight-Ready Drone
30 minutes

Would you like to learn more?  Working with Drone Data 101 Course | 30 November 2016.  This course is a primer on processing UAS acquired data, and leveraging it in common business platforms such as ArcGIS, Google Earth, SketchFAB and others. In this course the participants will learn about the types of data that can be acquired by drones, how to render that data into 3D models, and more…Register today.

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