The very idea of drones capable of autonomous flight sounds like something straight out of science fiction, yet it’s increasingly becoming a reality in the commercial drone industry. As commercial drones increasingly receive more awareness, so does the number of organisations looking to transform their operations with them.
An area of growth in the commercial drone industry has been in the development drones capable of inspection and mapping in dangerous and challenging environments, the objective being increased operational safety and richer insight. Yet existing solutions often feature a drone surrounded by a cage, manually flown by a pilot. While this is an effective solution, loss of signal, GPS & pilot error can all mean the loss of your new drone.
This has led to a shift in the industry towards SLAM based solutions, which combine the power of simultaneous localisation and mapping to paint a real-time 3D map to aid navigation. One company pioneering autonomous technology in drones is Australian based company Emesent.
Founded in 2018, Emesent has quickly become a world-leader in drone autonomy with their award-winning SLAM base mapping payload, Hovermap. Hovermap combines omni-directional collision avoidance, GPS-denied flight, and advanced autonomy functions to enable accurate mapping and inspection in challenging environments.
While Hovermap may not be the first or the last SLAM-based mapper, what makes it stand out from the competition is its software and versatility. Firstly, Hovermap features three software levels with increasing autonomous intensity.
Mapping Mode or AL0 (Autonomy Level) is the starting point, designed to be used when Hovermap is attached to a vehicle, back-pack, cage or used with a handle. Our industry expert James Pick recently used this very setup in a walked-survey of Bolingbroke Castle in Lincolshire, point cloud below:
Pilot Assist Mode (AL1) uses a LiDAR-based omnidirectional collision avoidance to create a vesh shield around the drone, assiting the pilot during line-of-sight flight indoors, underground or close to structures. Pilot Assist Mode also provides the pilot with position hold in GPS denied areas.
The video below shows the use of Hovermap in the Tara Mines, Europes largest zinc mine. Hovermap was mounted on a DJI Matrice 300 RTK and used the Pilot Assist Mode to provide an extra layer of safety against hidden obstacles such as cables.
Lastly, Autonomous Waypoints (AL2) enables beyond line-of-sight autonomous flight in GPS-denied environments. With AL2, Hovermap pilots can fly an entire mission, from takeoff to landing, using a tablet. Data is processed onboard in real-time to stream a 3D map back to the operator. The pilot only needs to tap on the map to set waypoints, and Hovermaps takes care of the rest, navigating to waypoints while avoiding obstacles.
AL2 includes advanced failsafes and behaviors to deal with challenging conditions such as dust, thin wires, and communications loss. These enable robust autonomous flight that has been extensively tested in underground mines, forestry, and other challenging environments.
The point cloud below was captured using Hovermap and Autonomous Waypoints (AL2). In an difficult environment like this, even a skilled pilot can struggle, so handing off all navigation to Hovermap enables the operator to focus on capturing the best possible data.