Countless heroes jumped into action in the wake of natural disasters around the world in recent weeks. Among them: drone operators.
Since Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico, drones have been deployed to help restore the electrical grid. In Mexico City, drone-captured images brought global attention to the devastation of a 7.1-magnitude earthquake. And after Hurricanes Irma and Harvey ripped through Florida and Texas, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) authorized more than 260 drone operators to assist with recovery efforts in the two states. Drones scrambled to prioritize emergency response activities, check railroad track conditions, examine oil facilities, assess cell tower and power line damage, and expedite insurance claims processing.
FAA Administrator Michael Huerta called the post-hurricane activity "a landmark in the evolution of drone usage in this country." The crises have heightened awareness of the professional uses for drones that go far beyond Hollywood cinematography and near-future pizza deliveries and demonstrated that drones have vast potential to help people and societies.
It’s that potential that inspires design engineers to work on a variety of electronic subsystems that support advanced drone innovations.
Faster responses and smarter cities
Drone use is expanding worldwide in a diverse range of applications. Drones have sprayed pesticides in Japan, monitored Australia’s shores for sharks, dropped medical supplies in Rwandan villages, inspected wind turbines in Scotland and assisted firefighters in Washington.
Engineers are developing innovative uses for drones that may one day soon include monitoring workplace health and safety, detecting and detonating land mines, scanning warehouse inventories, locating and clearing boreholes in mines, providing Wi-Fi® in unconnected areas, painting bridges, and de-icing planes.
Drones will also be key components of the smart cities of the future, where their functions will include rerouting traffic, assisting emergency responders and monitoring air quality.
Equipping drones to perform any task imaginable, however, demands crucial upgrades such as extending battery power past the typical 30 minutes and improving the ability to avoid objects. Losing power in flight can create hazards, while obstacles, including other flying objects, also present grave dangers.
Flying farther and longer
Drone manufacturers need advanced analog technologies, embedded processors and reference designs to help them overcome the toughest technical challenges.
Jasraj Dalvi – an engineer at our company who works with leading drone makers around the world – explained that, as small as they are, drones are weighed down by many parts. The subsystems on a camera-carrying drone, for example, include:
- A battery pack to supply power to each system component.
- Four or more electronic speed controllers that control thrust and direction change for each propeller independently.
- A gimbal controller to hold camera angles.
- A camera module to receive commands to capture images and video and send or store data.
- Multiple vision and sensor systems that interface with the main controller to detect collisions, assist landings and maintain stability.
- A flight controller to receive commands from the remote pilot over wireless links; interface with sensors; and control the electronic speed controllers, camera and gimbal.
“The more electronics that go onto the drone, the more power required,” Jasraj said. “The only way to support power needs is to either increase the battery size, which adds weight, or to improve the efficiency of the technology and make them smarter.” Our engineers are focused on the latter, he said.
But a drone-enabled future will take more than better technology.
Flying a drone out of a remote pilot’s visual line of sight without a waiver from the Federal Aviation Administration is prohibited in the United States, and privacy and airspace protections remain question marks. Air-traffic controls for drones remain undeveloped. In Houston, for instance, the FAA threatened significant fines against unauthorized operators whose drones interfered with Harvey recovery efforts.
Nevertheless, the drone economy is booming.
Commercial users have already registered more than 44,000 drones, and they continue to register more than 1,000 per week, according to a new report from the FAA. The agency expects the U.S. commercial fleet to exceed 420,000 by 2021. Meanwhile, drones are expected to have an enormous economic impact. Drone-powered solutions could replace tens of billions of dollars in labor and services costs in industries including infrastructure, transportation, insurance, media and entertainment, telecommunications, agriculture, security, and mining.
A drone-enabled future
Our company’s engineers are developing compact and sophisticated electronics to help drone manufacturers achieve increased efficiencies and performance. For instance:
- Our new millimeter wave (mmWave) sensor technology lets drones detect and avoid buildings, trees and power lines even in the dark, rain or fog. Super-compact sensors placed on multiple points on a drone determine the range, velocity and angles of detected objects and communicate that information instantaneously to flight controllers. “The precision and accuracy of TI mmWave provides new levels of intelligence and autonomy to drones,” said Dennis Barrett, a marketing manager for our mmWave sensor group. And a typical design is three times smaller and half the weight of other sensors, extending battery life and flight times.
- Our motor-drive engineers are also developing solutions using our technology – including microprocessors, power-management devices, wireless connectivity and wired communication interfaces – to optimize flight-controller hardware. The motor drive team recently released a breakthrough battery-management system reference design that lets drone designers add gauging, protection, balancing and charging capabilities to an existing design and lengthen flight times.
- Our solutions for electronic speed controllers will also lengthen flight times and contribute to smoother, more stable drone performance by improving propeller efficiency.
What other drone applications will our company’s new technologies enable? Engineers are only limited by human imagination, Jasraj said.
“Expanding the use cases for drones is just a matter of time,” he said. “Once we have guidelines in place, you’ll see the next use cases expanding very quickly.”
Check out these links to learn more about our drone technology: