Flying high: The SMEs behind the UK drone industry

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With the drone industry likely to top $12 billion by 2021 Simon Wigmore reports on the success of Aerialtronics as it teams up with IBM.

SMEs are central to the UK and Europe commercial drone industry which has enjoyed phenomenal growth in recent years with one report suggesting world sales will top $12bn in 2021, up from $8bn last year.

This innovative technological unmanned aerial vehicle market includes a long list of commercial clients in construction, energy, telecoms and land management with many more business opportunities expected to come online soon.

One company at the forefront of this expansion is Aerialtronics, a Dutch-based enterprise which has just announced it is producing the first commercial drones featuring cognitive computing capabilities from the IBM Watson Internet of Things (IOT) Platform on IBM Cloud.

It’s another significant breakthrough for the SME which employs less than 50 people but has recently won deals to deliver unmanned aerial vehicles to the USA, Indonesia, Peru and a number of countries in Europe. The technology can provide high-quality inspection services for global organisations across multiple industries, from monitoring city traffic patterns to inspecting wind turbines, oil rigs and cell tower optimisation across the UK and the rest of the world.

Now, rather than climbing towers to inspect key areas, teams can do the work with unmanned drones from the safety of the ground and, using high definition cameras, immediately gain a 360-degree, high resolution overview of what is happening. Drones can capture these images in minutes and send them to be analysed in near real-time.

By putting Watson IoT capabilities into flight, Aerialtronics can help companies gain insight into places not otherwise easily accessible. Possible scenarios include:

Crowd safety: City police can gain a full aerial view of crowds at major events, tracking the flow of individuals and identifying any anomalies that might be a cause for concern. For example, if an unusually large group of people gathers near an emergency exit, teams can be alerted to clear these areas for easy accessibility.

Damage assessment: Emergency services and first responders can prescribe a specific flight plan for drones, which can capture images of their assigned grid. These images can be analysed to access potential damage, dangers, and to drive an emergency response.

Aviation inspection: An aircraft manufacturer can use a drone to inspect the surface of a stationary aircraft as part of its regular maintenance. The drone can be programmed to follow the same flight plan of an aircraft, taking images on the fuselage in-flight to provide an even more valuable layer of insight that teams can examine to help identify potential areas of concern and prescribe appropriate action.

Aerialtronics, with distribution centres in the UK and the rest of the world, is also taking inspections and drone autonomy to the next level by developing a smart dual camera that packs massive onboard processing power with both digital vision and thermal sensors.

Jan Wouter Kruyt, VP of Strategic Partnerships, says: “We have been developing dual cameras that allow users to switch between vision and thermal data streams for some time.

Now we have put these data streams into the NVIDIA chip and it means users can do some very smart things with it. “This is a major step forward in the level of autonomy for drone. Now you can pre-programme a drone and it will fly on a path you set for it. But if you integrate machine vision on an embedded chipset, you create something more intelligent because it can identify what is around it.

“If you drive up to a wind turbine, utility pole, mobile phone tower or a house, all do you is press a button. The Altura Zenith will go out with the camera, identify what it needs to inspect, perform a routine inspection and even design its own mission based on what it sees. It will verify it has completed its mission before returning to base.”

Picture: Andrew Griffiths, Droneflight