Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), also known as drones, are expected to be a big thing. There is a broad range of commercial UAV applications because drones are being used for military reconnaissance and combat; there is also a booming toy multicopter market. A decisive factor for the quality and application possibilities of such drones is the built-in sensor technology and thus the expertise of specialists.
UAVs are an appealing growth market: Gartner, the market research company, predicts that more than 3 million drones will be delivered worldwide in 2017. Sales of UAVs are expected to increase by 34% to $6 billion and to $11.2 billion by 2020. Market researchers expect significant growth, particularly in the field of industrial inspection (oil, energy, gas, transport, infrastructure). This sector is expected to account for about 30% of the commercial drones market by 2020. On the other hand, delivery drones— though a popular daily press news topic — will stay a mere niche. By 2020, market researchers predict a market share of less than 1% for delivery drones.
Wide Range of Requirements
Sensors are key components of any drone. Only sensor systems with suitable performance give commercial drones the flight characteristics they require. The application possibilities of commercial UAVs are also determined by the sensors. Traffic monitoring or searches for missing people, police surveys, the recording of geoinformation or the inspection of buildings and technical facilities or reconnaissance flights in disaster control. Different tasks need different sensors, or rather different sensor combinations. The sensor equipment is an important distinguishing feature in professional target markets, while the stringent price pressure in the hobby drone market does not leave scope for cameras or motion sensors.
The following sensor types are used in drones:
- Light detection and ranging (LIDAR) for collision avoidance, navigation and as a 3D scanner
- Range finders for collision avoidance and navigation
- PIN diodes for motion detection
- Cameras for observation, data acquisition, collision avoidance and navigation
- RADAR for collision avoidance and navigation
- Inertial measuring units (IMU) for navigation
- Pressure gauges for navigation and data collection
- GPS for position determination
This list shows that specific skills are required here. Drone manufacturers who are not part of the defense industry can rarely offer these skills on their own. Companies wanting to dominate this growth market usually depend on partnerships with sensor manufacturers that are experienced in this industry and aeronautics. However, these partners have to offer additional skills apart from the pure sensor know-how.
Customizing capabilities are just as much in demand as manufacturing according to industrial quality standards, and the ability to constantly supply small and medium quantities at affordable costs and over a longer period of time. Even large sensor manufacturers often fall short in this regard. This is where medium-sized specialists for industrial sensors such as First Sensor can score points. The following are a few examples:
LIDAR or LADAR (Light/Laser Detection And Ranging) systems act as optical systems and determine the fields of applications of commercial drones. They measure speed, distance and partial atmospheric parameters like the radar systems in large flight systems.
Avalanche photodiode arrays (APD) are the essential components. Long-range LIDAR systems use IR-APDs. The APD supplier should be experienced in the aerospace industry because integrating these components into the systems often requires customizing.
Movement and Location
For controlling the UAVs, the inertial measuring units that detect the direction of movement and the inclination angle are needed. These sensors are crucial for the accurate steering and the stabilization of the flight position for the actual measurement tasks. It is recommended to integrate high-quality high aspect ratio microstructures (HARMS) microsystems on the PCB of the UAV control system.
First Sensor offers an interesting technology platform with capacitive inclinometers and accelerometers based on single-crystal silicon sensor elements. They achieve high temperature stability and a very good signal-to-noise ratio. Even the minor changes in position or acceleration are detected which is a precondition for the use of drones in measurement applications.
The HARMS ensure lowest cross-sensitivity. In addition, the patented Air gap Insulated Microstructures (AIM) technology minimizes parasitic capacitances by insulating the active areas by air gaps. Furthermore, the supplier should be experienced in the aviation industry and should be able to adapt the sensor measuring ranges to the requirements of the UAVs and the application.
One of the exciting topics is cameras. Here, it is necessary to distinguish between real-time imaging which allows the remote-control operator to virtually sit in the "cockpit" of the drone and the digital imaging for optical data collection and automatic navigation.
Powerful high-quality camera systems are already extensively used in the field of driver assistance systems. Suppliers to the automotive industry know how to build reliable systems and, most importantly, how to test their suitability. Developments and trends from this sector can be used to quickly attain feasible solutions by adapting proven standard sensors. Modular systems offer the flexibility to meet several requirements in user data collection, such as optics, infrared and different resolutions.
In addition, local intelligence can be used as it is common with sensors for autonomous safety systems. Evaluating the images via nearby subsystems decreases the data volume that has to be processed by the computer of the drone or sent to the controller. For instance, only the result of a pattern recognition has to be transmitted without loading the system with unnecessary picture information.
Wanted: Suitable Development Partners
Commercial drones with analysis and observation functions are a potential market where, as opposed to the hobby sector, cost is not the primary factor. Drone suppliers who want to stand apart from their competitors have to earn credits for superior functionality and reliability. The quality of the "sensory perception" of a UAV enables a safe flight and rationalizes the deployment and its costs.
Manufacturers can reduce their time-to-market by looking for sensor suppliers who can also function as development partners. Partners who are experienced in industries that demand high quality and function test standards such as aerospace and automotive industries are the ideal partners. These development partners are better suited to contribute to engineering tailored sensor systems than mere component suppliers. Furthermore, manufacturers of often highly specialized commercial UAVs require partners who have the necessary supply flexibility due to the smaller number of items.
This information has been sourced, reviewed and adapted from materials provided by First Sensor AG.
For more information on this source, please visit First Sensor AG.