Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Drone Technology

April 24

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is changing the way we work, and the drone industry is no exception.

Advances in AI are improving the way drones collect data, process information, navigate the environment, and manage automated missions. 

But we’re only at the tip of the iceberg. As AI becomes more prevalent in the drone industry, it will deliver insights and efficiencies that are unlike anything we’ve seen previously.

Today we will discuss how AI technology is used in the drone industry, and some of the applications we expect to see moving forward.


How Does AI Relate to Drone Technology?

AI-powered drones aren’t an invention of science fiction – they’re already in use all over the world.

Artificial intelligence is the secret behind some of the drone industry’s most popular services. Applications like agriculture, surveying, search and rescue, surveillance and logistics already make extensive use of the technology.

Currently, the software powering AI drones uses a type of artificial intelligence called a neural network. Neural networks function similarly to the human brain, allowing them to process huge amounts of data in a short space of time.

The result is drones that are able to automatically detect obstacles, optimise flight paths, track target objects, and turn raw data into powerful insights with minimal human input.

Neural networks are a highly flexible form of AI. They’re suitable for a wide variety of tasks, but the drone industry is using neural networks in three main ways:


1. Data Processing

You can think of AI data processing as a form of computer vision that drones can use to “see” and make decisions.

Data processing is the foundation for commercial drone technology, and it wouldn’t be possible without AI. Even basic drone services like mapping make extensive use of AI to cross-check positional data, correct geometric distortion and create highly accurate images of an area.

Beyond this, drone software is also capable of identifying and following targets, counting objects, identifying anomalies and compiling reports for manual verification.


2. Navigation

Commercial-grade drones can cost a small fortune, especially once they’re equipped with advanced cameras, sensors and other payloads. Luckily, most modern drone platforms include a variety of navigational aids to keep your aircraft in the sky.

Many commercial drones now feature obstacle avoidance technology. These systems are powered by AI that processes inputs from active and passive sensors such as radar, LiDAR, infrared sensors and video cameras.

These sensors collect data from the surrounding area to identify and locate the position of obstacles (like trees or buildings). The drone processes this information and can generate a new flight path that prevents collision, without the need for human input.

This technology is crucial to further development of long-range, Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) operations, and autonomous drone missions.


3. Automation

Automation is the next great frontier for drone technology.

Many industries use drones to perform routine tasks. Operations like inspecting a field of crops, counting trees in a stand, measuring stockpiles and monitoring assets all need to be done on a regular basis.

Drones are already reducing the time and money invested in these types of regular operations. But, with automation, drones can be programmed to automatically conduct flights and collect the data you need.

AI is the defining factor in drone automation. 

For drones to successfully operate on their own, they require advanced safety and anti-collision systems, and they need to be able to process data without the need for human intervention. While some of these features are already a reality, we’re expecting advances in AI to further improve drone automation in the near future.


Applications for AI-Powered Drones

AI powered drones are already a reality. But the technology is always evolving, and it has far-reaching applications in our industry. Here are just a few of the areas where we expect to see AI drones being put to use:


1. Agriculture

Agricultural drones are among the most advanced UAV platforms in the world. They’re used to map and monitor farms, plantations and livestock, as well as to plant seeds, spray liquid treatments, spread fertiliser and more.

AI will only improve the versatility of drones, allowing them to operate with less operator input and deliver more powerful insights.

For example, in a recent project by software development company RIIS, AI was used to identify and count the number of sheep in a field. Given the size of sheep and cattle stations, this type of AI can dramatically reduce the time it takes to monitor the number and health of animals.

This type of AI tool can dramatically reduce the time it takes to manage a farm and perform routine tasks, which is crucial as agricultural businesses become increasingly autonomous.


2. Logistics and Delivery

Logistics and delivery services is Australia’s fastest-growing drone sector, according to a report by Air Services Australia. In the report, ASA projects that Australian skies will see more than 60 million drone flights every year, and approximately 75% of those flights will be deliveries.

But drone delivery wouldn’t save any time or money if every flight was conducted by a human operator. Instead, drone logistics services are using AI to automate the process.

With AI, it’s possible to create a seamless link between a company receiving an order, and a drone making the delivery. In this delivery model, AI-powered drones are loaded with items, and they automatically locate and drop goods at the delivery address.

This might sound simple, but research from Amazon has shown that AI is crucial for tasks like locating the correct delivery address, identifying safe drop zones and landing zones, and protecting cargo from collisions and obstacles.


3. Surveillance and Security

Drone surveillance is becoming increasingly common, and it’s helping law enforcement to detect and prevent criminal activity.

The advantage of using drones for security tasks is that they’re able to survey large areas from a great height. This provides more data that law enforcement can use to identify unwanted behaviours, rather than relying on on-the-ground officers alone.

One example of AI in drone surveillance is this project by UK researchers. This program allows drones to identify violent behaviour in crowds. By assessing motions and postures, the program can spot violent acts such as kicking and punching, which are reported to police on the ground.


4. Disaster Management

In the same vein as AI drones for surveillance, drones are also used extensively in disaster management and search and rescue.

Drones are the ideal tool for disaster situations. They can be deployed and retrieved quickly, and they’re able to traverse disaster-affected areas that are inaccessible to ground teams. Using drones, operators can locate survivors, provide updates to first responders, and deliver supplies to disaster areas.

Adding AI into the mix will allow drones to perform these kinds of tasks with greater autonomy and accuracy. Think of a drone that can automatically detect people stranded by storms or floodwaters, without the need for operator input.

This doesn’t just reduce the workload on first responders, it means help can be delivered to people who need it in less time than ever, potentially saving lives.


5. Environmental Monitoring

Climate change is having a major impact on our world. Scientists are investing heavily in preserving the natural environment, and drones are a major part of those efforts.

Drones are currently used extensively for environmental monitoring and animal conservation. With the addition of AI, drones can automatically perform tasks like measuring changes in environments, identifying and counting animals, monitoring animal movements and more.

Projects like the NSW Wildlife Drone Hub are already training AI to identify animals in near real time. This bolsters conservation efforts and helps us build a more sustainable future for the planet.


Get Ready for AI-Powered Drones with Toll Uncrewed Systems!

AI is a staple of the drone industry. As operators and service providers, it’s our job to stay ahead of these changes and utilise drone platforms to their full potential. If you’re ready to upskill for the future of drones, it’s time to enrol with Toll Uncrewed Systems!

Toll Uncrewed Systems provides drone training and drone services throughout Australia. We’ve been at the forefront of the drone industry for over a decade, and we’re training the next generation of drone pilots to maximise their AI capabilities.

Our training packages give students the opportunity to get hands-on with industry-standard drone platforms and sensors. That helps prepare you for real world employment and take your drone career to new heights.

You can explore our drone training packages online, or contact us to discuss growing your skills as a drone pilot.

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