A dozen individuals from 10 states and numerous industries – what could they possibly all have in common?
On October 13 and 14, at a rural farm site near Billings, Montana, this group of professionals came together to participate in an event focused on one popular topic: Drones.
Led by the team from RDO Integrated Controls, 12 seasoned drone experts, across numerous industries, gathered to be part of a unique event and pioneering experiment in the drone world. An event and experiment devised from simple conversations between Sean Erickson, Technology Support Specialist with RDO Integrated Controls, and a few of his customers, drone leaders in their respective fields.
Setting the Scene
A division of RDO Equipment Co., RDO Integrated Controls provides solutions through GPS, lasers, GIS, survey, machine control, and UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) technology. The company sells and supports senseFly, a leading UAV manufacturer, and its eBee and albris drones.
With the level of expertise and leadership it provides to professionals interested in UAV technology, RDO Integrated Controls makes it a mission to have a knowledgeable team dedicated to this area, as well as resources customers need to successfully implement drones in their businesses.
Erickson had received a request from a customer to create a “how-to” type document based on drone applications. After thinking about it and discussing the concept with a few veteran drone customers, Erickson had a spin-off idea.
“Instead of creating a document with info, tips, and best practices, I started thinking, what if we held an event that would bring together drone experts across different industries to talk about applications, discuss ideas, and share knowledge,” he said.
Erickson began pitching the idea to experienced drone customers, particularly those with hundreds of flights under their belts. As interest grew and discussions continued, ideas started snowballing. One idea, in particular, became the basis on which the entire drone event would be based.
eBee to the 10th
“I knew there were cases of companies putting multiple drones in the air at one time,” Erickson said. “But I hadn’t seen a fully-coordinated drone mapping mission with multiple aircraft.”
Theoretically, Erickson was certain a planned multi-drone mission would work. And he felt the event would be an opportunity to put his theory to the test.
“At first, we thought about trying to fly two drones simultaneously,” Erickson said. Some customers were already doing this regularly so he then thought about going for five. Then, Erickson said, the thought was, “If we can do five, why not go for 10?”
Furthermore, 10 was an easy number to show scale and thus, 10 eBees flying simultaneously became the final goal for the event.
An event that had shaped up as an opportunity to prove Erickson’s original theory.
An event that had several drone professionals eager to take part in this first-time experiment.
An event, which became known as the eBee to the 10th, that was about to come to life.
Bringing It All Together
Day one of the eBee10 was focused on discussions about all-things in UAV industry including field gear, Part 107 testing, and data processing. Every attendee brought a unique topic to present, a format Erickson devised as a way to steer clear of lecture-style learning and instead encourage discussions and sharing of knowledge between attendees.
It was on the morning of day two that the experimental mission was scheduled. But before the group could head out into the field and test Erickson’s theory, the flight plan had to be finalized.
“Late on Thursday night I, my colleague, Dennis Louton, and two of our attendees, Dennis Ryan of Vertical Sciences, Inc., and Jordan Kessel of Baranko Brothers, Inc., created the flight plan,” Erickson said. They continued work into the early morning hours, testing the plan in the simulator and tweaking it until they had the final, working flight plan.
The following morning, Erickson and Ryan presented the plan to the team, at which time Erickson said he gave all attendees the chance to withdraw from the experiment.
“I knew what we were doing was unprecedented,” he said. “If, after seeing the plan and simulation, anyone felt it was too risky, I wanted them to have the opportunity to bow out.” Instead, the group was more excited than ever, and at 9 a.m. they headed to the site.
The test site was a private farmstead with 125 acres of mapped flight area. Erickson arranged permission to use the site while Dennis Ryan, as air boss, filed the Notice to Airmen (NOTAM) as well as notified the local air tower of all details related to the test, including closing out the NOTAM when the mission was complete.
The launching and landing was done in two groups of five drones. After the first group launched, the second was launched a few seconds later, and all 10 were in the air simultaneously performing a single mapping mission, and controlled by a unified Ground Control Station. Five pilots were responsible for launching, landing, and observation, while five controlled the flight plan via onsite computers. Erickson was onsite safety office and Louton served as logistics officer, providing equipment and technology support. Radio communications kept the pilots in touch with each other and the local air tower.
The result? The eBee drones flew the flight plan, which covered 125 acres in seven minutes.
“It was quick and effective,” Erickson said of the experiment. “We showed that 10 drones could execute a flight plan simultaneously.”
While Erickson’s experiment proved what he originally set out to do, it also demonstrated another important concept: scalability. He explained, “To see 10 drones cover 125 acres in just seven minutes, shows that it’s possible to cover 1,000 acres in one hour. That’s huge.”
Generally speaking, a single UAV can map about 100 acres per hour. Substantial, for example, when comparing the time spent for a crop scout to walk fields or a crew to survey a jobsite. But to show the significance of the scalable opportunity provided by multiple drones, Erickson used an example of an emergency response scenario.
Hurricane Katrina was the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history. Imagine a disaster of such magnitude today. It would require a full-scale emergency response plan, which could include UAV technology; for example, searching for survivors using heat-mapping capabilities of drones.
See below to see the scalability opportunity with drones in this scenario:
640: Acres in a Square Mile
170: Square Miles (Land) of the city of New Orleans
108,800: Acres in the city of New Orleans
1,088: Approx. hours it would take one UAV to map the city
45: Approx. days it would take one UAV to map the city (assuming 24-hour days)
108: Approx. days it would take one UAV to map the city (assuming realistic 10-hour days; daylight)
108: Approx. hours it would take 10 UAVs to map the city
4.5: Approx. days it would take 10 UAVs to map the city (assuming 24-hour days)
10: Approx. days it would take 10 UAVs to map the city (assuming realistic 10-hour days; daylight)
It’s easy to see the potential impact of a multi-drone flight in this type of scenario.
And certainly this shows possibilities for companies of all sizes to grow with the ability to get more done, faster, using multiple drones. But, Erickson also took into consideration the hidden value in these results. How could this info apply to construction, roadbuilding, or engineering companies not necessarily looking to grow or interested in trying to operate multiple drones?
One example he noted was in partnerships between companies saying, “A construction company, an engineering firm, and a surveyor could team up for a project that they, individually, may not have been able to do.” This co-op model he describes would enable small companies to win projects against larger, full-service companies, potentially opening the doors to new clients and diversification of services.
While the event has ended, Erickson says his and his colleagues’ work is far from over. As he has begun analyzing the flight data from the eBee10, he has already found some areas that could be improved – likely, in the eBee10: Version 2.
“Yes, we definitely plan to hold another event like this,” an enthusiastic Erickson said.
Until that date, Erickson has stayed in touch with all engaged customers via a MeetUp website. Both eBee10attendees and customers who were interested but unable to make it to the event have access to the site, designed with Erickson’s original goal in mind – to bring together drone experts to talk about applications, discuss ideas, and share knowledge.
To say UAV technology is affecting the world is an understatement. Across numerous industries, drones are making work safer, faster, and more accurate than ever imaginable. As knowledge continues to grow, so too will the possibilities – and opportunities.