As the number of drones proliferates in cities and towns across America, government agencies are scrambling to find ways to manage the oncoming traffic that’s expected to clog up their airspace.
Companies like Airmap and KittyHawk have raised tens of millions to develop technologies that can help cities manage congestion in the friendly skies, and now they have a new competitor in the Detroit-based startup, Airspace Link, which just raised $4 million from a swarm of investors to bring its services to the broader market.
The financing for Airspace Link follows the company’s reception of a stamp of approval from the Federal Aviation Administration for low-altitude authorization and notification capabilities, according to chief executive Michael Healander.
According to Healander, what distinguishes Airspace Link from the other competitors in the market is its integration with mapping tools used by municipal governments to provide information on ground-based risk.
“We’re creating the roads based on ground-based risk and we push that out into the drone community to let them know where it’s okay to fly,” says Healander.
That knowledge of terrestrial critical assets in cities and towns comes from deep integrations between Airspace Link and the mapping company ESRI, which has long provided federal, state and local governments with mapping capabilities and services.
“We’ve just spent the past month understanding what regulation is going to be around to support it. In two years from now every drone will be live tracked in our platform,” says Healnder. “Today we’re just authorizing flight plans.”
As drone operators increase in number, the autonomous vehicles pose more potential risks to civilian populations in the wrong hands.
Parking lots, sporting events, concerts — really any public area — could be targets for potential attacks using drones.
“Drones are becoming more and more powerful and smarter,” EU Security Commissioner Julian King warned in a statement last summer, “which makes them more and more attractive for legitimate use, but also for hostile acts.”
Already roughly half of the population of the U.S. lives in controlled airspace where drones flying with more than a half a pound of weight require flight plan authorization, according to Healander.
“We build out population data and give state and local governments a tool to create advisories for emergency events or any areas where high densities of people will be,” says Healander. “That creates an advisory that goes through our platform to the drone industry.”
Airspace Link closed a $1 million pre-seed round in September 2019 with a $6 million post-money valuation. The current valuation of the company is undisclosed, but the company’s progress was enough to draw the attention of investors led by Indicator Ventures with participation from 2048 Ventures, Ludlow Ventures, Matchstick Ventures, Detroit Venture Partners and Invest Detroit.
For Healander, Airspace Link is only the latest entrepreneurial venture. He previously founded GeoMetri, an indoor GPS tracking company, which was acquired by Acuity Brands.
I’ve been a partner of ESRI my entire life,” says Healander. “I’ve been in the geospatial industry for four or five companies with them.”
The company has four main components of its service. There’s AirRegistry, where people can opt-in or out of receiving drone deliveries; AirInspect, which is a service that handles city and state permitting for drone operators; AirNetm, which works with the FAA to create approved air routes for drones; and AirLink, an API that connects drone operators with local governments and collects fees for registering drones.
The Federal Aviation Administration this week issued proposed rules for the remote identification of drones in the U.S. The “next exciting step in safe drone integration” (their words) aims to offer a kind of license plate analog to identify the some 1.5 million drones currently registered with the governmental body.
The document is currently available online through the Federal Register in a kind of draft form, as part of a 60-day comment period. The FAA is using the two months to solicit feedback from drone operators, enthusiasts and general aviation safety wonks.
“Drones are the fastest growing segment of transportation in our nation and it is vitally important that they are safely integrated into the national airspace,” Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao said in a statement.
The rules are clearly an attempt to not only address ongoing safety concerns in high-risk areas like airports and stadiums, but also to get out in front of ever-crowding skies. Between hobbyists and commercial interests like UPS and Amazon, it’s not difficult to imagine even more issues, going forward.
Per the draft:
This is an important building block in the unmanned traffic management ecosystem. For example, the ability to identify and locate UAS operating in the airspace of the United States provides additional situational awareness to manned and unmanned aircraft. This will become even more important as the number of UAS operations in all classes of airspace increases. In addition, the ability to identify and locate UAS provides critical information to law enforcement and other officials charged with ensuring public safety.
DJI says it’s “currently reviewing” the proposal, though the drone giant notes that it implemented its own AeroScope remote ID technology some two years ago, in order to address pilots flying too close to problem areas.
“DJI has long advocated for a Remote Identification system that would provide safety, security and accountability for authorities,” VP Brendan Schulman said in a release. “As we review the FAA’s proposal, we will be guided by the principle, recognized by the FAA’s own Aviation Rulemaking Committee in 2017, that Remote Identification will not be successful if the burdens and costs to drone operators are not minimized.”
Modern agriculture involves fields of mind-boggling size, and spraying them efficiently is a serious operational challenge. Pyka is taking on the largely human-powered spray business with an autonomous winged craft and, crucially, regulatory approval.
Just as we’ve seen with DroneSeed, this type of flying is risky for pilots, who must fly very close to the ground and other obstacles, yet also highly susceptible to automation; That’s because it involves lots of repetitive flight patterns that must be executed perfectly, over and over.
Pyka’s approach is unlike that of many in the drone industry, which has tended to use multirotor craft for their maneuverability and easy take-off and landing. But those drones can’t carry the weight and volume of pesticides and other chemicals that (unfortunately) need to be deployed at large scales.
The craft Pyka has built is more traditional, resembling a traditional one-seater crop dusting plane but lacking the cockpit. It’s driven by a trio of propellers, and most of the interior is given over to payload (it can carry about 450 pounds) and batteries. Of course, there is also a sensing suite and onboard computer to handle the immediate demands of automated flight.
Pyka can take off or land on a 150-foot stretch of flat land, so you don’t have to worry about setting up a runway and wasting energy getting to the target area. Of course, it’ll eventually need to swap out batteries, which is part of the ground crew’s responsibilities. They’ll also be designing the overall course for the craft, though the actual flight path and moment-to-moment decisions are handled by the flight computer.
Example of a flight path accounting for obstacles without human input
All this means the plane, apparently called the Egret, can spray about a hundred acres per hour, about the same as a helicopter. But the autonomous craft provides improved precision (it flies lower) and safety (no human pulling difficult maneuvers every minute or two).
Perhaps more importantly, the feds don’t mind it. Pyka claims to be the only company in the world with a commercially approved large autonomous electric aircraft. Small ones like drones have been approved left and right, but the Egret is approaching the size of a traditional “small aircraft,” like a Piper Cub.
Of course, that’s just the craft — other regulatory hurdles hinder wide deployment, like communicating with air traffic management and other craft; certification of the craft in other ways; a more robust long-range sense and avoid system and so on. But Pyka’s Egret has already flown thousands of miles at test farms that pay for the privilege. (Pyka declined to comment on its business model, customers or revenues.)
The company’s founding team — Michael Norcia, Chuma Ogunwole, Kyle Moore and Nathan White — comes from a variety of well-known companies working in adjacent spaces: Cora, Kittyhawk, Joby Aviation, Google X, Waymo and Morgan Stanley (that’s the COO).
The $11 million seed round was led by Prime Movers Lab, with participation from Y Combinator, Greycroft, Data Collective and Bold Capital Partners.
Aerial imagery is a common asset in military matters, but 3D maps can be difficult to collect on short notice without specialized equipment. This new photogrammetry technique from the Army Corps of Engineers, however, can make accurate 3D maps from ordinary aerial footage in just minutes.
Photogrammetry is the process of comparing multiple photos of the same location or item to produce a 3D map of it. It’s a well-known method but in some cases is still reliable on human intelligence to determine, for instance, which frames of a video should be used to produce the best results.
Ricky Massaro from the Army’s Geospatial Research Laboratory in Virginia has mitigated that problem and produced a highly efficient photogrammetric method that can turn aerial imagery into accurate 3D surface maps in near real-time without any human oversight.
This image shows the depth map as color – red being higher. It was created from combining multiple 2D images.
The system was tested by the 101st Airborne, which flew a drone over Fort Campbell in Kentucky and mapped a mock city used for training exercises. It was also deployed in Iraq for non-combat purposes. So this isn’t stuck in a lab somewhere — it’s been put to work, and is now being publicized because the patent filing is in and the Army is now negotiating to commercialize the system.
“Whether it’s for soldiers or farmers, this tech delivers usable terrain and intelligence products fast,” said Quinton King, a manager at TechLink, the Defense Department’s commercial tech transfer organization. “And I’m happy to help companies learn how they can leverage Dr. Massaro’s work for their own products or applications.”
The real-time photogrammetry wouldn’t replace lidar or ground-based mapping systems, but act in concert with them. Being able to produce accurate depth from ordinary aerial imagery, and without having to send tons of data to a central location or involve human experts, makes it adaptable to a variety of situations. If you’re curious about the specifics, you can check out the patent application here.
UPS is rolling along with its drone delivery program, working with partner CVS Pharmacy to deliver prescription drugs to customer doorsteps via its newly deployed commercial drones. UPS delivered medications to two paying customers on November 1 using the M2 drone system that the logistics company developed in partnership with Matternet.
UPS received approval last month from the FAA to fly its fleet of commercial drones in service of customers, and now it plans to iterate its drone delivery program “in the coming months,” with the aim of ensuring that it can deploy UAVs in a commercial capacity at increasing scale. It also launched “UPS Flight Forward,” a dedicated division focused on autonomous drone delivery.
For these early deliveries, drones were loaded with prescriptions filled by pharmacists at a CVS location in Cary, NC. Once a UPS employee loaded the cargo onto the drones, they flew autonomously from the store location to nearby customer homes, dropping off the packages from a hover height of around 20 feet above these locations. One of the customers has mobility challenges that would make travel to a CVS store for prescription pickup difficult, UPS points out.
This isn’t the first time UPS has deployed drones in a healthcare industry setting: The company has been working with Mattternet and WakeMed Hospital in Raleigh, doing commercial deliveries of medical samples in a B2B setting.
A UK drone registration scheme has opened ahead of the deadline for owners to register their devices coming into force at the end of this month.
The UK government announced its intention to introduce a drone registration scheme two years ago.
The rules apply to drones or model aircraft weighting between 250g and 20kg.
Owners of drones wanting to fly the device themselves must also take and pass a theory test to gain a flyer ID by November 30. Anyone who wishes to fly a drone owned by someone else must also first obtain a flyer ID by passing the theory test.
UK ministers have come in for serious criticism for lagging on drone regulations in recent years after a spate of drone sightings at the country’s busiest airport grounded flights last December, disrupting thousands of travellers. In January flights were also briefly halted at Heathrow airport after another unidentified drone sighting.
This fall the police investigation into the Gatwick drone shutdown found that at least two drones had been involved. In September police also said they had been unable to identify any suspects — ruling out 96 people of interest.
Following the Gatwick disruption the government tightened existing laws around drone flights near airports — extending a no-fly zone from 1km to 5km. But a full drone bill, originally slated for introduction this year, has yet to take off.
As well as introducing a legal requirement for drone owners to register their craft via the Civil Aviation Authority’s website by November 30, the new stop-gap rules require organizations that use drones to register for an operator ID too, also at a cost of £9 per year.
All drones must also be labeled with the operator ID. This must be clearly visible on the main body of the craft, and easy to read when it’s on the ground, written in block capital letters taller than 3mm high.
The registered person who obtains the operator ID must be aged 18 or older and is accountable for managing drones to ensure only individuals with a flyer ID fly them.
Individuals must be aged 13 or older to obtain a flyer ID.
The online test for obtaining the flyer ID involves answering 20 multiple choice questions. The pass mark for the test is set at 16. There’s no limit on how many times the test can be taken.
The Civil Aviation Authority says everything needed to pass the test can be found in The Drone and Model Aircraft Code. There’s no charge for taking the test or obtaining the flyer ID.
The $399 Mavic Mini lives in a sweet spot of core features and a low price. It packs everything critical to be a quality drone. It has a good camera, good range, and a good controller. It holds up well in the wind and is quick enough to be fun. And it’s so small that you’re more likely to throw it in your bag and take it on Instagram adventures.
The small size is the Mavic Mini’s main selling point. It weighs 249 grams, and that odd number isn’t an accident. Drones that weight 250 grams and above have to be registered to fly. And yet, even though the Mavic Mini is lightweight and foldable, it’s packed with core features: 30 minute flight time, 4 km HD video transmission, 3-axis gimbal holding a 2.7K camera, and a physical controller that works with Android and iOS devices. At $399, it’s a lot of drone for the money even though it’s missing features found in DJI’s other drones.
There are more expensive drones packed with a lot of features. I own most of those drones. They’re fun, but several years ago, feature creep started sneaking into DJI’s products. Now, with a convoluted product line, a spreadsheet is needed to deceiver DJI’s drones. Most come loaded with countless features owners will likely never use. The Mavic Mini is something different. It’s basic, and I dig it.
Here’s what’s missing: collision detection, ultra-long-range connection, 4k camera, gesture control, and advanced camera features like trackable follow, panoramic, timelapse, and optical zoom.
The Mavic Mini is quick enough to be fun, but it won’t win any races. It’s responsive and fast enough. Light and easy. Compared to a Mavic 2, it feels smaller and less powerful — because it is — and yet it never feels too small or underpowered. The Mavic Mini is well balanced, and owners should find it enjoyable to fly.
Despite its tiny size, the Mavic Mini holds up well in high wind. I took it up to 200m on a windy fall day in the Midwest. The wind was clearing leaves off the trees, and I was bundled up in hat and gloves. It was gusty. The Mavic Mini didn’t care. It took off like a drone much larger and stood tall against the wind. What’s more, the video didn’t suffer. The gimbal held the camera steady as it recorded the autumn landscape.
The drone uses DJI’s new app, and I’m using a beta version to test the drone. Called DJI Fly, it’s a streamlined version of DJI Go and packs several enhancements. Safe fly zones are better integrated into the app and have an additional level of detail over the older app. DJI also better built-in support for its social community app, SkyPixel. However, as this version is streamlined, it lacks a lot of information standard on the Go version, most notable, a mini-map in the bottom corner of the screen. I’m hoping DJI adds more features to this app after it launches.
The camera is good for the price. The pictures here were taken from the drone and not altered or adjusted. They were taken on cloudy and sunny days. The range is surprisingly good as the drone can capture blue skies and dark highlights. Occasionally in direct sunlight, the camera colors become washed out.
They say the best camera is the one you have with you. That’s where the Mavic Mini comes in. The best drone is the one you have with you. For years, I lugged around a massive Pelican case containing Phantom 2 and later a Phantom 3. I thought I was the coolest. At a moment’s notice, I could go to my car’s trunk and retrieve a suitcase containing a flying camera. A few minutes later, after my phone synced to the drone, and the controller joined the drone’s network, I had 15 minutes of flight time. Then came the foldable Mavic, which fit alongside my camera gear like a large telephoto lens. Other drones came and went. I liked the GoPro Karma for a time.
The tiny Mavic Mini is a game-changer. It’s small enough that I’ll bring it everywhere. It’s small and light enough that it feels like a large point and shoot in my computer bag.
Want more features and a better camera but keep the portable size? Earlier this year DJI announced the $919 foldable Mavic Air that has a 4k camera and 5 mile video transmission.
The Mavic Mini gets everything right. It’s small, comes with a lovely case, and in a $499 bundle, two extra batteries with a clever charging pack. The camera is surprisingly good though admittedly less powerful than DJI’s more expensive drones. The Mavic Mini is the perfect drone for a first-timer or experienced drone enthusiast. DJI stuff enough features into the 249 gram body to make this a fantastic drone for anyone.