Automated drones navigate and inspect cell towers without GPS

We're about to see a dramatic increase in the number of commercial drone pilots. The FAA's regulations are finally here and the US market for commercial drones is expected to grow at a CAGR of 25.11%. But do we really want a bunch of novices controlling flying robots?
Written by Kelly McSweeney, Contributor

On August 29, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)'s Part 107 commercial drone rules go into effect, and although they are quite restrictive, some companies have already found creative ways to work within the limitations.

One commercial application that has already started to take off is drone inspections for large structures such as cell towers, buildings, and bridges. PRENAV, a Silicon Valley startup, has developed an automated drone that uses an alternative navigation system to precisely fly drones close enough to towers to see any structural issues that need to be repaired.

Manual inspections are inefficient and unsafe; it just doesn't make sense to send humans to climb large structures when robots can do it better, without risking any lives. According to OSHA, tower climbing is the most dangerous job in America, and demand for tower maintenance is growing as consumers increasingly rely on broadband and wireless communications. It's not surprising, then, that wireless providers are starting to use drones for cell tower inspections.

Previously, this type of work required a drone certification called a Section 333 Exemption, which involved a cumbersome application process and long waiting period. The new procedure is much simpler: pilots must pass a written test. This policy allows companies to use drones for new applications, which means we'll start to see an influx of new drone pilots. But do we really want a bunch of novices operating flying robots?

Fortunately, many drones can basically fly themselves, but there are some weaknesses in the existing technology. Most drones are either manually controlled by skilled pilots or they use GPS to navigate. Although GPS can get a drone from one destination to another, it can't help guide a robot that needs to get close enough to a structure to take high resolution imagery.

"We're taking a pretty unique approach to this," says PRENAV's founder and CEO Nathan Schuett. "Most companies are focused on board, where you're putting sensors, cameras, and LIDAR on board the drone, but then you struggle with size, weight, and power requirements." Instead, PRENAV moved the heavy equipment to the ground.

Before the drone takes off, a robot on a tripod creates a laser scan of the environment. The data is used to build a three-dimensional map of the structure and any obstacles. Operators can then build a flight path on a tablet, press the launch button, and watch the drone fly itself around the structure, snapping photos as it goes. When the drone returns, the photos are uploaded to the cloud, where PRENAV processes the images to create a detailed virtual reconstruction of the structure.

Under the Section 333 model, Schuett says companies that wanted to start drone inspection programs would typically reach out to their existing employees to find out if they happened to be pilots. Clearly, this is not an ideal procedure for widespread commercial drone services, which will require many pilots. As a result of the FAA's new rules, Schuett says, "now our technology can be deployed to thousands of field technicians and engineers who didn't grow up flying RC aircraft or haven't been a drone pilot for years."

Now that the FAA's rules allow for more drone applications, PRENAV is poised to move out of the R&D phase and into commercialization. This week the company announced it raised $6.5 million in seed financing from lead investor Crosslink Capital, along with Haystack, Liquid 2 Ventures, and WI Harper Group. These organizations join existing investors such as Pejman Mar Ventures and Toivo Annus.

Schuett says, "For us that means taking the fundamental precision and automation of the flight control software and wrapping that into different industries that we're targeting within the next year when we plan to start shipping our products."

PRENAV is one of many companies that are scrambling to get a piece of the growing commercial drone space. After too many years in limbo, regulations are starting to take shape and the US market for commercial drones is expected to grow at a CAGR of 25.11% during 2016-2021, according to a recent report published by market research firm TechSci Research.

But Schuett isn't worried about the inevitable competition for automated drone inspection services. "We want the technology to be used as much as possible and we want the entire industry to expand and grow," he says.

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