A growing number of studies show unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are disrupting the status quo across industries. From agriculture and construction to equipment inspection and mining, industry and business leaders are using drones to save time, money and effort, as well as lives.
The fastest growth opportunity stems from businesses and civil governments. According to Goldman Sachs, business and government agencies are projected to spend $13 billion on drones between now and 2020.
Though a bulk of use cases focus on the sky, many drone innovators are moving indoors.
“Because aviation regulations are not changing as rapidly as drone technology, investors are paying more attention to drone solutions where these regulations don’t apply and a faster ROI can be achieved,” says Colin Snow, founder and CEO of Skylogic Research, a commercial drone industry analyst firm.
“They’re looking at innovations that enhance flying indoors,” he explains. “For instance, flying in confined indoor spaces and without the benefit of GPS positioning means you can’t navigate well. We are only now beginning to see results of those investments emerge on drone platforms – such as artificial intelligence, computer vision, LiDAR, mini RADAR, and simultaneous localization and mapping (SLAM). These technologies are being combined in various ways to construct or update a map of an unknown indoor environment while simultaneously keeping track of the drone’s location within it.”
Different Rules for Indoor Drones
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) enforces the regulations established for UAV usage. The same rules created to promote airspace safety on a national level do not apply inside buildings or other enclosed spaces. So how do remote pilots and their respective crews ensure the safety of and operation in the absence of rules?
Intel recently set a Guinness World Record by flawlessly executing 110 of its Shooting Star Mini drones indoors as part of a light show for CEO Brian Krzanich’s opening keynote at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show. The drones’ lightweight base structure and propeller guards were designed with safety in mind.
Hangars are a safer option, as opposed to flying outside, for training new remote pilots, according to a Southern California-based drone service business owner.
Josh Friedman added drones to his decade-old business five years ago, and later, he flew the interior of a football-sized warehouse for a promotional video, showcasing its scale and inventory while also displaying workers who were performing their tasks:
“Generally, we are using drones inside large areas where it would be challenging or impossible to rig a dolly system,” says Friedman, “for example, flying above the boxes in a warehouse, following a forklift or person.”
Speaking to their general convenience, Friedman states, “We can shoot every motion imaginable by just flying the drone in different directions without wires, cables, tracks or additional gear on the ground.”
Friedman emphasizes that each company should develop its own standards regarding risk management for flying indoors, and they should be included in a client’s contract. He doesn’t believe the federal government needs to be involved in any aspect of regulating indoor drone use, except to make carrying the proper insurance policy a requirement.
Kerry Stockslager of 901 Drones, based in Memphis, Tenn., also deploys UAVs in warehouses and for commercial real estate properties, where jobs provide numerous obstacles due to “narrow margins of space between the merchandise on metal racks and [industrial] fans that blast air throughout the building.”
So far, her most challenging indoor assignment, unsurprisingly, has come from law enforcement. The exercise entailed finding out how well a drone could fly in a typical office environment with cubicles that had walls that extended only a few feet from the ceiling.
“We were looking in each space to make sure no one with a gun was hiding there,” she says. “The challenge was to fly inside using Atti [mode], with the drone out of visual sight… some of the hazards, while looking into each cubicle, were antennas that stuck up here and there, along with some flag poles that had sharp points halfway up to the ceiling.”
She was able to successfully complete the mission with both a live stream and accompanying video for review.
The benefits of using a drone in this type of scenario are numerous. In the case of locating someone dangerous with a gun, typically, a slow-moving roving robot is used instead of risking death or serious injury by using a human. A drone can maneuver quickly and deftly without needing to turn corners or actively seek out obstacles.
Preparing for Indoor Flight
“Plan, plan, plan,” Stockslager advises for anyone interested in operating a drone indoors. “Scout the site, find the safest place to fly that gives you plenty of room to get launched, check your telemetry and warnings before the flight, and monitor it closely during so you know A.S.A.P. anything that is not normal and can adjust accordingly.”
Have an alert crew on hand; a visual observer should be present when possible. Adding to the basic requirements for safety and efficiency, Stockslager says “skills in manual flying are a must, as GPS will be sporadic at best and nonexistent as a norm.”
“You also need to have a deep knowledge of how metal, drafts and erratic radio frequencies will affect the flight of the drone,” she adds.
Loretta Alkalay, a retired aviation attorney, recently took some aerial photos of a display center at a convention for a nonprofit she chairs. After assessing the area for risks, she proceeded to conduct a thorough risk assessment and conduct the flight before the event was scheduled to open to the public.
Even though there were very few people around during the flight, she had a visual observer to block anyone from getting too close.
“I checked how the drone reacted in the enclosed space in an open area on the convention floor before flying in the display area,” says Alkalay.
In the absence of regulations for indoor flights, these professionals ensure the safety of each operation by taking extra precautionary steps, developing a set of procedures, and abiding by similar rules that govern their outdoor flights.