Drone Traffic Control and Info Analysis – PrecisionHawk
PrecisionHawk, a company focused on collection and analysis of drone gathered data, maintains an app store of specialized routines for analyzing this information. The company offers one UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAS – unmanned aircraft system) of its own, the Lancaster Mark III. However, co-founder, CTO, Earnest Earon, explained to us recently that they are primarily interested in “the collection and analysis of drone-derived data,” rather than in building a fleet of vehicles.
PrecisionHawk is also one of the companies heavily involved in working with the U.S. FAA and other companies to develop a standard system for controlling and monitoring drone flight traffic. The company has developed its own platform, called LATAS (Low Altitude Traffic and Airspace Safety), which Earon describes as “an awareness platform, providing good visibility in realtime” of drone activity.
Strictly Commercial UAVs
PrecisionHawk serves various commercial industry segments. They do not deal with the military or personal UAVs. Their largest business segment is agriculture, about 60% of revenues for this about 100-person company. Other segments include: energy, environment, insurance and infrastructure.
The focus is in providing tools that can make drone information as useful as possible. The company’s overall platform is called DataMapper. The user can fly “just about any UAV,” according to PrecisionHawk, including the company’s own Lancaster vehicle. It can upload the surveyed information and track it through a portal on the DataMapper system.
This is the impetus for its app store approach, which it calls its Algorithm Market and which provides value-added interpretative capabilities. The company describes the Market as “the first of its kind for aerial data analytics.” The Market offers several sophisticated technical analysis tools that can be purchased by the user for interpretation of the data.
The Algorithm Market
These programs, or apps, have been developed by independent industry and academic developers, who have revenue-sharing arrangements with the company. Currently, the tools offered on the company’s website are limited to the agriculture industry. For example, with the company’s ScoutView Report, for a $100 per year fee and $15 per use the customer can obtain the following information about their fields:
“With ScoutView, relevant site-specific data such as soil type and average precipitation is summarized with several 2D/3D views of your survey in an intuitive single-page report. Reports can focus on any management unit (field, plot, row, section, etc.), and incorporate other GIS layers (yield data, crop zones, etc.).”
Earon explained that the Algorithms are designed to provide information in usable form for a number of different potential users. As an example, data about the number and state of plants in a given area could be useful or even vital to: farmers who have an obvious economic interest at stake, but also to energy companies who want to know what impact they are having on vegetation and to insurers who provide crop or liability insurance to these different parties.
Earon summed it up by noting that, “Agriculture is an information-hungry industry, which historically has had rather poor information.” Farmers are constantly faced with new decisions. PrecisionHawk tools are designed to take new information from UAVs and help with those decisions. He adds, “We will provide the same types of tools for other industries.”
Drone Flight Control – LATAS
The company describes the LATAS system as a platform that “connects leading airspace management technologies, such as sense and avoid, geofencing and aircraft tracking, into a service package for commercial and recreational drone operators as well as regulators and air traffic controllers.”
The company has been cooperating with the FAA, in its Pathfinder Program, which is exploring the uses and issues for UAVs, as well as with NASA’s UTM (UAV Traffic Management) initiative. PrecisionHawk is also working closely with Verizon, Harris and DigitalGlobe on the issues related to UAV flight control and monitoring. Recently, the four companies announced successful integration of their complementary capabilities. Harris provides ground stations for the Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B), part of the next gen air control system. DigitalGlobe is a satellite imaging company that maintains a Geospatial Big Data Platform. Verizon offers its LTE network capabilities.
As Earon explained, the LATAS system transmits data from drones to nearby cell towers, with satellite transmission as a backup if there is no cell service. The signals are very low bandwidth. The data is sent to cloud-based software that can handle “millions of simultaneous connections” allowing drones to be located and tracked. Warnings can be issued to operators if a potentially dangerous situation is arising and the system can divert a drone.
The overall objective is to get a national system and standard for drone traffic control that is compatible with the overall aviation traffic control system. One element would include the ability to allow safe drone flights extended beyond line-of-sight. PrecisionHawk already is offering its LATAS capability to customers who have it in use. There is a patent pending for the system.
Business Model and Ambitious Goals
The Lancaster Hawkeye Mark III UAV is in the shape of a large model plane, weighing 5.3 pounds. It is listed on dronelife.com priced at $25,000, for the system and software, including a visual and a multispectral sensor. The company offers an array of other sensors for different data capture functions, including thermal, LiDAR (laser measuring reflected light) and hyperspectral (infrared capture.) The sensors are plug-and-play replaceable, depending upon the type of view required.
The company maintains its cloud on Amazon S3. Its analytical tools can be used on a variety of mobile devices. It has substantial international business, with about a 50-50 revenue split between the U.S. and rest of world.
Earon states an ambitious goal for the company, “We intend to be the leading company in high quality UAV information systems and safety, within a year.”
Note on Drone Registration and Regulation
As of December 21, 2015, the FAA requires registration for drones, UASs, weighing from 0.55 lbs. (250 g) to 55 lbs. (25 kg). The agency states, “Unmanned Aircraft weighing more than 55 lbs. cannot use this registration process and must register using the Aircraft Registry process.” The agency reported that over 45,000 individuals registered their drones over the first two days. There are stiff potential penalties for not registering.
The FAA has in progress a proceeding to develop Small UAS Rules. It has been granting authorizations for drones to operate commercially in the meantime under Section 333 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012.