Autonomous Drones, Skydio R2 and Future of the Drone Market

Autonomous drones, skydio r2 and future of the drone market

As per Grant View Research, the worldwide drone market is poised to grow at an unbelievable CAGR of 60% between 2019 and 2024. Now, growth and  innovation are two sides of the same coin. Certainly, the drone industry needs to ceaselessly innovate if it hopes to meet these hyper-growth projects.

We have seen this with other industries as well. Think Tesla and electric cars or Apple and the first iPhone. 

In 2007, Tesla recorded sales of a mere $15 million. Sales in 2018? $20 billion! Likewise, the iconic iPhone has been the primary engine that has helped Apple record a 10-fold growth in revenues and a 20-fold growth in profits from 2006-2016.

These innovations were truly disruptive in as they changed user habits and opened up totally new markets and revenue streams. 

After electric cars and smartphones, could it be autonomous drones next?

Could autonomous drones result in the mass adoption of drone technology across a wider spectrum of applications?

How Do Autonomous Drones Work?

Before we get too far ahead, what exactly are autonomous drones? There is considerable confusion surrounding this topic. 

Many drone enthusiasts tend to consider DJI drones like the Mavic as autonomous because of the various intelligent flight modes like “Waypoint” and “Follow- Me”.

However, this is not correct.

According to me, a truly autonomous drone is the one that can fly without any human intervention at all. 

But is this even possible? Are autonomous drones available? And, how do they work?

Autonomous drones rely on AI and visual sensors to “see” the environment, create a point cloud in real-time and avoid obstacles.

Dr. Jiefei Wang, a researcher from UNSW Canberra Trusted Autonomy Group used an XBOX sensor to build a completely autonomous drone system. He explains:

“Depth information is crucial for locating objects.” 
“Human beings can use one eye to see the world but need two eyes to locate. For example, try closing one eye, then point your index fingers towards each other and bring them together. Most people will find this difficult.”

Dr. Jiefei Wang, Researcher, UNSW Canberra Trusted Autonomy Group

Is Skydio R2 an Autonomous Drone?

Recently, Skydio, a small American drone manufacturer released the Skydio 2. Unless you have been living under a rock, you must have heard of this drone whose autonomous engine is powered by six (!) powerful cameras. The engine itself is powered by NVIDIA Jetson TX2 (According to Crunchbase, NVIDIA, is also an investor in Skydio). 

As per the Skydio website, Skydio 2’s six cameras use up to 45 megapixels of data which results in a truly autonomous flight. This is truly impressive as DJI drones like the Mavic 2 Pro and Mavic Air utilize 4.5 megapixels and 1.5 megapixels respectively. 

This autonomy engine is powerful enough to track 10 objects simultaneously while building a point cloud of the surroundings at a million points per second.

These are the detailed specs of the Skydio 2:

  • Dimensions: 223x273x74 (l x w x h)
  • Weight:775 grams
  • Maximum Speed:36 mph
  • Flight Time: 23 minutes
  • Max Wind Speed Resistance: 25 mph
  • Sensor: Sony IMX577 1/2.3” 12.3MP CMOS
  • ISO Range: 100-3200
  • Dynamic Range: 13 Stops
  • Range to Phone: 200 m
  • Range to Beacon: 1.5 km
  • Range to Controller: 3 km

Are Autonomous Drones Legal?

This is another common question that often crops up. While you are legally allowed to buy autonomous drones like Skydio 2, drone regulations prevent you from utilizing such drones to its fullest capabilities.

Confused? Allow me to explain.

Recently, Skydio 2 announced the Skydio 2 dock which is a self-contained, weatherproof charging station. While we are yet to get our hands on this dock, if it lives up to its promise, fully autonomous workflows might become possible with the Skydio 2.

“If you want persistent operations that don’t require a pilot in the loop, you need a drone that’s smart enough to fly itself.”

Skydio

However, even though the drone might be capable enough to fly without human intervention, the FAA does not permit BVLOS flights without a pilot.

Further, because such autonomous drones primarily rely on AI-powered visual sensing cameras, what happens at night when the drone is not able to “read” the environment?  Having said that, the Skydio R2 opens up a host of new and exciting possibilities. 

So, let’s take it from the top.

Why The Skydio R2 Might Prove to Be an Excellent Search and Rescue Drone

The biggest drawback of using drones for search and rescue operations is that a low altitude flight is extremely difficult if the area that needs to be scanned is covered with dense foliage. However, the Skydio R2 can autonomously avoid such obstacles and scan such low lying areas where the probability of finding a search and rescue victim is the highest.

The only drawback with the Skydio R2 is that it does not come with a thermal camera. Maybe we shall see a new Skydio drone with dual sensors in 2020?

The Skydio R2 for Infrastructure and Equipment Inspections?

This is another exciting possibility. Drones are now being used to inspect hard to reach areas where human inspections are costly and fraught with risk. Areas that are particularly difficult to navigate are inspected using solutions like the Elios Flyability Drone – which is nothing but a “drone in a cage”. However, Skydio R2 is a far more elegant solution.

Firstly, amateur pilots with considerably less experience can fly an autonomous drone like the Skydio R2. Secondly, the Skydio R2 primarily relies on AI-powered visual sensors to avoid obstacles. GPS is just an ancillary tool. 

This means that the Skydio R2 can be flown near steel and other metal structures with ease. To learn more about the risks of flying in interference negative environments, check out our blog post, “Flying Drones in Large Cities –Effective Ways of Tackling Magnetic Interference and Ensuring Drone Safety“.

Further, a 1 m protective bubble is maintained around the Skydio R2 at all times. If you wish to fly in tight spots, you can reduce the size of this bubble by flying in aggressive mode.

The Skydio R2 Could Be a Great Option for Filming Action Sports

This one is a no-brainer. Check out this video which shows the Skydio 2 effortlessly weaving through trees to track an ATV. Whereas, DJI’s Mavic 2 Pro just hovers in place and loses sight of the subject.



The Skydio 2 Beacon is another cool accessory that is worth a mention here. The Beacon is a GPS-powered, pocket sized remote that could come in handy while filming moving vehicles. The “magic wand” feature on the Beacon is convenient as it allows you to control the drone with your hand movements. 

P.S. – The Skydio can autonomously follow a subject at a top speed of 35 mph

Any Drawbacks? Our Wishlist for the Next Skydio Drone…

I guess commercial considerations forced Skydio to equip the R2 drone with a small 1 ⅔” sensor, and that too a linear rolling one. So, if you are a professional photographer, you might be more inclined towards the DJI Mavic 2 Pro with its 10-bit Hasselblad sensor. The absence of a global shutter and a thermal sensor also somewhat limits the capabilities of the Skydio R2.  

After the excellent response that Skydio R2 has garnered, I am certainly excited to see what it’s store for 2020. Watch this space for more updates!

If you found this information useful, you might want to check out other blog posts as well. Watch this space for the latest and most exciting drone news and updates!

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