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Drone engineering is an exciting career with endless possibilities

January 12, 2022

By Brice Floyd, PhD

Image of Drone

In science, engineering and agriculture, we’re finding innovative ways to use drones to boost efficiency and accelerate research.

Drones are everywhere these days. Hobbyists use them to explore the local terrain (and occasionally to create mischief with airline schedules). Photographers and videographers have incorporated them into their toolkits to provide spectacular aerial shots. And the scientific, engineering and agricultural communities are finding innovative ways to use drones to improve efficiency, heighten the accuracy of analytics, and accelerate the pace of research. This makes drone engineering an exciting career path — one that is sure to remain in the limelight for many years to come. But what does a career in this industry entail? And what are the "must knows" to being successful and keeping up with the constant advances and applications? In my recent webinar for Elsevier, I answered many of these questions. A Day In The Life of a Drone Engineeropens in new tab/window highlights how drone engineering is opening up new scientific, industrial and agricultural possibilities.

Watch the webinar

A Day in the Life of a Drone Engineer features Dr Brice Floydopens in new tab/window, a field-sensing research scientist working in R&D for Corteva Agriscienceopens in new tab/window, a company providing seed, crop protection, and digital products and services in more than 140 countries.

Aerial photography represented the early beginnings of the emerging drone engineering field. It all began more than 100 years ago during World War I. As well as cameras on planes, there were even attempts to use pigeons to take pictures.

However, it is in the last 20 years that the field has really taken off. Drones are now used in a wide range of industries, including movies, the military, real estate, search and rescue, oil & gas, agriculture, construction, energy and aerospace.

Drones in outer space

NASA Image caption from drone in Mars

NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter just north of the southern ridge of the “Séíitah” geologic unit. The Mastcam-Z instrument aboard NASA’s Perseverance rover took this image on Dec. 1, 2021 (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU/MSSS)

The possibilities here appear endless. Witness the Ingenuity Mars Helicopteropens in new tab/window. It just took its 18th flight on the Red Planet, skimming the surface and zeroing in on one particular rock formation of interest to scientists. That drone transmitted detailed 3D images of a portion of the South Seítah region of the Jezero Crater.

Future aerospace plans include NASA’s Dragonfly missionopens in new tab/window, which aims to send a very large drone to Saturn’s Titan moon.

Illustration of NASA's Dragonfly rotorcraft-lander

NASA’s Dragonfly rotorcraft-lander approaching a site on Saturn’s moon, Titan. It will explore dozens of locations to characterize the habitability of Titan's environment and investigate the progression of prebiotic chemistry. (Credit: NASA/JHU-APL)

Immense challenges stand in the way of any engineer attempting to send and operate a drone on another planet. Everything must be planned to precision to enter the atmosphere and land successfully. Consider this: it takes 14 minutes for communication from Mars to reach Earth. Yet the ship carrying the Mars Roveropens in new tab/window had just seven minutes from the moment it entered the atmosphere to when it deposited the Rover on the surface. There was no margin for error.

Relatively unknown atmospheric conditions, communication latency, unmapped terrain, and the absence of GPS are just a few of the barriers these researchers and engineers must overcome. Yet great minds are solving these issues and bringing about new discoveries and techniques.

Drones on Earth

Closer to home, drone engineering is revolutionizing entire sectors. Take agriculture. Groundbreaking work is being done in digitizing a huge number of aerial photos of crops. These shots are transformed into invaluable data about crop height, potential output, geographic variations in growth throughout fields, and more.

In the past, such work was done by sending teams of people into fields to manually count the number of plants, estimate the amount of wheat, and spot areas of high growth and poor growth. They typically estimated a score on a scale of 1 to 10. Studies show that the results from this subjective method vary heavily from person to person. Bias enters in. One person tends to score fields consistently lower than another, for example.

Instead of boots on the ground, drones can be engineered to rapidly provide a plant count for an entire field, spot which parts of the field are ready for harvest, and determine where pesticides and fertilizers are most needed. They do this by taking thousands of high-resolution images of many acres and “gluing” these images together via an automated image analysis engine to produce a photo mosaic. While aerial photography does this from high altitude, drones can do it from a few feet above the crops. The most advanced systems can take those 2D images and turn them into 3D impressions.

Four key technology sectors of drone engineering

In the webinar, I talk about four areas necessary for effective drone technology, each representing ripe areas for research and development:

  1. Digital sensors including functions such as radar, cameras and lasers.

  2. Positioning technology such as GPS sensors and antennas, as well as sensors that determine altitude, control yaw, and other motions.

  3. Mobile computing innovation including satellites and networks to transmit data ans software to analyze it.

  4. Aerial technology: the hardware and other nuts and bolts batteries and materials that comprise the physical drone.

Each is a fertile area for technology. But they must be brought together together to help researchers develop the best varieties of crops for different environments, regions, climates and topographies. Factors such as disease resistance, watering conditions, the local environment, genetics, crop management, soil content, nutrients and microclimates can make a big difference to the volume of vegetables and fruit produced.

It has been shown time and time again that drones help engineers and researchers to collect data in a fraction of the time. As drone imagery and scoring are objective, the results are far more accurate than those obtained through manual counting. Such advances help bring better products to market much faster.

Agriculture is just one example. Drone technology is currently being deployed broadly in a range of fields. Examples include:

  • Aerial thermal imagery for power and electrical grids, oil & gas, and even in detecting illegal drug houses

  • In renewable energy, performing maintenance checks on remote wind and solar farms

  • In geospatial systems, combining the likes of Google Maps with overlaid images, property lines and roads — this technology is already in wide use in search and rescue

Future opportunities

At the moment, drones are operated within line of sight, meaning an operator needs to be able to physically see the drone. The military, of course, uses drones combined with satellite imagery to “view” targets. But beyond-line-of-sight technology is now being explored to solve problems in mining, agriculture and oil & gas. With no operator needed locally, far more work can be accomplished.

Many startups have sprung up to speed the development of such projects. The drone-in-a-boxopens in new tab/window technology, for example, provides everything needed to operate a drone in a particular application. There is no need for the operator to know how to build a drone or conduct analysis; the package contains everything required. These drones can operate autonomously with in-built security, tracking and self-recharging. Farmers could find these systems invaluable for crop spraying, for instance. The system would even provide suggestions on how to adjust watering schedules and other parameters for best results.

Connecting with drone engineering research

Elsevier provides a wealth of information of value to drone engineers and researchers. Typing “drone” into Knovel instantly produces 480 results. Books, chapters and scientific articles are displayed along with key terms to further narrow your search. Similarly, Engineering Village produces almost 14,000 records using the “drone” search term. It provides a year-by-year bar chart of related research, lists of key terms for drill-down, and even vertical-specific terms related to drones in sectors such as agriculture, for example, to help researchers dive deeply into drone research. Learn more about Knovel

Learn more about Engineering Village