It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s……. an autonomous fixed-wing mapping drone



It’s been a while since my last post, and a lot has been going on. So I’m going to run a series of blogs going over past events since my last blog. The first covers mapping a vineyard in Paso Robles in California back in April 2015. So you may ask yourself, well what’s so special about mapping a vineyard, didn’t he explain how to do that back in 2014? Well yes, but this has a twist, as I’ll be explaining about autonomous fixed-wing mapping, using an off the shelf components.

Fixed-Wing versus Multirotors

So what are the pros and cons of fixed-wings compared to multirotors? Well in general when we talk about sUAS, UAV, drones etc. most people are generally talking about multirotors such as the Phantom 3, 3DR Solo etc. In general fixed-wing is a much smaller sector of the commercial UAV market. Why you ask yourself? Well there has been a lot of effort put into multirotor technology, as this is what the public wants, they are easy to fly, and most importantly they hover. That last bit is very important, as an operator with today’s GPS position hold, can let go of the controller sticks and the multirotor with stabilize in the last position it was in. This allows multirotors to be used in small areas, and for beginner operators to learn in relatively crash free environment.

The downside to hovering is that most multirotors have the aerodynamics of a brick. The lift to keep the multirotor in the air is solely generated by the 3, 4, 6, 8 or more propellers, pushing air down and the copter up. If the motors stop, lift is stopped and it all comes crashing down. Also hovering uses a lot of power, which generally means there is a tradeoff between weight and endurance. The bigger the battery you put in the more flight time, however this is negated by the battery been heavier, which reduces flight time. It’s all a compromise. Now all helicopters are more efficient as they are in cruise by approx. 40%. This is due to effective translational lift, as airflow moves over the rotors and generates extra lift.

So as a summary, multirotors are in generally good for 40-80 acres with today’s technology, work well in small places and are easy to learn to take-off hover, fly and land. Notes there are exceptions to the 80 acre multirotor limit, such as Agribotix and 3D Robotics FX8 (Folding X8.) These have much longer arms, with low kV motors swinging large propellers for maximum efficiency and endurance.



So what about planes? Well just like multirotors, you can fly autonomous missions. Using the 3D Robotics Pixhawk and Mission Planner software, you can plan missions for both multirotors and planes. What planes give you over a multirotor is efficiency. Lift is generated by airflow over the wings, so long as you have enough stable airflow you will have lift. This is great, because all the motor on a plane is doing is moving the plane forward. If the motor stops, the plane can still fly by gliding. This can be by capturing thermals, pointing into a headwind, or entering a shallow dive. No dropping like a brick like a multirotor. So planes generally have one motor compared to 3 or more on a multirotor. So you can see straight away how it achieves its efficiency advantage.

Now here’s the hard bit, planes are a lot harder to fly than multirotors, the takeoffs and landings in particular. You have to be able to keep orientation at all times, and there is no intelligent flight mode, once that plane turns and is pointing towards you, the controls reverse. Due to this planes are normally flown by people with experience (mostly gained by simulator time on Realflight 7.5 or by the age old process of learning, which is crashing.) Landings can be extremely interesting, as you have to judge speed such that you don’t stall (not enough airflow over the wings) and crash, but not so fast that you well crash. It’s a fine line. I’d recommend anyone to join there AMA club and learn to fly a plane, it will really help with you multirotor skills. And if you really adventurous, learn to fly a helicopter (without stability control.) I digress, so planes are more efficient and can cover 1000 acres, but in the USA it is at this moment limited to line of sight, so say 250 acres. Big note here, the bigger your plane, the further you can fly it away from you, the more acres you can map! The FAA is presently working with PrecisionHawk and other UAV companies as part of the Path Finder program to investigate safe BVLOS (Beyond Visual Line of Sight) operations in the NAS (National Air Space.)

Precisionhawk Pathfinder blog

Now the downside is that to keep flying your need to be moving forward above stall speed, then planes generally need wide open spaces as they are always moving forward (unless you fly 3D.) Due to the above points, only a few fixed-wing mapping drones exist, Sensefly eBee and PrecisionHawk been the most famous, followed by Ag Eagle, Quest UAV and a number of smaller companies. The successful ones generally have good algorithms for takeoff and landings, so in a sense these systems are fully autonomous and can be flown by beginners. The penalty for these easy to operate autonomous planes is cost, like $15k to $25k cost. However it is my opinion that you should allow be able to fly in manual mode and not rely on GPS and other technologies. So sure, fly in autonomous but get on the plane simulator and fly hobby planes to perfect your flying skills, as those skills will save you once that little flight controller has a gremlin.

So what I’m about to show you is how you can make an off the shelf autonomous fixed-wing mapping drone. Here are some videos of the Kextrel Hayabusa in a loiter and performing an auto landing:

Kextrel Hayabusa Loiter Video
Kextrel Hayabusa Auto-Landing Video

What’s makes an autonomous fixed-wing drone

The plane consists of a number of parts, the fuselage, the power system consisting of an electronic speed controller, motor and propeller, actuators for the control surfaces, the flight controller and RC receiver, battery, and payload which is normally a NADIR downward pointing digital camera. Additional equipment can include telemetry link for flight control and monitoring (plus uploading missions,) video downlink FPV camera or from mapping camera.
So the airframe is the Zeta Science Phantom FX61, as the name suggests it is a 61” wingspan, big enough to see at distances, small enough to throw in the back of a car or pickup. With the added advantage of removalable wings. This is also an elevon model, in that pitch and roll is controlled by only two control surfaces, one on each wing driven by a single actuator or servo in each wing. So we have only 3 moving parts, a servo in each wing controlling a control surface and the motor. This gives us much higher reliability, as the less moving parts, the less things to go wrong (See my previous two posts on this topic.)

The Zeta Science FX61 Airframe
theUAVguy blog on Airframe choices

Now the interesting thing is that nice shiny $15k autonomous mapping fixed-wing is probably using a 3D Robotics Pixhawk flight controller. It’s the fixed-wing autonomous flight controller of choice. This then means using the 3D Robotics 915MHz telemetry radios and mission planner or Tower App, which is very mature now. The flight controller allows you to plan a mission by defining waypoints along which the plane flies, it also allows you to define the landing point. There are also some very useful features such as defining a mapping grid, plus what mapping camera you are using, and the software automatically generates the way points plus the camera triggers.

The 3DR Pixhawk

The hard part is cramming the flight controller, telemetry gear, video downlink, cameras, battery, and power system inside the plane’s fuselage. The other hard part is programming the flight controller so you get reliable stable flight in various environmental flying conditions such as high wind conditions. This is really where the secret sauce is, and many an hour is spent tuning PID control loop parameters for different fuselage, payloads, battery combinations and flight envelopes. This is what you’re really paying your money for in a $25k commercial autonomous plane, it’s the blood sweat and tears of tuning, flying, crashing, more tuning until you have an optimal setup that works in all flight cases, reliably!

3D Robotics has the APM Plane site which is a good introduction to the Pixhawk and how to build a system and tune it. If you go this route, be prepared for long nights and crashes, but once you have it working it’s a great feeling.

APM Plane Website
Debugging the Pixhawk

The suggestion is to build up from manual flight mode, move to more basic autonomous modes such as loiter and return home, then move to waypoint flying. Also debug everything on the ground, have a checklist and follow it every time. This will save you plane, I know, once the elevens in autonomous flight got reversed which would have been disastrous in the air, but we did a ground check using our checklist. Always, always use a checklist. Manned aviation does and so should unmanned aviation.

Camera choices

Now the whole point of the plane is only to get the camera in a position that it can take pictures, which once post-processed can generate a survey map, which contains actionable data. Cameras are normally NADIR down facing and do not require a gimbal, planes are inherent less prone to vibration, plus they are generally flying level when taking pictures unlike a copter which is tipped in the direction of flight. To give an example of ground resolution, i.e. how much you can see on the ground, Landsat 8 satellite has a 30m ground resolution:

Landsat 8 Information

A 12.1MP Canon SX260 with an Event 38 NDVI filter, a Sony 20.1 MP QX1, a Sony 18MP, and a GoPro Hero 4 Black in still mode of 5MP has a ground resolution of 4 to 10cm when the picture is taken from 400 AGL (above ground level.) That’s a little bit better than Landsat 8 can do!




The SX260HS with an Event 38 is a great NDVI camera given superb spectral separation, which in turn gives high quality post-processed NDVI data. And that is a key point, your data is only as good as your camera and how good its NDVI filter is. Better spectral separation, high resolution, a large low noise image sensor equates to good data. Remember the adage “Garbage in, garbage out”, well get the best camera and filters you can. The latest choice for UAV’s are the Sony QX range, as they have 20MP resolution, low weight, remove unnecessary functions and are small. A number of companies such as LifePixel, MAxMax now do Sony conversions for NDVI for PrecisionAg UAV work. And there is the trust old GoPro with filters from IRPro and similar companies.


Event 38 NDVI Filter in a Canon SX260HS:


Max Max NDVI Cameras
LifePixel NDVI Cameras
IRPro NDVI Cameras

The best cameras have GPS, as this allows GPS data to be automatically geotagged onto the images as they are taken. This reduces the workload of the post-processing software, as it knows where each picture is with respect to the other images, allowing faster more accurate stitching of the final GeoTiff.
On top of this is camera control. The cameras are normally controlled from the flight controller, which triggers the camera at specific waypoints. This is done such that you have the correct forward lap and side lap (overlap) to allow the stitching software to work efficiently. Aim for greater than 65% and more optimally 80% lap. The issue here can be that with high plane speed, the front lap will require the camera to trigger very often, say every 2 seconds. To ensure this, make sure the camera can achieve this, plus use high data rate storage cards. If you don’t have a GPS camera, you can trigger the camera from the flight controller, and then fuse the plane’s flight log with the images in the stitching software to get geotagged images. This is another step, which can be prone to errors.

A final approach is to use no trigger or GPS, and just put the camera in auto mode so it takes a picture every 2 seconds. Flying at 20m/s at 400 feet, 2 seconds will give correct side and front lap for most cameras. Note, no GPS and no flight controller triggering means the stitching software has no idea of how the pictures place with respect to each other, as such processing is much more complex. However the software does know that the pictures are taken in sequential order, thus helping the software. The best help in this situation is to use GCP (ground control points), which are visible in the images. These visible points have GPS latitude, longitude and altitude information, which when you enter this data, it can cross reference in the stitching software allows for faster stitching, but also a GeoTiff single image (single map image with GPS info).

Below are cameras triggers we have developed at Kextrel, a Canon trigger, a GoPro trigger and a Sony Wireless trigger (which automatically adds a GPS stamp to the none GPS Sony QX range of cameras.)

Sony QX1/QX10 Wireless Camera Trigger
Canon SX260HS Camera Trigger

Now the holy grail of cameras for Ag work is the multispectral camera, but these in general fall in the $7k region. Here the red, green, blue and near infra-red have a sensor each, and my combining the sensor images you can get normal images RGB, or NDVI GBNIR, or ENDVI etc. The sensors are nominal 6MP and have GPS to geotag the images. Some also have ambient sunlight sensors to compensate for cloudy days versus bright sunny days. If a thermal image could also be added this could be useful for silage temperature measurement, crop analysis after side-dressing etc. A number of companies make UAV ready multi-spectral cameras including Slantrange, Micasense, Event 38, and Airinov. Time will tell if others will join this small but elite group.

Event 38

Another disruptive company is Propeller Aero who have some interesting ideas to generate stitched images very fast. I’ve tried the system out, and I’d say keep an eye on these company.

Propeller Aero Website

One final point is that if an IMU as well as GPS was integrated with a camera, then as well as the camera position in longitude, latitude and altitude, but we would also know the roll, pitch and yaw of the camera. In a sense we would have six parameters defining camera position in space. This should in theory allow stitching software to remove the long processing time of the point cloud determining where the camera is and where it is pointing.
For this flight we used the GoPro Hero 4 with an IRPro NDVI lens, triggered from a GoPro remote triggered by the Pixhawk flight controllers. This was done due to time limitations, but also allowed a wide angle lens, thus reducing flight time. This none GPS approach required combination of the images and flight logs in the stitching software. GCP were also used.

The MacGyver GoPro 4 Wireless Remote

Fixed Wing versus Multirotor (The Kextrel Hayabusa versus the 3D Robotics Folding X8)

So to test the theory we tested flew the mapping plane and 3D Robotics FX8 Enduro Copter at our local flying area, capturing images from both flights:

The Kextrel Hayabusa Plane



And the generated Pix4D stitched NIR orthomosaic.



The 3D Robotics FX8 Copter

The FX8 was a prototype 3DR product that was to be an Enduro copter, with a 40 minute flight time, possible to cover 400 acres. Sadly 3DR decided not to make this design, it truly was a massive monster, but ultra-compact when it folded down.



3DR FX8 in flight

The NIR images are then stitched by Pix4D but unprocessed for NDVI, see below. You can see how the plane and copter orthomosaic match. As such it proves it really doesn’t matter if you use a plane or a copter, you get the same result. It’s just that each platform is better in different use cases.


The NDVI post-processed data from Pix4D:


Plane April 3 2015 NDVI

At the bottom you can see airfield landing strip, with the associated bays in red. Below the airfield is a river which is also red. Then you have the service road that goes across the bottom, just above the airfield in red as well. Now you have the fields, starting from the right, you have a very green field and next to it a field that is generally red. The field to the right had new crop growing, whilst the field in red, was just ploughed. Interestingly enough you can clearly see in the NDVI image that where the crop is growing, that there is a thin red line, which when walking the field shows a line of crop with poor health, either from bad planting or due to some other event.

Paso Robles Vineyard Mapping Survey

Josh Metz who is a geospatial professional, introduced Steve Allott (Kextrel CTO) and myself to Glenn McGourty the owner of a Vineyard in Paso Robles. Glenn is a very well respected Viticulturist and was interested to see how UAV’s could help in Vineyard data analysis.

Glenn McGourty

The Vineyard is located in a valley with the main property at the top of a hill, with the vines covering the hilly area. There is approx. 80 acres of vineyard and almond trees, with a 260 feet elevation change. To comply with the FAA 400 AGL limit for UAV’s, the mission was planned with a 130 feet AGL at the top of the hill by the property with a small designated landing area. This would give us 130 feet flying over the property, plus 390 feet at the lowest point in the property, which happened to be a dried up lake bed (you can clearly see this in the later NDVI images, where the lake bed vegetation is vibrant.) Another concern was a US Army helicopter base 12 miles away. Even though we weren’t expecting any low flying helicopters terrain hugging down in the valley below 400 ‘ AGL, we planned accordingly and posted observers watching both ends of the valley.


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The planned mission area was approx. 80 acres. Now as we were using an NDVI GoPro 4, the wide angle lens meant that the spacing between flight tracks could be wider. The advantage of this is that we could map the area faster than a narrower angle lens/camera. A GoPro with a low distortion NDVI lens up at 400’ can see A LOT of acres in one picture.



The equipment was setup so we had an unobstructed view of the mapping area, we had a FPV video downlink, plus telemetry which we were monitoring on a large LCD monitor, so much easier to watch and read, particularly in bright sunlight. We powered up the plane, and got GPS lock. We then did a ground check and launched. Steve was flying takeoffs and landing, as the landing area was very small bordered by vines and the hilltop property. So off we go, I throw the plane overhand and up we go. Steve then switches to mission mapping mode, and the plane starts hunting for waypoint 1. This continues for a while, where Steve brings it back into manual mode, then back into auto mode, again hunting around for waypoint 1. At this point, Steve pulls off a tricky landing in manual mode. We disconnect the battery and start again, GPS lock, checklist etc. Off we go again, this time switches to auto mode and the plane gracefully drops a wing and heads straight to waypoint 1.



Once at waypoint 1, the plane starts tracking down the flight path with nice sweeping turns at the end of each track. When you have put blood, sweat and tears into a mapping plane, it is the most beautiful thing to see it soaring along. The whole mission took 5 minutes from start to finish and we mapped 80 acres, yes and I double checked the logs to make sure, 80 acres in 5 minutes. This is the benefit of a plane, a copter just cannot match a plane for large area mapping. The tricky bit was the landing, but Steve again managed some Top Gun flying to get the plane back down in one piece (putting it up on one wing and swinging it around a hawk post, and dropping it at his feet.)

The question now, did we get any useful pictures, did the MacGyver GoPro wireless remote work?
Pix4D and the Post-Processed Results

So we had no cellular connection, so no cloud processing here. Luckily we were using Pix4D, so we could do a “Rapid Check” in the field. We pulled the SD card from the GoPro and loaded the images. Remember that we were using a GoPro, so no geotagged images here. Overall we had 103 images over a 5 minute period, which averages at an image every 3 seconds. You can see from the rapid check report below that we had significant overlap.


Rapid Check Rapid Check Overlap

As part of the survey we took a number of 3D GCP’s as well. Lucky that we did, as when we tried to combine the GoPro images with the plane flight log to get geotagged images it failed, the log was corrupted. Luckily Pix4D allows you to input 3D GCP’s, so after getting the GCP parameters and feeding these into Pix4D we were able to get the near-infrared orthomosaic:



And a zoomed in section of the near infrared orthomosaic showing the Vines. You can also see the lakebed to the upper right of the image. Good data points for size are the trees and the storage tanks:


Paso Robles Mosaic Zoomed In April 4 2015

Pix4D was then used to process the orthomosaic and generate contour lines, a digital elevation model (DEM), a 3D model, a video fly through and a NDVI image.

Contour lines with 10’ spacing. It’s clear to see the elevation change here with the highest point been the dwelling, and the lowest point the lakebed:


Contour Lines 3m

The Digital Elevation Model just adds to the contour line data, showing the topography in color:

Plane 3 April DEM

The 3D Model really is quite impressive, it always impresses me how much information can be gathered from just a dataset of NADIR images:


  Paso Robles 3D Part 1 Paso Robles 3D Part 2

The Pix4D video fly through:

Pix4D Video Fly Through

And finally the Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI):


Paso Robles NDVI

What we can see in the NDVI are the man-made structures in red such as the road at the bottom and side of the image. The vines in green are highlighted by the red bare earth between the vines. In some cases there is some vegetation growing, as such the vine rows are harder to detect. A high index is noted down around the lakebed, probably due to this been a natural point for drainage and thus vegetation growth. Using the NDVI information it clearly allows the viticulturist the ability to identify areas of interest, then walk the vineyard to determine what is exactly happening to the grapes. Combining UAV NDVI and RGB data, with soil measurements and grape data, could be used to identify issues and head them off in the future. This could save money by increasing yields, using less pesticides and reduced water usage. I’m not going to go into an analysis of the vines, but just highlight yet again the power of using drones in Precision Agriculture.

The next generation Kextrel Hayabusa

The progression of the Kextrel Hayabusa is the Gen 2 shown below. The Gen 2 has a large payload capability, using Sony QX1 and QX10 NDVI cameras, an airframe which can be broken down very fast into a small compact space. On top of that is the inclusion of Drone Deploy (you can see the cellular antenna on the left fin,) where mission planning, flight monitoring and field analysis can be done in the field as the plane is flying. Drone Deploy also has nice features such as a descending circle when the plan comes into to landing, keeping the plane away from obstacles as it lands. Overall it’s a great system. I’ll let you know how it works.



Drone Deploy Website


It’s clear that when it comes to large area mapping, fixed-wing autonomous planes are much more efficient that multirotors, but this is traded off against cost, complexity and experience needed to fly them. Landing is particular troublesome, as such other means of landing would be more appropriate such as a VTOL design or parachute. The VTOL approach has been investigated by Sony, Google X-Wing and Amazon Prime Air for that exact reason, the efficient of fixed-wing flight but takeoff and landing ease of a multirotor. It is obvious though that planes are the perfect platform for mapping large areas such as farms and vineyards. Combined with NIR and multispectral sensors, and processed with image software such as Pix4D, we have a powerful tool to aid viticulturists and farmers do more with less resources.

So you can build your own autonomous fixed-wing drone for a relatively low cost, however be prepared for lots of heartache, crashes and long nights. However if you do, when you have it working it’s the best feeling in the world. Or wait a few months and buy the Parrot Disco, it does it all for you wrapped up in a nice package. It even won lots of awards at CES for innovation. Know I just need to figure out how to get a NADIR NDVI camera in to one. I’ll let you know how I do…….




Many thanks to Glenn McGourty, Josh Metz and Steve Allott on making this survey possible.

Sometimes the Whole is Greater than the Sum of the Parts


So today I was invited to a UAV product launch, with a company I’ve discussed before Drone Deploy, and . However this story has a couple of twists, actually 3 in total. But before we get to that, let’s go back to how it all started.

Drone Deploy was founded by Mike, Jono and Nicholas, 1 Ex-Google and 2 Cambridge Ph.D.’s. Back in the early days in their home in South Africa they decided to try and turn their hobby of RC flying, into saving Rhinos from being poached. That idea sat in their collective minds, and with their passion for RC flight and Engineering knowledge, fast forward and they founded Drone Deploy back in 2013. That’s a pretty noble start, Drones for Good, rather than setting up to just make a quick buck and check out. And I believe that is what makes Drone Deploy what it is today. Rather than focus on money, they focused on how to solve a problem. And from my own personal testing of the system, and from the demo’s today they have a pretty good solution. And as normal when you have a good solution, the money will find you.

That’s not to say they don’t have bugs or issues, actually Drone Deploy will openly say they are improving their product on a daily basis. And that is good, they are listening to their customers and they acknowledge they have work to do and want to do. As with most start-ups they have now hit the conflicting growth versus support issue. When you are a small agile start-up rolling out a new product, that small team now has a massive customer base to support.


Ok back to today, so what does this all mean for you. Well 3 things were announced today at the rather nice launch site at Rams Gate Winery in Sonoma, California, it’s well worth the visit (Nice choice Gretchen.) OK I’ll now go through each in turn.

Number One – The Mobile App


So when I first started mapping, I had to drag out my laptop, a portable table and chair, rig up a sun screen so I could see my computer screen, setup a hotspot via my phone. Then I could go about mission planning. I got used to it, but it just never felt right dragging all this gear around. I got good at packing and unpacking, but it was wasted time.

So I meet Drone Deploy late last year and now I can take just my iPad out and connect that to my phone hotspot and through the web, connect to the Drone Deploy and control my drone. I’ve mentioned that in my past blogs.

Now I just need my iPhone 6+. Normally I preplan a mission at the office, go to the flying site, put down my drone, power it up, pull out my phone from my back pocket, hit the Drone Deploy App, and there in front of me is the pre-planned mission. And you just press go. If flies, it stitches, it lands, you’re done. It’s so easy anyone can fly it, and that’s exactly the point, the workflow has been simplified so the farmer, construction worker, search and rescue personnel, can just define a mapped area, hit go and the rest is all done for you.

So let’s step back, I used to drag a laptop, desk, chair, and sunscreen, have to connect to my hotspot. Now I just pull my smartphone out of my back pocket. That’s what this App does. Now I don’t bother with a laptop or iPad, I just fly using my iPhone 6+

Number Two – Partnership with DJI


Now this is a bit of a big announcement, what has happened here is the top-selling drone manufacturer has just partnered with the leading drone cloud mapping company. Now what does this really mean? Well just looking at the numbers, and these are off the top of my head, DJI has 70% market share on consumer drones with the Phantom and Inspire 1. Now imagine if all you need is a Drone Deploy App, and suddenly these aerial photography and video drones, suddenly become photogrammetry drones capable of GIS work. Just from an App on your phone. Let’s think about that, wherever you have phone service you can make your DJI drone becoming a mapping drone. That means that this is a Global rollout, anywhere in the World, countries cellular barriers are removed as your using a phone from that country. So if you’re a farmer in Peru, or a construction working in China or doing humanitarian work as is now on-going in Vanuatu, you have in your hands now a real autonomous mapping tool with near instantaneous stitching. All from that Phantom you have sat in the garage. God knows what Cartman on South Park would have done with a Drone Deploy Phantom!

So what exactly can a Phantom with Drone Deploy do, well here are some maps, as normal with Drone Deploy you get a fully stitched orthomosaic, a pseudo NDVI (unless you have a NIRGB camera then it is true ENDVI or NDVI), Digital elevation Model and of course the 3D model. So here are maps of the Rams Gate Winery, one showing the Vineyard, the other the Property. Remember this is a stock Vision+ camera, it’s pretty impressive. Now just imagine what could happen in the future with the Inspire with its removable camera, you now are looking at possible swappable sensor payloads. The future is coming.

Maps of Rams Gate Winery Vineyard:


And here is the Vineyard Complex:


Now here is a zoomed in part of one of the maps, remember this is a Vision+ Camera


And just to show how easy it is here is a DJI Phantom 2 Vision+ taking off after Patrick Egan (@theDroneDealer and @sUASnews) after he hit the go button.

 Nmber Three – Funding


Like any startup it’s all about the burn-rate and growth. At some point to hit critical mass you need that injection of funds. I’ve been watching this space for a number of years, and it’s curious to see the people who are now funding start-ups. I’ve been through two start-ups myself, I enjoyed them and I took away valuable lessons, so I have some understanding of start-up issues. So I digress, Intel backed Precision Hawk, Richard Branson and Qualcomm backed 3D Robotics and now Emergence Capital Partners have backed Drone Deploy. It would appear the VC’s are paying attention to the economic benefit and growth of drone markets a lot more than the FAA is.

So who is Emergence Capital Partners, have you of You have, well Emergence Capital backed them. Out of this Kevin Spain who drove the deal through now sits’ on the Drone Deploy Board of Directors. So what does that mean for me and you? It means Drone Deploy has a mentor to guide it through its start-up growth, much like a parent guides its toddler when first walking. In reality it means Drone Deploy can boost its team to push for more functionality, resolve those customers’ bugs faster, build a larger customer support team, and you the customer gets a high quality polished tool that just works.

Here is Mike Winn the CEO of Drone Deploy introducing the 3 annoucemnts

The Takeaway?

So what my wrap up. Trust me Drone Deploy will have growing pains, every start-up has them, look at Makerbot. However what Drone Deploy have done today is fuse 3 parts together:

  1. Drone Deploy App, the UAV Cloud tech disruptor
  2. DJI, the largest consumer drone company in the world
  3. Emergence Capital Partners, an established VC establishment

What’s the take away, sometimes the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. I believe Steve Jobs said that he modeled Apple after this idea and it was based on his observations of the Beatles, as John, Ringo, Paul and George personalities balanced each other out, and that’s what made them excel. I believe that’s what just happened to the UAV World.

Sometimes the Whole is Greater than the Sum of the Parts

Until next time.



What happened at the AMA Expo 2015?

What happened at the AMA Expo 2015?



I’ve been a card carrying member of the Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA) for over a decade, when my first plane was a 2-channel (Motor Off-On and a Rudder) toy with a turning radius of Texas from a hobby store. Today that humble start has grown into a whole collection of Warbirds, 3D planes, EDF jets, Helicopters and of course the Multirotors. I’ve always meant to go to the AMA Expo held every year in Ontario in South California, but for one reason or another I never quite made it. This year given the influx of “drones”, I wondered how the AMA and the AMA Expo was coping with this change. Luckily I managed to get a Media Pass as I was covering the AMA Expo for RC Flight Camera Action Magazine in the UK (also thanks to AMA for sorting the pass out for me.) So this post is going to be a bit different, as I realized that I had a lot of photographs. So instead I’m going to let the photographs do the talking, interspersed with commentary from myself.


The Expo was spread over a number of days, Thursday 8th to Sunday 11th January. I attended Saturday the 10th, when the AMA General Meeting was held, with a large crowd. in attendance.  The speaker line-up was impressive as well as the event schedule


Swap Meet

As the crowd was queuing out of the door for the main hall I headed off to look at the Estate Sale and Swap Meet. There where 3 rooms set aside outside the main hall, and they were extremely busy. This was the place to find that bargain.

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Main Hall and Vendors

After the swap meet I headed over to the Main Hall now that the crowd had died down. As you entered the Ontario Convention Center you could tell that the AMA had done a great job of bringing a lot of vendors together, to display a whole range of diverse products and services.

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Static Display

First off the Static Display. Even given the abundance of ARF’s and RTF’s, the scratch and kit building is going strong. That’s not to say ARF and RTF are bad, the quality compared to 6 or 7 years ago is great and has got a lot more people into RC flying. But nothing is quite as beautiful as a scratch built model. You just know the hours and patience in building these models.

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My personal favorite was the P51 Mustang, it was amazing, the pictures don’t do it or any of the planes justice. Continuing on the plane theme, there was quite a selection of fixed wing vendors.

Fixed Wing

Horizon Hobby, Hobbico, Precision Aerobatics, SebArt (love those planes) and of course Ritewing (FPV and Mapping fixed wing masters with their Z2, Z3 and new under development Drak.) The Habu and Slick where particular tempting.

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So not to be left out and and not to be outshone by the “drone” syndrome, Helicopters were out in force. Nice to see Align TREX still going strong as well as Forza and Blades.

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So now we come to the Multirotors. So were there many at the AMA Expo? Well the answer to that is a big fat definite YES. Juts like at CES 2015, I can happily say 2015 is definitely the year of the “drone” Interesting enough the multirotor market has now fractured into more specialized niches. These can be broken down into hobbyist, amateur viedo and photogrpahy, professional video and photography, aerobatic/flipping inverted and finally FPV racers. So here’s a look at some of the multirotors in each category.

Hobbyist Multirotors

There was quite a selection of hobbyist multirotors, with Horizon Hobby, Hobbico having full ranges from the miniature up to the 200 size class. These copters are great for an introduction to flying and has become one of the fastest growing segments in the RC hobbyist field. In fact I believe this growth in hobbyist multirotors has lead to the AMA hitting a new membership record. I must say I congratulate the AMA for reaching out to multirotor enthusiasts, and helping educate them with such programs as “Know before you Fly”  I also congratulate the manufacturers who are adding more functionality and safety features such as Horizon Hobby SAFE technology.

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Amateur Video and Photography

The trend with manufacturers appears to be designing drones with gimbals and either a GoPro camera mount or their own proprietary cameras. This year appears to be the year that video downlinks and FPV for amateurs is really getting traction. Here you see the Roswell Flight Crew checking out a AP multirotor with a video downlink built into the controller. Also a very nice system from UAVX with control sticks for flight, a separate set gimbal sticks for the gimbal and a HD video downlink. It can also be paired with Google Glass, so you can see all the information and video downlink as your flying.

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Professional Video and Photography

Two multirotors stood out at the AMA Expo for professional use, everyone knows the DJI Inspire 1, however the other newcomer is the Align M690L, I’ll talk more about that later.

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Aerobatic, Inverted and Flipping Multirotors

Yes areobatic flipping and inverted drones were popping up all over the place. Here is a demonstration from Invertex, pretty cool demo flight.

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FPV Racers

The FPV community was well represented by the likes of XHover, RC Depot and DroneProz. The last two photographs are of my first FPV Racer by RC Depot QAV250. It’s flying on an OpenPilot CC3D that is simple to connect, setup and flies amazingly well. Looking froward to spending more time flying it. I’ll keep you posted. DroneProz had a RTF package and they explain about it here

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That Drone Show

I believe by now most people know “That Drone Show” and David and Sarah Oneal, who do an excellent job of interviewing a whole spectrum of personalities in the drone community. I met up with them at the AMA Expo, here you can see David doing his stuff with XHover, whilst later Sarah interviewed me They are also organizing International Drone Day and yes under their persuasive powers I’m the Captain of Team Santa Cruz.

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Precision Hawk

Thanks to Lia Reich (Senior Director of Communications) of Precision Hawk who gave Tyler Collins (Director of Business Development) the heads up I was dropping past for a talk. As you know from my previous posts I am very involved in the UAV Precision Agriculture area, so it was good to meet up with Tyler and discuss Tyler’s experience’s and my own. As to be expected we had a lot in common, including it’s all about the data, the drone is just a platform for sensors, NDVI is useful but not the magic bullet people profess it to be. Overall it was a very enjoyable chat. Tyler also gave me a run down on their new LATAS sense and avoid technology which works over 2/3G cellular links. Whats very interesting is that Precision Hawk are rolling LATAS out as an open source product, which is a very insightful idea. The only way to critical mass and roll-out is to have a large number of people adopt a common strategy, and open source allows lots of different users to get involved and generate that critical mass.

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GPC had a case for everyone as can be seen below. The new Align Canon D5 copter case, Iris+, Phantom and even FPV racer cases.

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Flying Demos

Indoor flying areas were put to one side with a packed schedule, with Pro fliers wringing out the planes and helicopters, showing new designs and eye watering maneuvers.

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Other Sights

Well there was a lot to see at the Expo, including tanks, helicopters, gliders, the Civil Air Patrol, even NASA and the Roswell Flight Test Crew!

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Align Multirotors

Anyone who has flown helicopters knows of Align. A lot of pilots cut their teeth on the TREX 450 me included. Well Align has kept the helicopter brand going strong and has now branched out into the multirotor market with 4 new models The Leap, M470( GoPro), the 800mm M480L (GH4) and the 900mm M690L (Canon 5D MIII). As is normal with Align, the cost is extremely competitive and the quality and support outstanding. Looking over the designs, you can see the well thought out details.

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Multirotor of the Expo

So the standout of the AMA Expo for myself was the Align M690 which costs $1799.99. You can add a 3D gimbal for a GH4 for $1299.99, and a 3D gimbal for a Canon D5 MIII for $1389.99. That is $3189.98 for a quality Canon 5D AP platform. That’s with Align quality and support. A copter of this quality at this price point is unheard of.

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The AMA Expo pretty much lived up to my expectations with a diverse array of vendors and products. However yet again, all the evidence points towards that 2015 is the Year of the Drone.



God is my Co-Pilot……or is it Drone Deploy?

God is my Co-Pilot……or is it Drone Deploy?
3D Model 1


Recently I was approached about one of my previous blog posts on Vineyard Surveys by a Drone Startup based in San Francisco, Drone Deploy. In my previous blogs I’ve stated the importance of a whole system approach to UAV work with a smooth end-to-end flow. It’s not about the drone, or how sexy it is. It’s using the drone as a tool to get actionable data that can be used to improve your crop yields, reduce your survey times, in a sense make you work more efficiently with less workload. What Drone Deploy suggested is that they had taken the processing section of the workflow and automated it. From my experiences and from talking with other UAV operators, it’s clear flying and capturing useful images/data is 20% of the time, the rest of the 80% is data processing, analysis and decision making. However Mike Winn, CEO and founder (Jono Millin and Nicholas Pilkington are also founders) at Drone Deploy told me that they had devised a product that would take the data as the drone is flying, yes as it’s flying, and start processing as it’s flying, and 15 to 30 minutes after landing you would have all the processed data available. Really? This seemed too good to be true, as such I set off on this investigation to see how well Drone Deploys system worked.


What is Drone Deploy?
I first came across Drone Deploy in May 2014 at the sUBSExpo in San Francisco, where they presented their Co-Pilot hardware and software post-processing system. The premise behind the presentation is that Drone Deploy gathers your images as they are taken and uploads them to the cloud, where they are then processed on extremely fast and optimized servers designed for this application. The results are the presented via the cloud to the user by any device with a web browser interface. In this way the cloud processing can achieve image post processing times unobtainable with your normal system at home or office.
So I hear you ask, how do you get the images from the aircraft to the cloud? Well Drone Deploy have addressed this by using a cellular module, the Co-Pilot (thus the blog title,) which runs at LTE data-rates to allow images to be pushed to the cloud from the camera as it is taking the images. So you start to realize now how much work Drone Deploy have put into the Co-Pilot and the associated cloud processing. The Co-Pilot itself has the LTE module for image transfer to the cloud, a Wifi module that talks to the survey Camera and a telemetry link that talks with the Flight Controller. That’s pretty cool. Why? Because the Co-Pilot takes the GPS coordinates from the flight controller when the camera is triggered, and stamps it onto the image. As such none-GPS cameras can be used to generate Orthomosaics, which can later be overlaid onto Google Earth. However what’s even cooler, is that the LTE link is bi-directional. What’s the advantage of this? It allows you to talk to the aircraft from your smart device via a web-browser, which really doesn’t seem like a major deal. But what Drone Deploy have done is integrate the flight controller mission planning into their own web browser mission planner. This allows you to plan a mission, fly the mission, and look at the post-processed mapping/survey data on the same device just by using a web browser, no telemetry links etc. Also Drone Deploy have addressed multiple markets and platforms with their Web-based mission planning and data viewing App. First they support both fixed-wing and rotary aircraft including helicopters and multirotors. Secondly, they have devised mission planning categories for surveying, agriculture, construction and 3D modeling. Chose the category to best plan your mission.

So what happens if you don’t have cellular coverage or if you don’t live in North America. Well Drone Deploy is working on both of those points. You can pre-plan a mission and fly without the cellular telemetry downlink. Once you are back where a cellular signal exists, trun on the UAV, and it will upload all the images to the Drone Deploy cloud and process them. Also in the future Drone Deploy is looking at adding WiFi/Bluetooth links to do in-field communication from your smart device to the UAV.

OK so what about international customers, again Drone Deploy has the foresight to see the UAv community as been global, and as such is rolling out deployment in the next months overseas. Keep watching.


What does a Drone Deploy Mission Look Like?
So here is a test case using a multirotor:
1. Put the multirotor at its takeoff point, turn on your transmitter, turn on the UAV camera and then connect the UAV battery. At this point the UAV will connect to the Drone Deploy cloud server and upload any updates if necessary.
2. Get out your smart device be it an Android phone, iPhone, laptop, tablet and log on to Drone Deploy website and enter your account information. You will then be taken to the Dashboard, which has all the missions you have planned off-line (you can plan missions in the warmth of your office/home) or missions flown with generated maps.
3. You now have the choice to plan a new mission, fly a mission you planned off-line, or re-fly a mission you have already flown.
4. Let’s plan a new mission. Pick a category, such as Agricultural.
5. You will be asked which aircraft profile and camera you want to use and your present location.
6. Draw a perimeter around your required survey area and define your required ground resolution per pixel or altitude.
7. Drone Deploy will then generate a flight path to optimize the correct image overlaps to allow correct stitching. What’s also important is that it only takes enough images necessary. Having too many extends processing time. As such normal rules are fly as high as you can, as fast as you can and get just enough images to allow quality data stitching and analysis. Drone Deploys figures that all out for you. As such the Co-Pilot also triggers the camera according to when it determines trigger points are in its computed flight path. Note, the flight path generation also checks flight duration versus aircraft capability. As such if the mission exceeds the aircraft endurance this will be flagged as a safety issue.
8. By now the multirotor status will be visible on the webpage and will report connection, updates, GPS-lock and finally FLY NOW.
9. You now click on the symbol “FLY NOW” and the Co-Pilot will go through a preset checklist, it will connect to the camera, check camera battery, check multirotor battery, ensure you have GPS-lock, and take a test image and down-load it from the copter to your browser. If all checks pass, the checklist is passed and you get the “Ready to Launch”. If any check fails, the copter will not launch, this is an inherent safety feature so you do not take off with low batteries, no GPS lock etc.
10. Now switch your transmitter to Auto, and press “Launch” on your browser screen. A notice will come up stating “Takeoff in 5 Seconds” The countdown will begin and at 0 the copter will takeoff and climb to survey height. It will then start to fly the mission.
11. During the flight, the images are downloaded to the cloud and processed as you fly. The images are also presented on your web browser screen along with aircraft speed, height and battery level. The flight plan is shown, with the aircraft progress, direction of travel and the direction it’s pointing.
12. The next bit is truly impressive. During the flight and as images are processed in the cloud, stitched results are placed in realtime, yes in realtime on the flight path of your web browser. From anyone who has used stitching software this is like a miracle to watch, realtime stitching whilst the copter is still in the air!
13. At the end of the survey, the copter returns to the take-off point (or the point you want it to land) and lands.
14. After landing large sections of the area will be stitched or even fully stitched. Results may even be available already. However results such as stitched Orthomosaic, ENDVI maps, Digital Elevation Models and 3D models will be viewable in approx. 15 minutes depending on mapping area.
15. So now power-off, pack-up your copter. Then get your smartphone etc. view the results as you are stood in the field, and using geo-referenced survey map generated from the mission go crop ground truthing etc.
16. On to the next site.

Note: Safety is paramount and Drone Deploy uses an extensive three dimensional geo-fence, that monitors aircraft deviation away from the expected flight corridor. Excessive deviations will trigger a return home and land. They also supply No-Fly Zones during mission planning.

It really is that simple and fast. Here is a video of the whole process using a preplanned flight, look how fast it takes (apologizes for iPad glare.)

And here is a video of 20 acres been stitched in realtime:


Test Bed

For the initial exercise a 3D Robotics Iris+ was used. The reasoning behind this decision was to prove out that a small consumer drone could fly a commercial survey mission. Remember my initial point “the drone it’s just a tool”. I see a lot of UAV manufacturers with excellent products, however the price tags are in the $15k to $30k price range. Again all the drone does is act as a camera platform, it’s the images from the camera that are the important bit. If you want quality data, focus on the payload system, and just use the drone as a tool to carry it. Could a $750 consumer drone do a full commercial UAV survey using Drone Deploy? Most farmers and agronomists want a ROI on new technology, so why not give them a tool they can get a feel for UAV’s in precision agriculture, but without breaking the bank account? Only one way to find out.


So next was the choice of camera and gimbal. Obviously, this is the tradeoff of resolution, weight, flight time and spectral coverage. The Iris+ can carry a GoPro Hero 3 or 4 either in a hard mount or using a Tarot Gimbal. To ensure good data a gimbal is used such that the camera is always pointed straight down in a NADIR position. This position and the brushless gimbal ensure the image is sharp with the correct overlap. However it is expected that the hard mount could be used and is a future investigation.


So now talking about the GoPro. Obviously we want to do vegetation health and stress analysis so we need some type of Near-Infrared, or Red Edge camera. This requires taking a stock GoPro, opening it up and removing the normal lens/filter used for RGB daylight photography/video:


(If you are not confident in doing this please use a vendor purchase from RageCams or IR-Pro instead.)
Once the old lens is removed, use a new replacable screw-in NIR-GB lens. There are number of lens that exist on the market from IR-Pro and Peau


So what results should you expect from a GoPro NDVI? The most important thing to recognize is that this is not a referenced NDVI camera. To go that route you are looking at much more expensive solutions. Here we are talking about a cheap scouting copter for farmer to take the first steps into UAV with a short ROI which does not break the bank, but can generate actionable data and can identify vegetation and crop issues, that are correlated to ground data. The holy grail of UAV NDVI is still that, you speak with anyone with experience in this field (bad pun) and they will tell you that although everyone holds NDVI up as the only metric. That’s untrue, in reality it’s using any combination of cameras to generate UAV images, which are combined with ground data to generate actionable data. Different crops work better with different cameras, processing, camera combinations i.e. NGB and FLIR for example. There is no single camera/formula which will work for all solutions. Of course resolution, imager size, rolling shutter effects etc. play into this as well, but the question here is, can you use a GoPro for NDVI that allows useful correlation with ground data.

So let’s do some comparisons. Below are 2 scenes, one of an open space, one of a plant, with photographs taken with a normal RGB Canon SX260HS, the GoPro with a IR-Pro InfraBlue22 NDVI lens, a Canon SX260HS with an older style Event 38 filter, and finally a Canon SX260HS with a new style Event 38 filter. That’s 8 photographs in all. Obviously you cannot vegetation health from the RGB, but it’s our reference to understand what we are looking at.
RGB Photographs


Now look at the GoPro NDVI photograph. You can see the vegetation is red/brown/pink, whilst the manmade objects are mostly as viewed by our RGB reference. However you see some pink tinge to the manmade objects.
GoPro Photographs

Looking to the older Event 38 filter, you can see that this has similar type of spectral separation, with some overlap between the vegetation and manmade objects. Here the manmade objects such as the road and buildings have a slight pink tinge to them, but less than the GoPro. This is due to the red notch roll-off, filter corner frequency.
Old Event 38 Photographs

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On the newer Event 38 filters, you can now see good separation of spectral content, with manmade objects having no or little pink, and the vegetation been much better defined pinks/browns. This is because the new filter has a roll-off which is steeper and the corner is moved slightly up in the spectrum.
New Event 38 Photographs

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As such you can see how 3 different NIR filters with good imagers, two with the same Canon imager, can generate significantly differently results. For today the flights are only concerned with the GoPro InfraBlue22 NDVI lens, but in later blogs I’ll be looking at filters for Canon Point-Shoot and the Sony Alpha range of cameras, as finally with an Event 38 GoPro lens using the filter shown in the above Canon SX260HS. At that time I’ll be looking to do a fly off of all the different lenses and cameras, thus showing the relative merits and drawbacks of each.
Now one curious point about having a GoPro InfraBlue22 NDVI lens, is that you can now shoot NIR video, and here is a sample. Again look at the ground color which is sparse due to the California drought, the accumulated water from the first rain in months, the vibrant color of the trees, and manmade objects like the path and buildings:
Now one question I have been asked a lot is, “can I fly a GoPro NDVI and look at the video to see crop health. In this way I won’t have to do all this image stitching and processing.” I’m afraid not, the GoPro InfraBlue22 is not really NDVI camera, what it does is captures NIR, Green and Blue spectra which then needs to be processed by software on a pixel by pixel basis to generate a NDVI image, using a NDVI, ENDVI, DVI formula. Many formulas exist and each formula has its own merits in terms of results for different crops, sun and cloud conditions, filter type etc. To get an NDVI image of a large area, you need to capture a set of overlapped still images in NIR-G-B (or other band combination dependent on filters), stitch them together and then process them according to a formula. If anyone has a NDVI video processing software let me know, or I’ve just given you your next Startup or Kickstarter idea.


Test Cases
Three test cases were flown. The flights were preplanned away from the field, then flown using just an Apple iPad with Internet connection whilst at the field. Two surveys covered 20 acres at an altitude of 80m and took approximately 9 minutes to fly, whilst the last survey covered 5 acres at 50m with an elapsed time of 5 minutes. The flights were flown with the GoPro 3 Black converted and using the IR-Pro InfraBlue22 NDVI lens, in a downward pointing NADIR position, in a Tarot Gimbal, flown on a 3D Robotics Iris+ multirotor. The test sites were chosen as they consisted of a number of plant habitats and included wild and mown meadow, manmade objects, seeded lawn with grounds keeper care. To act as a reference, the images from each survey were also processed in Pix4D Pro as well. Due to the nature of the test sites, stitching was not easy and this was intended to test the efficiency of the algorithms.


Test Case 1

Wild Meadow in drought with rolling hills with a general declining elevation away from the takeoff point. Mixture of wild meadow, mowed meadow, brush, with fences, paths and cattle. Flight covered 20 acres at an altitude of 80m and took 9 minutes to fly. 37% battery left.

Drone Deploy Flight Path


Drone Deploy Orthomosaic


Drone Deploy NDVI


Drone Deploy Digital Elevation Model


Drone Deploy 3D Model


Pix4D Ray Cloud


Pix4D Orthomosaic




Ground Photographs

Picture 1 – Looking South over the Survey Site


Picture 2 – Ground vegetation and brush


Picture 3 – The hole in the ground and the bump


Picture 4 – The path up the left side of survey area


Picture 5 – The road and banking to the right of survey area


Ground Truthing
Picture 1 shows a view looking over the survey sight. You can see the rolling nature of the meadow, which is made up of grass, vegetation and brush shown in picture 3. This is common grazing meadow. Interesting if you look towards the center of the photograph at the next hill, just to the left you will see an off-road vehicle track which bends around the hill. Now look at the Orthomosaic and NDVI to the right side and you will see a blue area which bends. This is the same feature, but why the blue? Well look more to the right towards the road and compare to Picture 5. You’ll see a bank, but on the NDVI where the bank is again a blue area. Now look at the Orthomosaic, NDVI, DEM and 3D model and in the middle you will again see a blue area. Looking at Picture 3 this can be seen to be due to a big hole in the ground. So what is causing the blue? Well the survey was taken in the afternoon in late December, with the Sun low in the horizon, as such the blue is from shadows. Now look at the NDVI to the left side and you see an area of blue, this is actually shadows from the dead brush shown in Picture 2.
The rest of the NDVI shows varying degrees of green which correlates to different densities of grass throughout the meadow. In Picture 4, you can see a path to the left of the hole, which is easily seen on the Orthomosaic, NDVI, DEM and 3D Model. And that is what’s interesting is the amount of data produced, from different vegetation densities, identifying elevation changes, depressions and water drainage areas, fence lines, paths etc. It’s data rich information from a single 9 minute UAV flight over 20 acres.


Test Case 2
Meadow in drought with wild and mowed areas, buildings and concrete path in survey area, see 3D model. Takeoff was from the top of a hill to the left center of the survey site, with the land dropping away in altitude in a rolling manner. Rain the previous days highlighted by areas of accumulated water in low lying basins. 9 min 10 sec flight at 80m with 41% battery left at landing.

Drone Deploy Flight Path


Drone Deploy Orthomosaic


Drone Deploy NDVI


Drone Deploy Digital Elevation Model


Drone Deploy 3D Model

3D Model_Bike

Pix4D Ray Cloud


Pix4D Orthomosaic




Ground Photographs

Picture 1 – Looking South of take-off point

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Picture 2 – Looking North of take-off point

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Picture 3 – Looking at depression in ground South of take-off filled with water

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Picture 4 – Looking to the West of take-off point, towards mowed area, treeline and Sun


Ground Truthing
The DEM and 3D Model and good representations of the survey site, with the DEM showing the marked elevation changes, which can be seen by looking at the ground photographs. The buildings can be seen in Picture 2, and visible at the top of the mosaic and NDVI. The tarmac bike paths can also be clearly seen.
To the middle left of the NDVI image can be see a blue area. Closer examination shows this to be due to the shadow of the trees, look closer at the shadow shape. It can also be seen in the Orthomosaic. Looking around further, and comparing to the DEM, you can see that the significant areas of blue are all on the right side of elevation slopes in the DEM. As such these are again shadows due to elevation changes and plants/bushes. This observation falls in line with Test Case 1. In this case the survey was run in late December at around 3pm, where the Sun cast shadows. Another reason for blue is water. Look at Picture 3 with the depression filled with water, then look at the same location in the NDVI and Orthomosaic. So here you have similar colors for different reasons. Another point to watch out for.
Different plant and vegetation densities show up as different shades or colors. In this case more dense areas showed up as a stronger green, whilst mowed areas and paths were more of a darker green. You can see the differences by comparing Picture 4 where you can see unmowed/mowed with the Orthomosaic and NDVI imagery.


Test Case 3
Soccer field cared by ground keeping staff. Covers approx. 5 acres. Flight time of 5 minutes at 80m, with 62% battery left after landing.

Drone Deploy Flight Path


Drone Deploy Orthomosaic


Drone Deploy NDVI


Drone Deploy Digital Elevation Model


Drone Deploy 3D Model


Pix4D Ray Cloud


Pix4D Orthomosaic




Ground Photographs


Ground Truthing
From the Orthomosaic, NDVI from both Drone Deploy and Pix4D, the question is, what’s with the circle patterns? Well that’s a good question. Just looking at the ground photograph it’s hard to even see the pattern unless you already know it’s there. So what is it? To be truthful I can say what the difference is, but not why. The area within the circles appears to be of a different density of seeding, with more densely packed growth outside to inside the circles. As to why a circular pattern, I have no idea. There are no sprinklers to generate such a well defined pattern. At this time I’m going to approach the field owners to ask some questions.


Drone Deploy Observations
So let’s go over my observations from this investigation of Drone Deploy:
1. UAV data needs to be ground truthed. Without correlating ground and aerial data, you have no means to interpret what you are seeing. UAV images and in particular NDVI imagery however can highlight issue areas, and with experience seasoned UAV operators can pull on past knowledge to make educated assessments.
2. Drone Deploy is fast and simple. Its GUI is intuitive and actionable data is delivered in a simple to understand format. Drone Deploy is so easy to use via a tablet, a non RC experienced user can easily fly a survey, and get quality results in a very short time.
3. Stitching on the go, it’s unheard of and it’s not a gimmick. Having the ability to see maps generated as you fly means spotting issues with images whilst in-flight, or issues in the field straight away.
4. Actionable data, it’s not just a saying. Drone Deploy generates Orthomosaic overlayed on Google Earth which has great alignment. It’s amazing to watch as you zoom in the quality of detail in Drone Deploy area, compared to surrounding Google Earth imagery.
5. You get 4 sets of data in one go, Orthomosaic, NDVI, Digital Elevation model and 3D Model all in one . Also all the data can be exported and shared.
6. The GoPro does not have GPS and for this exercise I didn’t try to match the GoPro clock to the Pixhawk clock, so I could align using the Iris+ logs. Instead the Pix4D images were stitched with un-geotagged images. As such I was quite amazed at the speed and ability of Pix4D to stitch none geotagged images from a GoPro. At no time did Pix4D fail to stitch the images from any survey flight I flew.
7. Most parameters on the GoPro are controllable, except one, shutter speed. My expectation, and one raised by Agribotix in their blog in the past, is that the lack of shutter speed control with flight speeds of UAV’s would generate blurring. In fact this was not the case. You’d be unable to stitch images if this was the case.
8. Drone Deploy and Pix4D data correlates well, showing that both companies have done their homework on how to generate data that is quality, correct and actionable.
9. You can fly 20 acres with a consumer drone such as an Iris+, capturing NGB images to generate NDVI data whilst the aircraft is still in the air. Given the battery capacity left and flying at 107m it is feasible to cover 25 acres with such a setup.
10. NDVI data is not infallible, it is a function of camera quality, filters, Sun and lighting conditions. Be aware of the limitations of the technology you are using to get the best data available.


Drone Deploy Conclusions
Overall I’m very impressed with the Drone Deploy system. This is a disruptive technology in the commercial UAV space, where the UAV is viewed as a tool rather than pretty piece of sexy technology. In this space the UAV is just a part of the whole system, an important part, but the end goal is actionable data. Using a consumer drone from 3D Robotics, the Iris+, and flying a NDVI converted camera, Drone Deploy facilitated a number of 20 acre NDVI crop scouting flights, with actionable data available in minutes that correlated with ground data. On top of that Drone Deploy have made a system that a worker in the field with no previous experience of RC flight can be trained on a flown with a smartphone or tablet. Nothing else today exists to do this. I believe Drone Deploy has a very bright future.
If you are interested in learning more about this system, drop me an email at



I’d just like to personally thank the following people for making this investigation a success. Mike Winn for initially reaching out to me to discuss the vision of Drone Deploy. Jono Millin and Nicholas Pilkington for business and mapping support, and Jeremy Eastwood, Chase Gray and Manu Sharma for technical assistance. Best of luck and I’m sure that you will do well. Also congratulations on hiring Gretchen West.

In my next blog I aim to cover flying a number of different cameras on a 3D Robotics X8M platform with and without Drone Deploy. The cameras will range from GoPro, through Point and Shoot to high end consumer.



How to Crash your Drone in 30 Seconds……. Or Hopefully not with a Little Information

How to Crash your Drone in 30 Seconds…….Or Hopefully not with a Little Information


So if you’ve got a RC plane, Helicopter or Multirotor for Christmas congratulations, I’m sure you’re going to really enjoy it. I’m hopefully going to explain the opposite of the article title and give you some pointers so you don’t crash your new drone. It should also make your flying more enjoyable and less stressful.

Now for starters like anything most things there are a couple of rules that you need to understand. Generally drones are governed by the countries airspace authority, such as the CAA in the UK and the FAA in the USA. Policy, advisories and rules exist to separate RC aircraft from manned aircraft, keeping them apart and avoiding collisions. Globally airspace authorities are struggling to keep pace with the massive explosion of the hobbyist and commercial drone market. However the general rules are:

FAA know

  1. Fly no higher than 400 feet. Why? Manned aircraft do not fly below 400’, small drones no higher than 400’, therefore they avoid collisions. Never ever fly above 400’ AGL (above ground level) your risking people’s lives.
  2. Always keep your aircraft in sight, you need to be able to determine where is pointing, which direction it’s traveling and be able to recover it and fly it safely back to you. If you cannot see you don’t have correct situational awareness and you likely to crash or have a flyaway (more later.)
  3. Never fly within 5 miles of an airport or on the approach paths to an airport. Again it’s pretty commonsense, but worth mentioning.
  4. If you see a manned aircraft nearby, avoid any chance of flying nearby and if possible land.
  5. Do not fly over or near people. Well the reason is pretty obvious, loose control and you can really hurt someone, if your batteries run out of power, you’ve got a 2lb flying brick falling from 400’, yes it could really hurt.
  6. Don’t fly over Stadiums, this is generally restricted airspace during sporting or events. Again you don’ want your drone falling on people.
  7. Join a club and take a lesson.
  8. Inspect your drone for loose parts, good wiring connections, and tight propellers. Now is the time to find out your wing is loose, not 300’ up in the air.
  9. Do fly for fun, not commercially unless you have a commercial license.
  10. Normally weight restrictions apply, in the USA don’t fly a RC aircraft over 55lbs (unless waivered.)
  11. Don’t fly recklessly or dangerously. If you fly dangerously you can be arrested for reckless endangerment.
  12. Respect privacy. Drone privacy regulations are been formulated and discussed, but normal privacy laws apply. Doesn’t matter if it’s a drone, camera, telescopic, spying on your neighbors is illegal.

For the USA here is a short FAA video on small UAV policies.


OK so that is a quick discussion on the present policy, advisories and regulations, but let’s give you some hard learned lessons and pointers to help you fly safe. So how can you fly safer? Here are some pointers:

  1. When you get your drone, read the instructions cover to cover. Follow the instructions. This is where problems first start. You need to know what each knob, switch, lever on the transmitter does. You need to know the calibration procedures, most drones after been turned on need to be left untouched to calibrate the electronics, plus get things like compass and GPS calibrated. Imagine taking off with your compass wrong and GPS thinking you’re in Cape Town, South Africa, when you’re actually in Huddersfield, England? Well when you take off it’s going to start flying to South Africa! That’s called a “Flyaway”, where the drone just fly’s away out of your control (again flyways mentioned soon.)
  1. Join your local flying club, in the USA your local AMA @modelaircraft club. The people here enjoy RC flying and have lots of knowledge, people who can help train you and hold events like flying contests, fun fly days, BBQ’s etc. Contact your AMA club and attend.
  1. Buy a flight simulator, it really will save you money in the long term. Flight simulators from Real Flight . Are very realistic in graphics and flight dynamics. You can learn to difficult maneuvers without crashing, and if you do you just hit RESET and you’re flying again. This really will save you lots of money and climbing trees. Flight simulators are particular important for RC planes where you need to learn takeoff and landings, this is where most crashes occur for beginners. It also teaches you about orientation. Normally a RC plane, copter follows the direction of your transmitter sticks when viewed from behind, however when the plane or copter is pointing towards you the transmitter stick movements are reversed! This is another reason for beginner crash, you’re up in the air and no idea front from back, and you’ve taken off in your back yard and stuffed it into that 40’ conifer tree. Trust me, get a flight simulator fly in manual mode, and avoid all those fancy stabilization modes for now. Fly until its subconscious. Once you have done that, go fly at your RC Club field with seasoned pilots. You’re still going to crash but no way near as if you hadn’t practiced on a simulator. Also the best way to improve is to avoid crashing on the simulator. Fly as if the aircraft was real. You’ll learn a lot faster, practice each simulator session with a set maneuver to improve in mind i.e. take-off, landing, level turns, loops, rolls etc.


  1. Fly in a big open space, not your back yard unless it’s big! Flying in a small area with limited beginner skills probably means you’re going to crash, your reaction skills and muscle memory haven’t had the correct training yet. You need to subconsciously react, normally if you have to think about which direction you’re pointed, or what to do, you’ve already crashed.
  1. Fly two mistakes high. It’s an old saying but very true. You’ll come to learn what you safety margin is, but your should be able to make two mistakes and recover before you crash. This is more applicable to planes, as nowadays Multirotor have stability recovery systems which recover if you let go of the sticks. Planes if you let go of the sticks they just crash (unless they have the new recovery systems now entering the market.)
  1. Never fly over your head or behind you. It’s the best way to loose orientation and crash. It’s also a safety issue, as any spectators should be stood behind you.
  1. Never fly into the sun. There is a reason WW2 fighter pilots dove out of the sun on their prey, you cannot see and will lose sight of your aircraft and probably crash.
  1. Always check your transmitter and aircraft batteries are fully charged before taking off. There is nothing like the fear of hearing the beeper as your transmitter batteries run out of power and you try desperately to land your aircraft before you lose connection and it flies off in to the sunset.
  1. Avoid Flayaways or recover from them. This can be caused by a number of issues such as firmware updates of your drone, bad GPS and compass calibration, incorrect switch settings etc. Main thing be very careful after doing a firmware update on your drone, and make sure you have completed the correct compass and GPS calibrations. Also be careful when flying with GPS when Solar Flare activity is high, this can disrupt GPS and cause flyaways. If your drone starts to fly where you don’t expect it do the following:
    1. Check your switch settings and move to correct positions.
    2. If that is OK, switch to MANUAL.
    3. If that doesn’t work, switch to RTL or LAND.
    4. If that doesn’t work turn off your Transmitter and the failsafe’s should kick in.
    5. Follow the Instructions for your drone about Flyaway recovery.


  1. For RC planes practice dead-stick landings, where you throttle the engine all the way back and land by gliding. It’s a good technique to learn for WHEN your motor quits in the future, either from a lack of gas or a low battery.
  1. For Collective pitch helicopters practice autorotation’s, where you cut the throttle and use the blades energy to keep you flying with a flare at the bottom for landing.
  1. Don’t try engine off landing on fixed pitch Multirotor, you’ll just dig a hole in the ground as it falls like a brick.
  1. Follow a checklist every time you fly, manned aircraft do it, it gets you into a routine of checks that no matter how obvious will help you spot issues before they become crashes.
  1. Always aim to land with >20% battery or fuel left. All you need is somebody to crash on your landing area and you’ll be glad you had that spare fuel. Plus it helps your batteries.
  1. Use small smooth control inputs, imagine you’re holding two glasses of water filled to the top. Don’t spill the water, make smooth small movements. Big fast movements over-control your aircraft and before you know it it’s in a death spiral or rocking violently from side to side. Smooth is king. If you’re out of control, center your controls, let the aircraft recover and then take control again.
  1. For RC planes always take-off into the wind and land into the wind, you get more lift and slower takeoff and approach speeds.
  1. For all aircraft monitor the wind and be prepared for gusts. If it’s too windy land.
  1. Practice crosswind landings on the simulator, A LOT, then try them at the flying field.
  1. Practice the basics before trying more complicated flight modes. The basics will save your aircraft when everything else goes wrong.
  1. Have fun, but be safe.


FPV Racer Photograph courtesy of Hovership

Merry Christmas



The LA Drone Expo – Is it really all about the Drone?

The LA Drone Expo – Is it really all about the Drone?


On Saturday 13th December, I had the fortunate opportunity to attend the first Los Angeles Drone Expo held at the LA Sports Arena. The Expo was organized by the UAV Systems Association in collaboration with the Tesla Foundation. Doors opened at 10am to a full crowd and closed again at 7pm. The Expo crowd ranged from local to national visitors, exhibitors and speakers.




The Expo was aimed at the small business consumer and commercial market, and it was well represented by the leading companies in this field. In particular booths that stood out were those by Aerial Media Pros, DJI and Drone Dudes. One point that was glaringly obvious is that it was virtually impossible to walk past a booth without seeing a DJI Phantom, they were just everywhere.


Two drones were generating significant attention, the DJI Inspire 1 and the DreamQii. The Inspire has really caught people’s imagination, and even with the $3k price tag people are snapping them up, even though people acknowledge the camera presently has deficiencies. It was the sought after drone to touch and play with. Here is a video I took in the Expo flight area, you have to be impressed with that retracting landing gear:


DreamQii got a lot of interest as well, it is easy to see why they have raised over $1.3Million on Indiegogo based on the interest at their booth. The days of crowd sourced drones are upon us given the success of the DreamQii on Indiegogo, and Air Dog and Hexo+ on Kickstarter.


Talking more about the exhibitors, the Expo was split between FPV racer, GoPro capable drones, Heavy Lift video drones lifting Red Epics, rounded out with numerous fixed wing drones and Software vendors.


There were two omissions that did catch the eye. 3D Robotics and Precision Hawk, although they were Sponsors they didn’t have booths at the Expo. 3D Robotics though was represented by Brandon Basso who did attend as a speaker.


The Speakers

The speakers attending the LA Drone Expo were a well-rounded group with a list of UAV Specialist from different fields. Examples are Brandon Basso from 3D Robotics, Chad Colby from 360 Yield Center covering Agriculture, Gretchen West formerly Executive VP of AUVSI covering present UAV business environment, Jono Millin from Drone Deploy, Antoine Martin of Pix4D, Lisa Ellman with her Polivation speech. The list goes on. Feedback from the Expo crowd was that the speeches and panels were well received, and attendance at the panels was high.


They were two noticeable events in the speaking session, one occurred when a former government employee interacted with the crowd in a brash interactive manner when talking about UAS regulations, which didn’t go down well. The room was full, as regulations are a focal point of interest for the commercial UAV community, however it was hard to swallow missives about careless UAV operation and we as a community had to be regulated to protect ourselves. You can imagine the atmosphere. The other event was when a protest occurred near the main speaker stage. I wasn’t near the stage when this happened, but it appears the protest was about Military drones and Codepink, which was a bit off the mark as this was a commercial UAV Expo?


A couple of small points did exist with the Speaker sessions, the timetable was not well advertised apart from on the Expo website, speakers were shuffled in order, and to compound issues there were two speaking stages and most people didn’t know the second stage existed. A number of people commented to me how they had missed presentations and panels due to these issues. Also the presentations were not videoed for later posting on-line. Having organizing and attended conference I understand the significant work involved in putting on an event of this size, and I’m sure AUVSA will correct these issues for next year.


The Discussions

Well you cannot go to a consumer and commercial drone expo without the present FAA situation been discussed. I talked with a good representation of people at the Expo, ranging from FPV racers, Phantom flyers, Commercial Video operators, Ex-Military UAV Operators, to company CEOs and Directors. There were many opinions but one common theme, the commercial UAV technology is evolving at a faster and accelerating pace and the FAA is failing to keep up. In a matter of fact most people believed the FAA is falling behind further each day, with one operator saying “The FAA is just in over its head and has no idea what to do.” Pretty sobering information.


Sensors, Data, and Data Processing

I also sat down with Colin Snow (@DroneAnalyst) and chatted about our pasts, plus present observations and experiences and what the future holds.


A drone theme was solidified from this discussion, which has been coming to the forefront of my thoughts over the past months, and from discussion with exhibitors. The drone is really just a tool or platform, much as a saw is a tool to a Carpenter. The purpose of a drone is to add a new perspective, to give us information from above in a more efficient and cost effective manner than manned and space based platforms. This is true if we are talking about photography, video, mapping, crop analysis, wildlife observation etc. The drone is really a platform for a sensor, what we are now seeing is that the information and data from that sensor payload is the focal point. Next once we have the data, how do we process that data fast and efficiently to generate actionable data, data that is useful to the end user.


To this end, you see companies such as MicaSense who closed $2Million in capital from Parrot. Chad Colby was kind enough to show me a MicaSense camera, which is a multispectral camera with 5 sensors with a 1.6 Mpixel resolution. This pitches it right into TetraCam territory, but with a $6500 price tag and the ability to use GoPro batteries and other useful functions. Using multispectral sensors you can generate more data on the same flight. This can be useful where different crops and crop issues react in different spectral bands. Here the multispectral camera should come into its own, helping improve crop yields.


FLIR and IR-DISTRO were also present, representing the IR sensor market, with higher refresh frequencies and higher resolutions. Then you have Peau Productions, GoPro and Red Epic, with the video market. The Peau Productions booth was always 2 to 3 people deep, the interest in the GoPro modification market is very strong.


Now data without processing is useless, and this was discussed a number of times, Bret Chillcott owner of Ag Eagle and Chad Colby from Yield 360 explained how flying the fields is great, but you just generate so much data, that present processing techniques require too long to generate actionable data. In an essence your processing cannot keep up with how fast data is generated. This is only going to get worse as multispectral sensors such as MicaSense become more widespread.


To overcome this companies like Pix4D and Drone Deploy are coming up with innovative ways to reduce the time from capturing data from flying, to generating actionable data. Pix4D which was at the Expo for example has streamlined its processing, and has new algorithms to address multispectral cameras. Here one camera is defined as the master and the majority of camera position relative to image processing is done on this camera, the remaining cameras are then treated as copies with defined distance offsets in X & Y from the master. In this way the multispectral camera data can be processed much faster. I’m a Pix4D user, so these improvements look very promising with new GPU and multi-processor options and a new 3D textured mesh model.


Drone Deploy also present at the Expo has a more distributed processing approach and uses Cloud processing. As the drone is flying, images are loaded via cellular network to the Cloud, where high speed servers process the data whilst the drone is still in the air. 15 to 30 minutes after landing, actionable data is generated. Additional functionality exists, where the copter or plan, can be programmed, flown, and final data reviewed all in the field using just an iPad style tablet, smartphone or laptop. So what Drone Deploy have just done is made drone flight possible with almost real time actionable data for the farmer in the field, the inspection team looking at solar farms, to the construction inspector. What is also innovative is that as the system is Cloud based, the UAV can be flown by an operator, whilst the data can be reviewed by an analyst thousands of miles away. This means multiple global UAV operators can feed data back to one remote analysis person/group. Even more impressive is that Drone Deploy also allows you to fly multiple drones from one site concurrently. You don’t need to be a RC hobbyist to generate actionable data from drones anymore. Just ask Gretchen West, she was the Executive VP of AUVSI and an advocate for a decade in commercial UAV operation. It was announced at the LA Drone Expo that she is now joining Drone Deploy as it’ Business Strategist and Regulatory Affairs spokesperson. I do believe Drone Deploy is on to something. I’ve recently tested Drone Deploy myself in the field and I was impressed, how it simplified the end-to-end workflow for actionable drone data. What was good to understand, is that my impressions were backed up by other Expo attendees.


Another innovative software drone company was the new startup Pixie Path. Again this company is looking towards the Cloud, but with the intention of cloud operation of drones. This in a sense is along the path of Drone Deploy, but here the operation is more autonomous than autopilot and data gathering. This style of autonomous cloud based flight operations removes the human, and allows a Cloud system to interface and control the drone/s. In a sense the human element and hopefully human issues are removed, although I wonder how the FAA will react to that. The hope is in the future this style of drone operation will allow easier integration into the National Airspace (NAS), as cloud drone operations can directly interface to ATC. It’s an interesting concept and worth watching.


The Takeaway

So what was the key takeaway for me from the Expo? The North American commercial drone community is innovating and thriving, the barrier is policy and regulations. This is a long told story.

What is an emerging trend though, is how the drone community has matured over the past year. Drones have gone from been purely military, to the Phantom stage, and now we are entering the emergence of the professional small commercial businesses. The focus is now shifting away from the drone, but more to what applications can we use them for, how do we do it more efficiently, how do we help generate actionable data?

So in the end the Takeaway is:


It’s not about the Drone, it’s really all about the data.



eXom – the drone that lets you focus on your work, not on flying

eXom – the drone that lets you focus on your work, not on flying
senseFly brings next-generation rotary UAVs to life at Intergeo 2014


Sensefly who is well known for its eBee Ag and eBee RTK fixed wing drones, but they have now moved into the Multirotor arena. Announced at Intergeo, Berlin, today the Sensefly Exom was launched to the public. The development has taken over two years, and Sensefly has added some new unique features to the quadcopters functionality which give the Exom unprecedented situational awareness.


In addition to seeing what its TripleView camera head sees, eXom’s five vision sensors also enable you to see in the direction the drone is moving – like the visual parking displays in modern high-end cars – for enhanced awareness and safe operation. These sensors work in harmony with eXom’s five ultrasonic sensors to ensure you always know the drone’s distance from nearby objects. Plus, eXom includes the extra security of automated proximity warnings, and shock-absorbent carbon fibre shrouding protects eXom’s rotors in case of surface contact.


In another first for a civil drone system, the eXom’s autopilot-controlled TripleView head allows you to view and record any type of imagery required – HD video, ultra-high-resolution stills, thermal data, or all of the above. All without needing to land in order to swap cameras. Since its head faces the front, eXom can fly up close to target structures for sub-millimetre data resolution. The head’s 270° vertical field of view also means eXom can document objects directly above it; crucial for challenging tasks such as inspecting underside of a bridge.

eXom’s unparalleled level of sensory intelligence means it is easily controlled, even in the most demanding situations (e.g. approaching a high target positioned hundreds of metres away), without the need for a remote control or piloting skills. Simply choose your flight mode:

Interactive ScreenFly mode – click or tap the on-screen video feed to define an object of interest. eXom’s intelligent autopilot moves the drone into position and directs its TripleView head automatically.
Autonomous mode – define the area to map using the drone’s eMotion software. The software automatically generates the drone’s flight plan, then eXom takes off, flies, acquires imagery and lands itself (similar to senseFly’s fixed-wing eBee drones).

With so many unique features in one safe, robust platform, senseFly is pioneering innovation in the civil drone field. “We are thrilled to announce the eXom and look forward to demonstrating this next-generation platform to Intergeo visitors,” said Jean-Christophe Zufferey, CEO and co-founder of senseFly. “We designed eXom to be unlike any other rotary drone; a fully-integrated imaging platform rather than just a remote-controlled aircraft with cameras attached. This allows users to focus on their work, not on flying.”