The benefits and challenges of merging drones with AI

19 Jun 2023

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Dhairya Bhatt of Zenadrone spoke to about the key sectors that can be automated with AI-infused drones and the company’s plans for the future.

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While the tech sector has all eyes on how AI can spice up their services, one type of hardware that can clearly benefit from this technology is drones.

The image of an autonomous flying machine suggests many concepts for how it could be used. Unsurprisingly, this idea is being looked into for military purposes, with a joint US and UK autonomy trial taking place last month.

But besides the idea of AI-powered drone swarms for the military, there are many other sectors that could benefit from some hovering automation. Dhairya Bhatt, an engineer at Canadian company Zenadrone, spoke to about the sectors automated drones can serve best.

Industries going autonomous

One key sector that Zenadrone is targeting with its AI-powered drones is agriculture. Bhatt said that the ability to combine AI algorithms with sensor technology on a drone can allow these machines to map and monitor fields for various metrics, such as crop yield, underperforming areas and locating crop disease.

The use of drones in agriculture has been in development for a while in Ireland. Last year, Irish agritech start-up ProvEye was awarded €225,000 in funding from the European Space Agency (ESA) to develop a grassland management platform, using a combination of drones, satellites and AI.

A group of Irish scientists also tested a combination of ‘dairy drones’ and AI to help farmers decide where their cows should graze last year, to help labour-intensive pasture management.

In 2021, Zenadrone announced plans to hire in Ireland as part of its bid to introduce Irish farmers to drone tech. The company’s CEO spoke to last year about how this technology could be used to make working farmers’ lives easier.

But Bhatt said there are other applications for automated drones, such as handling stock in warehouses and inspecting powerlines. “In a big warehouse, it’s very difficult for particular workers to count all the stock and maintain a management system,” Bhatt said. “So drones can do all this stuff at the same time very efficiently and accurately.

“Then all the surveillance systems that we can develop, we can recognise scanning the field, mapping the field, all the powerline inspections. That’s why with the help of lots of sensors like Lidars or the different cameras, thermal cameras, we can get hotspots and any fault in the powerline system.”

Last week, drone company secured permission in the UK to monitor powerline assets with the use of drone technology.

The challenges

While the use of drones is on the rise in Ireland, these machines have also caused problems in the past. These aerial vehicles have been associated with security risks to the public, with risks of falling drones and airport disruptions.

Bhatt said he handles regulation discussions on behalf of Zenadrone with the Irish Aviation Authority. He noted that there are “specific criteria” currently in place when deploying autonomous drones in Ireland.

One key rule is that these drones need to have a remote operator present who can take over control of the AI-powered drone at any time, in the event of an emergency situation.

To that end, Bhatt said that automated drones could still lead to the creation of new jobs in sectors where they are deployed, as operators will still need to be present to monitor automated fleets of drones while they work.

Bhatt said this could lead to scenarios where operators work in a “command centre” and each operator manages four to five drones each.

Other issues that arise when dealing with automated technology are in the realms of cybersecurity and privacy. “It’s kind of a very tricky thing, you have to maintain the database, encrypted areas,” Bhatt said. “And as the technology evolves, all the other sectors also evolve to create malware.

“So that’s also one of the challenging things to secure the particular drone operation and drone software. But we are getting there, we have implemented a few security standards that we are maintaining.”

Drones on the rise

Despite the challenges that still exist for the industry, drones are becoming more commonplace in Ireland with multiple players trying to carve their place in the market.

Drone delivery projects have been trialled in cities like Galway and Dublin to reduce the current costs associated with these machines and tackle the key issues the public have in areas such as privacy and safety.

Tech giant Alphabet has also swooped into this market, with its drone delivery service Wing being tested here last year.

Bhatt said Zenadrone is currently working to launch a “drone-as-a-service” offering in Ireland, to provide automated drones and data analysis to businesses in the country. The focus appears to be on agriculture first, but Bhatt said the company is in talks with State departments for other ways to apply its autonomous fleet in Ireland.

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Leigh Mc Gowran is a journalist with Silicon Republic