Eyes in the sky: Are drones the future of home security?

24 May 2017

Image: Nopparat Angchakan/Shutterstock

As high-performance cameras become increasingly suitable for mounting on drones, U-blox explores some of the less conventional applications the technology could have – including its use in home security systems.

Who wouldn’t want a car that can move you and your family from point A to point B without ever sitting in traffic? How convenient would it be to book a taxi that rises above the city streets and flies you to your destination through the clouds? That’s exactly what Dubai’s Road and Transport Authority hopes to offer before the summer of 2017.

While the dream of everyone owning a flying car remains a dream, at least for now, those with a hankering for personal flight can fuel that dream with the latest global phenomenon: drones.

Perhaps it is because mankind has always had a desire to match the freedom of birds that we’re so preoccupied with flight. It has certainly been at the heart of human innovation for a long time.

In a relatively short time, drones have evolved from simple toys to sophisticated tools. While actual predictions vary, most market analysts agree that unmanned aerial systems will grow from a multimillion-dollar market today to one worth multiple billions by the early 2020s.

These figures are expected to be dominated by three application areas: industrial (predominantly utility mapping), package delivery and agricultural inspection.

Each of the applications is enabled and reliant on data provisioned by systems including the GNSS (global navigation satellite system). Two of the three are all about imaging, while the third (package delivery) will also rely heavily on image sensors and machine vision.

Clearly, this kind of growth will further drive demand for smaller and better image systems, which is already having a beneficial effect on subsidiary drone applications. Are you ready for your ‘dronie’? It’s going to be the next big thing in social media sharing: selfies from the air!

The new CCTV

High-performance cameras are now smaller, lighter and more easily embedded into drones. As a result, airborne surveillance cameras will become more commonplace within a short period of time, supplementing and, in some cases, supplanting the more familiar fixed-position CCTV cameras we see today.

Using drones in public spaces is becoming commonplace, but the market for home surveillance is perhaps less obvious.

There are already a wide number of home surveillance solutions that make use of fixed-position HD cameras connected to a Wi‑Fi network or using cellular connectivity, allowing people to monitor their homes, belongings and even pets while they’re away from home. The possibility of taking this to the next stage and making home surveillance cameras airborne is far from science fiction. A number of innovative start-ups are already targeting exactly this application space.

One of them, Sunflower Labs, is now enlisting early adopters into its beta program to put its system through its paces before wide-scale availability. The Sunflower Labs team comprises robotics and aerospace engineers with experience in safety-critical applications and collision avoidance technology, all of which has helped it develop the Sunflower Home Awareness System.

What makes Sunflower’s approach so innovative is its use of multiple sensors. Taking inspiration from its name – or perhaps it’s the other way around – the system uses proximity sensors disguised as regular garden lights, which are ‘planted’ in the grounds of a property and powered by integrated solar cells.

Each light contains multiple sensors to detect movement and vibrations in the ground. The system uses the input from the sensors – installed in a network of (typically, we’re told) four ‘sunflowers’ – to detect intrusion. Built-in intelligence reduces the number of false alarms but, once movement is detected, it can alert the homeowner through a smartphone app.

‘The innovative part of this system is its autonomy. The drone flies itself around the property, and the homeowner doesn’t need to take control or master the art of drone flying in order to use it’

While that may not sound particularly groundbreaking, the really smart part of the system comes next. Once an alert has been raised, the owner can select, via the app, to ‘take a look’ at whatever triggered the alert. By simply touching an icon on the screen, the system deploys an autonomous camera drone, which flies to the point of interest and relays the scene back to the app. The system ensures the drone is always pointing towards the property, so there’s no problem with invading other people’s privacy from the drone’s camera.

The innovative part of this system is its autonomy. The drone flies itself around the property, and the homeowner doesn’t need to take control or master the art of drone-flying in order to use it. The drone has its own docking station, which also recharges its batteries when not in use, making it truly autonomous.

Key to this autonomy is the high level of navigational control between the drone and its base station, provided by modules that integrate GNSS receivers augmented with real-time kinematics technology. Developed specifically for the navigation systems found in today’s autonomous devices are solutions such as the U‑blox NEO‑M8P modules, enabling centimetre-level positioning.

The robust and secure wireless communication link between the drone and its base ensures the drone always knows where it is in relation to the base, with an accuracy that guarantees it will be able to navigate its way around a property and return safely back to its base station.

With this kind of innovation now emerging in home surveillance systems, it won’t be long before we can literally keep an eye on our homes and valuables from anywhere in the world.

A version of this article originally appeared on U-blox’s blog.