Autonomous self-charging drones drive BLVOS growth, increase demand for UTM services

The EU-funded project Drones4Safety has released results of a research programme to develop a cooperative, autonomous, and continuously operating drone system that could be used by transport operators. Developing solutions for beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) operations also requires expansion of Unmanned Traffic Management (UTM) services.

Currently, railway and bridge inspections in Europe rely on humans who carry out their work on foot or by helicopter. This presents limitations in terms of safety, costs, and accuracy.

Powered by AI, the Drones4Safety system includes capabilities of autonomous flight and self-charging, the ability to operate in swarms, and the detection of faults, according to project partners.

The main challenges of the project were tackled with advanced mmWave technologies for enhanced sensing capabilities, multiprocessor systems on chips for processing-intensive tasks, and the design of a robust Faraday cage for protecting drones from electromagnetic interference, says the University of Southern Denmark.

The drones are not only capable of autonomous flight but also of self-recharging using railway and power line cables. When a drone’s battery level is low, it autonomously navigates to the nearest overhead line. This navigation is guided by cloud-based AI software and signals from Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS) and the European Geostationary Navigation Overlay System (EGNOS).

Drones4Safety successfully developed swarm algorithms focused on path planning and formation flying, which also include obstacle and collision avoidance, as well as protection against cybersecurity threats.

AI plays a big part in the project: the images captured by the drones are transmitted to a cloud server, where trained algorithms detect any infrastructure defect during the inspection. The AI software provider Alteia oversaw the development of the AI algorithms, having trained them with pictures of faults found in railways and bridges within a real-world environment. The Drones4Safety system was tested at the Asti Bridge in Italy, in collaboration with project partner Eucentre, and at the Siemens Railway Test Centre in Germany, with the support of ARIC. The project will launch a start-up to offer the solution as a service to the market.

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