The eXom, RiCOPTER, Aibot X6, and Trimble ZX5
Inspection and close-in mapping sUAS
I first saw sensFly’s new eXom sUAS at the ILMF conference in Denver early this year. It’s billed as an inspection and close-in mapping platform, and I thought, “Inspection? That’s interesting” and moved on. Turns out the team at senseFly were perhaps prescient when they developed a UAS for inspection.
A recent report by Drone Analyst notes that, of all the exemptions granted to date by the FAA’s Section 333 for UAS, inspection and monitoring applications exceeded mapping and surveying by a large margin: 225 to 126 respectively.
Typical inspection applications include energy (flare stacks and pipelines), alternative energy (solar field thermography and wind turbine inspection), infrastructure (bridges, dams, water and cooling towers, construction monitoring, and BIM), mining (stockpile surveying, mining inventorying), and so much more.
FAA Section 333 Exemption
senseFly has been granted an FAA exemption for the eXom, a significant selection consideration. In an effort to expedite processing of Section 333 petitions, in April 2015 the FAA began to issue summary grants for operations similar to those that it has already approved. According to the FAA, a Section 333 petition summary grant is more efficient, so filing for one based on an already approved FAA Sec 333 exemption (including an already approved UAS) is advisable.
Mission Planning and Operations
These are achieved via a simple click-and-drag interface in senseFly’s eMotion X software (supplied) and can be automatic (via IMU/GPS), interactive, and manual remote control and can switch between modes during flight. Notable safety features include object detection and avoidance (AKA sense-and-avoid), geo-fencing, return home, emergency stop, and emergency land functions. Additionally, the four rotors are surrounded by carbon fiber shrouds that protect personnel, structures, and the rotors as well.
To safely inspect structures at close range, eXom’s sensors provide feedback to advanced machine vision algorithms that detect and avoid objects. This permits very close imagery collection without incurring damage to either the craft or the subject being inspected.
Thanks to their ability to hover and “stare,” multirotor UAS are an ideal aerial platform for inspection tasks. The eXom goes a step further as it is purpose-built for inspection applications with its stabilized sensor head mounted up-front for maximum efficiency of imagery collection.
The eXom is sensor-rich: the unit has a 38-megapixel geo-referenced camera for stills, an HD video camera, and a thermal camera overlaid on the main camera stream. If that wasn’t enough, the eXom sports a VGA-res head navcam (navigation camera) with a range of up to 2 km (1.24 miles) as well as four other navcams mounted on the left, right, rear, and bottom. These sensors enable the eXom’s up-close capabilities and help achieve sub-millimeter accuracy.
This is accomplished with the included Terra 3D software that offers automatic point-cloud classification and DTM extraction, point-cloud filtering and smoothing, automatic brightness and color correction, and point-cloud viewing and editing. Using senseFly’s rayCloud Editor, users can measure polylines, surfaces, and stockpiles and even create fly-through animations. Output options include 2D and 3D (orthoimage, point cloud, vector data, etc.).
Type: Quadcopter (4 rotor)
Take-off weight: 1.7 kg (3.7 lb) incl. battery, payload & shrouding
Max. flight time: Up to 22 min
Max. climb rate: 7 m/s (15 mph)
Max. airspeed: Automatic flight: 8 m/s (18 mph), manual flight:12 m/s (27 mph)
Wind resistance: Automatic: up to 8 m/s (18 mph), manual: up to 10 m/s (22 mph)
Autopilot & control: IMU, magnetometer, barometer & GPS
Adding lidar to the UAS mix
I’m impressed by the RiCOPTER’s massive size: 1,920mm x 1,820mm x 470mm (6.29’ x 6.29’ x 1.54’). It’s large enough to carry the RIEGL VUX-1 lidar sensor: adding lidar to UAS platforms is truly a game changer for the profession.
Typical applications for the RiCOPTER/VUX-1 lidar combo include: precision agriculture, open-pit mining, terrain and canyon mapping, urban surveys, archaeology and cultural heritage documentation, construction-site monitoring, and corridor mapping, including power line, railway track, and pipeline inspection.
The RiCOPTER is offered as a ready-to-fly octocopter with a maximum payload of 16 kg (35.27 lb) and built-in IMU/GNSS unit. With the VUX-1 lidar on board, the RiCOPTER is capable of survey-grade aerial data collection.
FAA Section 333 Exemption
The RiCOPTER has been included in successful Section 333 petitions, an important selection consideration. If I were applying for an individual petition to obtain an FAA Sec 333 exemption I’d rank my selection of UAS based on those that were listed in successful petitions. Submitting a petition with a UAS that the FAA is unfamiliar with probably wouldn’t speed up the process.
In April 2015, the German company ArcTron 3D GmbH, well-known for their expertise in cultural heritage and archeology imaging, worked with RIEGL on a unique research project: 3D aerial scanning of Vianden Castle in Luxembourg with a RiCOPTER UAS. The castle is one of the largest and most beautiful feudal residences of the Romanesque and gothic periods in Europe and is among the best 3D-documented castles in the world.
The RiCOPTER flew three 15-minute flights under demanding, windy conditions. The lidar data collect was overlaid with RGB imagery taken simultaneously by the RiCOPTER. The resulting survey-grade data added considerably to the body of scanning data being developed for the castle and proved that complex scanning projects such as this can be accomplished quickly and effectively with UAS-borne lidar.
Type: Octocopter (8 rotor)
Size: 1,920mm x 1,820mm x 470mm (6.29’ x 6.29’ x 1.54’)
Max payload weight: 16 kg (35.27 lb.) with sensors and power supply
Max take-off mass: <25 kg
Max flight endurance with max load: 30 minutes
Sensors: VUX-1 UAS lidar sensor, plus up to 2 EO cameras
VUX-1 UAS lidar
Field of View (FOV): 230°
Max. effective measurement rate: up to 350,000 meas./sec
Max. range @ target reflectivity: 20%: 550 m (1804.46’)
Min. range: 3 M (9.84’)
Range accuracy: 10 mm (0.39”)
Leica Geosystems’ Aibot X6
A modular approach to sensor implementation
The Aibot X6 is Aibotix’s hexacopter-style sUAS, a high-performance aerial platform for a wide range of geospatial applications. These include aerial mapping/GIS, imaging, inspection (pipelines/power-lines/energy/infrastructure), monitoring, and other aerial geospatial and imaging/sensing applications. The Aibot X6 incorporates integrated geo-referencing and dynamic waypoints and has an auto return function that automatically returns it to its launch point.
The unit takes a modular approach to sensor implementation; its mounts are adaptable to handle a full range of sensors up to 2 kg/4.4 lbs. What’s more, the X6 has the unique ability to mount sensors and cameras on both the top and bottom of the craft. Aibotix has a range of electro optical cameras, or BYOS—bring your own sensor and take advantage of the Aibot X6’s modular sensor mounts.
Flight Planning and Operations
Flight planning is accomplished with Aibotix AirProFlight software. Routes, including waypoints and points of interest, are put into the software and transmitted wirelessly to the Aibot X6. Using its autonomous flight mode, the Aibot X6 can fly along waypoints automatically. With the help of pre-planned routes, the Aibot can perform inspection and mapping flights of any pattern without manual piloting. An additional capability, important for inspection tasks, is its position-hold function, which allows the Aibot to “stop and stare” to gather better imagery data on subjects.
An available option, Agisoft PhotoScan Pro software, takes digital and multispectral imagery from the Aibot X6 and creates high-resolution georeferenced orthophotos, 3/4D models, point clouds, detailed DEM/DSM/DTMs, and textured polygonal models via advanced photogrammetric techniques.
FAA Section 333 Exemption
The Aibot X6 has been included in at least two successful Section 333 petitions, an important selection consideration.
Max airspeed: 50 km/h (31 mph)
Max payload: 2 kg (4.4 lbs.)
Max flight time: 30 minutes
Max climb rate: 8 m/s (26.24 ft/s)
Max altitude: 3,000 m (9842.52 ft)
Dead Weight: 3.4 kg (7.49 lbs.)
Take-off Weight: 4.6—6.6 kg (10.14 to 14.55 lbs.)
Size: 1.05 x 1.05 x 0.45 m (3.44’ x 3.44’ x 1.47’)
Manual control: Yes
Autonomous control: Yes
Ultrasonic Sensors: Yes
Sensor options: Still, video, thermal, multispectral, and hyperspectral
Stare (position hold) mode: Yes
Expanding the UAS portfolio with multirotor
The Trimble ZX5 was announced on August 25, 2015, but its roots go back many years; Trimble was already a major player in the professional UAS market with the fixed-wing X100 and the popular UX5. Fixed wing might be versatile, but it’s not suited for every aerial mission, like tight-in and close-up: what some call “keyhole surgery.”
In May, Trimble announced a partnership with MULTIROTOR service-drone GmbH, the German firm producing a line of craft ranging from 4Kg – 25Kg: popular for uses including monitoring, inspection, and mapping. One of the keys to the success of MULTIROTOR service-drone is their flight control system, and the partnership with Trimble will provide an opportunity to integrate with Trimble’s sensor technology.
The first order of business between the partners was to integrate the system into Trimble’s UAS portfolio, namely the processing workflow of the Trimble Business Center (TBC) photogrammetry module. The captured images can also be processed in the standalone Inpho UASMaster software that provides more control of and options for UAS image processing (and can also process imagery from a variety of other camera-based platforms, even third-party).
The ZX5 (which has been granted an FAA 333 exemption) is compact; the lightweight carbon structure is sturdy but flexible in the right places. The six brushless motor rotors can lift 5Kg for 20 minutes (on a pair of batteries) at a max speed of 30Km per hour and can work in stable winds up to 36km per hour.
Fully half of the max take-off weight can be dedicated to payload, so not only the standard camera can be carried, but potentially additional sensors including the new wave of compact scanner heads as well.
The ZX5 comes standard with a 16-megapixel camera on a brushless motorized gimbal. The gimbal can be pre-set for vertical or oblique image capture for autonomous flights or fully articulates (via the control unit) for user-guided flights.
Mission Planning and Operations
The flight planning software allows you to pre-set patterned and waypoint flight lines for autonomous missions, and the system comes with a standard two-joystick commercial controller with a video screen for live feeds from the point of view of the craft.
There is an option for a larger control unit with a higher quality display screen. The live video feed is at 480i over the 5GHz radio link (no radio license required), but the camera can also record video up to 1080p. A multirotor craft opens a lot of possibilities; consider that (depending on height above ground level) you could be capturing imagery with 1mm pixels.
Max take-off mass: 5 kg (11lb)
Payload capability: 2.3 kg (5.1lb)
Dimensions: 85cm x 49 cm (33.5” x 19.3”)
Material: Carbon frame structure
Propulsion: Electric pusher propellers; 6 brushless motors
Battery: 2 x 6600 mAh 14.8 V
Camera: 16 MP with interchangeable 14mm lens
Flight endurance: 20 min
Max ceiling: 3000 m (9,843 ft) AMSL
Pre-flight setup time: 5 min
Weather limit: Stable in winds up to 36 km/h (22 mph)
Comms & control freq.: 2.4 GHz
Comms & control range: Up to 2 km (1.2 miles)
Video frequency: 5.0 GHz
Live video resolution: 480i
Recordable video res.: 1080p30
Image resolution (GSD): 1mm to 19.5 cm (0.04 -7.7 in), depending on height AGL
Flight AGL range: 5m – 750 m (16.5’ – 2,460’)