There are reasons other than policy and security to consider domestically produced drones.
Yes, when it comes to the drone market there is an almost “default” choice. Having established dominance, it further benefits from price by volume. And then they can invest more in R&D from the increased profits—if they choose to and do not take the market for granted.
When the UAS market heated up a decade ago, there were numerous outfits that began to develop UAV (unmanned aerial vehicles) and some produced packages with sensors integrated; more rightly called UAS (unmanned aerial systems), or sUAS (small UAS). Since then, there has been a lot of consolidation, with that one particular firm flooding the market with a popular line of platforms, sensors, and systems.
But at what point does such dominance lead people to overlook domestic manufacturers and solution providers? There are a lot of great choices that offer the advantages of being “built here.”
The Policy Question
There are a number of reasons for some UAS users to look domestically. For one, there are certain policy and security considerations, particularly for defense or federal applications where the “go to” UAS may or may not be authorized. We often hear some policy edict about foreign built UAS on one day, then hear about a federal agency using them the next. These policy and security issues are continually evolving—it is frustratingly difficult to keep up with the saga.
Whatever the policy or security tilt might be on any given day, we have to keep in mind that the geopolitical temperature fluctuates constantly. This may be more of a potential risk for federal and defense agencies, but what if you want to take on federal contracts in the future when there may or may not be drone-origin restrictions?
Picture (no pun intended) a crew on a high-budget film set, about to mount a quarter-million-dollar (or more) camera on a UAV. You would definitely want to have high confidence in that aircraft and its operating systems.
That level of reliability consideration was of paramount importance for one domestic UAS firm that was formed in 2011. Two of Freefly’s founders, Tabb Firchau and Hugh Bell, met on a movie set. They connected with Dave Bloomfield, another of the co-founders, in online forums about how to build such technology. The collaboration produced numerous platforms for cameras, like the workhorse Alta X. It can carry a 35 lb. payload and still fits under the FAA 55 lb. category. There are some customers who have carried more than double that for certain applications.
Freefly Systems CRO Matt Isenbarger said that the motion picture industry had represented about 90 percent of their sales, but that in recent years that has changed to about 60 percent for emerging industrial applications. These include surveying, mapping, public safety inspections and more. They took what they had learned from making high reliability platforms for film to serving broader industrial markets, and by developing an ecosystem for their UAS and related products.
Isenbarger said that a typical scenario for motion picture customers of their large UAS, like the Alta X, was a multi-person operation: “At minimum, one person is focused on the drone flight and another person focused on the payload and controlling it. There could be three or four people; one pulling focus, another concentrating on the lens, another adjusting something else on the camera.” This was part of the impetus for Freefly to develop a smaller line of UAS, to support a broader range of payloads for industrial applications, and a system that could be operated by one person. The Freefly Astro was born.
The value proposition for UAS used for Industrial applications like surveying, mapping construction, and inspections is closely tied to workflow optimization. The Astro (1.5Kg/3.3lb payload) was their first system that was very vertically integrated with such applications in mind. It comes with a tablet/hand controller, built-in radio, several types of optimized camera payloads, and gimbals that are designed for ease of use.
Isenbarger said that they are also committed to being payload agnostic, with any number of cameras, lidars, and other sensors easily integrated. For instance, lidar(s) from Riegl, Yellowscan, Teledyne Optech, Phoenix LiDAR, Sony, PhaseOne, Fuji, etc. “You do not have to be an engineer or drone expert to get one out of the box and get productive with it,” said Isenbarger. “The Alta X, is suited to more specialized applications and larger payloads, it requires you to figure out what to put under it and understand the nuances to make it all work—though we provide training and consultation to help you with that.”
Each UAS comes with the essentials: flight controller software (Auterion Enterprise PX4 (customized for the Astro), mission planning software (Auterion Mission Control), PPK software to post-process GNSS/IMU, online fleet management, and they’ll soon be adding an NTRIP client for customers who wish to use GNSS real-time networks (RTN). The essential flight modes are supported: manual, altitude hold, position hold, autonomous mission, return to land. All of their UAS can operate with RTK as well as PPK, and they can sell you their own base (for about $1,300) that has the same multi-constellation board as their UAS.
Isenbarger says that they are proving to be quite competitive compared to the big foreign providers, on a price/performance level. I looked at and compared specs, and this seems to be the case. Rather than list all of the specs here, they are easy to find online.
From its inception, Freefly wanted to provide optimal performance: from the platform and motors, all the way down to the batteries—that they engineer and manufacture themselves. “For our smart batteries we also adopted an open standard,” said Isenbarger. “And those batteries now can not only power the Astro, but you can charge your laptop on them. Some people are making electric skateboards and scooters with them, whatever your imagination can dream up, because it’s an open battery that’s American made.” Freefly warrantees the batteries for 500 cycles, which as far as I can tell is something no one else is doing. A common complaint about some of the drone providers is the high cost (and replacement frequency) of batteries; Freefly prides themselves on bucking that trend.
While some customers want turnkey solutions, Freefly can sell them the “meat and potato” packages (as Isenbarger calls them). For others needing something more specific, they can recommend payloads, even if it is not something they stock/resell or manufacture themselves.
“We typically just point people to other dealers, resellers, or integration partners,” said Isenbarger. “We might say: ‘We have a law enforcement officer looking for a thermal camera’ to five or so outfits we know around the world making good thermal cameras that we can integrate on our drones.” And while they have begun to offer more sensors they produce themselves, they are committed to keeping their platforms very open and easy to integrate with. “We don’t want to block anybody,” said Isenbarger. “We don’t want to be proprietary or make it challenging for anyone. If somebody wants to do something with our drone, we will want to enable that and not make it harder for them for any reason.” Some of the competitors do not take that stance.
One of the first payloads they integrated with the Astro was a Sony A7 R IV 61-megapixel RGB camera, that is great for photography, videography, mapping, inspections, 3D modeling, etc. However, they have customers who want different types of cameras, so they are working to integrate, for instance, a dual payload thermal imaging and RBG camera with a zoom that works with one of their gimbals.
A goal for the firm is to enable a larger ecosystem, by adopting open-source standards, like the Pixhawk (pixhawk.org) payload bus standards. They call this a smart dovetail between payloads and their UAS. Isenbarger gave an example: “At conference last year, I took my camera and gimbal off of my Astro and walked it over to another type of drone and plugged it in, and the video popped up on their controller—without our engineers ever talking to each other.” There are foreign built drones that are not yet compatible with many of the open standards.
Examples of various applications include a large utility services customer that has inspected more than 10,000 miles of powerlines with two on-board 100-megapixel Phase One cameras. “Some was even done beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS, via specific waivers),” said Isenbarger. “They have these high-tech vans with radars that pop out of the top, an impressive operation.” Some have been used to start controlled burns and plant seeds for forest management, others have used Alta X to deliver defibrillators and medicine to remote areas.
Other customers cite the performance in windy areas, especially for applications like powerline inspections. One large utility customer learned about the capabilities of their UAS from their own internal videography team. They looked at the quality of what the UAS could provide and noticed that it was better than their own gear. It just made sense to go that route when they expanded their UAS inspection program.
Compatibility with various popular UAS-focused reality capture ecosystems is important to customers. For example, Esri Site Scan; there are no integration issues for Freefly. However, recently one of the large foreign UAS providers has been dropping iOS support; many related Esri products are iOS dependent.
And lastly, but in many ways most important for firms getting their UAS program off the ground, or seeking to upgrade or customize, is support. For film and large industrial customers, Freefly often works closely with the customers, integrating their various payloads, customizing as needed, and training them. Isenbarger says that this kind of direct access support extends to any and all customers of their expanded product lines. You can email support in a domestic time zone and get direct customer support. He added that it is increasingly difficult to do so for customers of some of the large overseas manufacturers.
If you’d like to have some customization done, or need to add/replace components, these products are designed, built, and individually tested in Washington State. “Our high-quality people are focused on these responses and getting customers to resolutions very quickly, in less than 24 hours, typically,” said Isenbarger.