By James Vincent
Gadget lovers helped the drone industry take flight, but its future looks to be more industrial, with increasing numbers of drones sold for tasks like surveying and inspection. A good example of this transition is DJI, which today announced its biggest single shipment of commercial UAVs: 1,000 drones running machine vision software from US startup Skycatch, all sold to Japanese construction giant Komatsu.
The drones in question are all one model: the Skycatch Explore1. This is a semi-autonomous quadcopter based on DJI’s Matrice 100 enterprise UAV that uses machine vision to survey and monitor construction sites. It produces maps accurate to five centimeters and can help with tasks like monitoring stockpiles (e.g. how much cement or sand you’ve got left). In Komatsu’s case, the data produced by the drones will also be used to control its robot construction vehicles, currently under development.
Speaking to The Verge, Skycatch CEO Christian Sanz says the company’s drones have already been used in more than ten thousand construction jobs in Japan, and about the same number in other countries. Skycatch has helped survey future Disney theme parks, data center sites for Facebook, and recently took on a particularly large job for an unnamed company in Cupertino. “You can imagine who I’m talking about,” says Sanz. “We’ve been flying there every day, multiple times a day… We’re now helping out with the landscaping work.”
Skycatch’s drones are either sold outright to clients or hired along with technicians. Although the company has its own set of machine learning algorithms that can recognize basic materials on a construction site as well as people and vehicles, customers can supply their own data to train new algorithms.
The Explore1 drones also come with a base station, the Edge1, which takes care of image processing without the need for an internet connection. It’s basically a “cloud computer in a box,” says Sanz, and is needed for 30 percent or so of the 15 million active construction sites worldwide that don’t have an active internet connection.
Skycatch has been producing the Explore1 since the middle of last year, but says DJI’s new order marks a turning point for the construction world. “This is an industry that’s been moving at a slow pace, and this order is a huge signal that things are speeding up,” says Sanz. “Automation in construction is no longer something to look out for, four or five years in the future. When you go to a job site you should expect to see robots on the ground.”