There’s no doubt: A future filled with drones roaming our skies is quickly approaching, and the agriculture, construction, and utility industries are leading the way. With the recent completion of our design and prototyping sprint for Tunnel Radio’s revolutionary SKIA industrial drone, we sat down with the team to get their thoughts on the project, and the future of UAVs.
Teague: You’ve worked on dozens of aviation and aerospace projects, ranging from aircraft interiors for Boeing, to the inside of space capsules, and everything in between. But SKIA was this team’s inaugural drone project. What was the biggest challenge you faced during the design and build process?
Jesse Peck: The biggest challenge was making the decision to redesign the entire vehicle, rather than addressing each need piecemeal. It was clear that this was the right approach from a design perspective, but doing so meant taking on a much larger scope of work. More than that though, it meant that we would then own the vehicle. We would not be able to separate ourselves from any performance or safety issues that arose during flight tests. This felt like a huge risk, but the passion and strength of our team made me feel confident that we could deliver.
In what ways was the team able to push the boundaries on designing and building this drone?
Erik Nilsen: The material stipulations from Tunnel Radio, which required a vehicle made from aluminum instead of splinter-able carbon fiber, was a prerequisite that set us up to push the boundaries. With that challenge, we were able to create a unique, industrial-grade drone unlike anything the market has seen before.
In regards to timing, the toughest thing with a fast iteration build like the one we went through with SKIA is trying to meet all of your targets, both from a technical and UI a perspective, at the same time. We needed to make sure we were giving and getting ample, clear, and candid feedback not only from one another but from the client.
Was there anything surprising or unexpected you encountered during the process?
Peck: I don’t think we expected the first prototype’s electronics/avionics installation to be as time-consuming as it was. Despite the fact that all of these components were supplied to us off-the-shelf from Tunnel Radio, there was a tremendous amount of hand labor needed to wire and connect everything, including the need to fabricate our own power supply busbars. This, however, did not phase the team. They dived into it, methodically addressing each problem. We ended up learning so much from this process that it was the basis of the majority of the design updates for the second prototype. The updated electronics inventory and layout is not only simpler to assemble and install but is built from plug-and-play modules. This design helps to futureproof the vehicle by allowing for easy updates to components and also allows Tunnel Radio to control costs by only equipping each vehicle with the modules needed for a customer’s specific mission.
What are you most proud of about the final SKIA prototype?
Nilsen: Probably how easy it is to assemble. We were building a solution for an industry where drone use is in its infancy, and many drones on the market are complicated to put together, use properly, and repair. Our final design of SKIA intuitively snaps together just how you’d expect it to; you don’t need a huge manual to figure it out.
As for capability, SKIA is really interesting, because it’s the only platform with advanced secure communication abilities. It can access relay towers for information, carry sensors and thermal imagery. But my favorite part would have to be how abuse-tolerant SKIA is. It can be used as a stepping stool, you could drop it off the back of a truck, and nothing would happen. With a conventional UAV, they break quite easily. If you dropped one made of carbon fiber from a few feet, you’d have to repair or replace it. With SKIA, you can literally bend it back into shape, and successfully complete your mission. It’s truly rugged, and perfect for industrial use.
Speaking of industrial use, drone utilization is definitely on the rise across numerous sectors such as agriculture, mining, and utilities. Why do you think UAVs are so critical to the future of these industries?
Warren Schramm: Unmanned aerial vehicles like SKIA are important to the future of the industrial workforce because they’re the eyes and ears of the industries they serve. In agriculture, you can ask a human technician, “What’s the moisture level of the soil?” They’ll go out and take a couple of measurements in a field, and log them. If the farm is well managed the locations and probes used to collect the measurements will be standardized. Heck, you may even have an IoT-enabled farm with wireless moisture probes capable of sending back measurements at consistent intervals.
Drones go above and beyond (pun intended) all of that process by accessing and detecting things humans can’t. The drone logs all of its telemetry (physical location, time of day, wind speed, temperature, etc) giving the measurement context and ensuring said data is 100% usable and accurate (negating human error). This effect is amplified if cameras are used to take the measurement because the imagery can be leveraged to provide even more context and track changes over time. Since SKIA was designed with data scientist teams as the end-user, this level of precision thanks to machine learning will make these industries much more efficient.