A new generation of high-tech drones takes flight

For the new class of customizable, pilotless devices, the sky’s the limit.

By JP Mangalindan — January 26, 2021

Drones aren’t just for hobbyists or film studios anymore. Once largely used for tasks like aerial photography, film shoots, and weather tracking, now these remote-controlled, pilotless vehicles are being deployed as “helpers,” delivering critical supplies, enforcing COVID-19 stay-at-home orders, stringing power lines, and even walking dogs

With so many possible uses, these nimble machines will become in-flight fixtures in our daily lives in the not-so-distant future, zipping across our skies headed for their next task. With new regulations introduced to address security concerns, the global drone market is expected to surge an estimated 53% to $43 billion by 2025, spurred partly by COVID-19 restrictions on human activity and leaps in technical advances. 

“Drones are a strategic and superfast-growing space, so companies are trying to carve out their own competitive advantage,” says David Woodlock, application development and design manager at HP.  HP’s industrial 3D printing technologies are being used to produce strong, lightweight components drone companies can use to fast-track production, keep costs down, and customize drones for a wide range of purposes. 

Here’s a look at four drone companies that are helping redefine what’s possible.

3D-printing building blocks for custom applications

The Netherlands-based drone company Avular, founded in 2014, originally built drones for industrial and agricultural uses, such as inspecting hazardous explosion areas or agricultural fields. But after years of fielding requests to customize drones, Avular saw an opportunity. 

“We went back to the drawing board and decided to make the platform more flexible for more business and use cases,” says Albert Maas, Avular co-founder. 

Left: HP 3D-printed parts to be used to build an Avular drone. Right: Customized drone, fitted with additional sound camera.


Left: HP 3D printed parts for the Avular Vertex drone platform. Right: Customized drone, fitted with additional sound camera.

The result? “The Essentials,” a set of customizable hardware and software components released in 2020 that allows customers to make any kind of drone or robot they need. The company’s three-inch-square circuitry modules can be clicked together on a drone or robot of any size, and engineers can easily access, program, and control the parts through a USB or wireless connection.

Avular’s speedy pivot to launch The Essentials would not have been possible without HP’s 3D printing technologies, which enabled the company to create parts that normally cost thousands of dollars and take months to build for as little as $50 in just a few weeks. Now clients are using The Essentials to build and customize drones to help plan lighting installations in stadiums, make chemical plant inspections safer, and gauge the health of flowers in greenhouses. 

“3D printing creates a performance advantage, increasing range and payload capacity, and decreasing costs,” says HP’s Woodlock. “But maybe the most important advantage 3D printing creates is allowing companies to be faster to market than competitors.” 

Reforesting land, one drone sweep at a time

Forests cover about 31% of the world’s land, but they are disappearing at an alarming rate, with roughly 420 million hectares of forest destroyed since 1990. Nearly seven years ago, MIT graduate Lot Amoros founded the startup Dronecoria to tackle the problem using aerial drones that can plant seeds over large swaths of land. 

Amoros and the Dronecoria team built low-cost drones made from laser-cut 5-millimeter plywood capable of distributing up to 500,000 seeds across 1 hectare (about the size of a baseball field) in 10 minutes. Using customized technology to analyze and prepare seeds for sowing, the startup coats the seeds with a mix of nutrients that protect them from extreme weather, wildlife, and dryness based on region. Then, the drones drop and disperse the seeds over assigned areas.

Dronecoria's CEO, Lot Amoros, uploading a flight plan to fly drone.

Victor Selva

Dronecoria's CEO, Lot Amoros, uploading the flight plan to the drone.

In February 2020, Dronecoria deployed its technology for a pilot program to sow 100,000 seeds in the Sierra de María-Los Vélez Natural Park in Almeria, a province in southeast Spain that has seen its forested areas dwindle due to heavy logging and agriculture. They estimate a survival rate of 5% to 10%, which means 5,000 to 10,000 new trees. Another 100,000 seeds will be sown by hand and the results compared. 

As part of its open-source philosophy, which allows anyone with the tools and know-how to download the plans for re-creating Dronecoria’s tech, the company is set to publish a worldwide map to help seed providers, drone makers, and landowners replant areas that have been affected by climate change, agriculture, and industrial logging. 

“Our forests are being destroyed at a rate that we cannot afford,” Amoros says. “We need scalable solutions that bring technology software and hardware to communities of people to fight this.”

Reaching rural patients with the medications they need

With COVID-19 concerns and social distancing now a regular part of our lives, tasks such as shopping for food or picking up medications present new challenges for many people, particularly the elderly who are especially susceptible to the coronavirus. That’s where Manna Drone Delivery CEO and founder Bobby Healy believes his three-year-old drone delivery startup can make the most impact.

“Drones are a strategic and superfast-growing space, so companies are trying to carve out their own competitive advantage.”

—David Woodlock, application development and design manager at HP

“Hearts and minds have changed through COVID around being more open-minded toward bleeding-edge technology,” says Healy. 

Manna Drone Delivery originally focused its laser cut, commercial-grade drones, built in Ireland and Wales, on food delivery. But when the pandemic hit, the team changed course and collaborated with Ireland’s Health Service Executive to deliver medications and other essential supplies to people in the small rural town of Moneygall. People could simply have a video chat with their doctors and receive their prescriptions by one of Manna Drone Delivery’s drones. 

Manna Drone Delivery is currently conducting 3,000 drone flights a week, but Healy is expanding into other areas of Europe and he wants Manna Drone Delivery drones to touch down in the U.S. some time in 2021 or early 2022.

Manna Aero drone making a delivery with box attached.

Courtesy of Manna

Manna CEO and founder, Bobby Healy, and Hildegarde Naughton, Ireland's Minister of State for international and road transport and logistics, watch a drone delivery.

Delivering lifesaving supplies when every minute counts

When self-proclaimed drone hobbyist Gordon Folkes, founder of Archer First Response Systems, a 911-integrated drone startup, was a sophomore at Florida State University, he and several friends connected a drone wirelessly to his computer so they could control it remotely. 

“It made me realize we could do anything with these [drones], anywhere,” explains  Folkes. Specifically, he believed that drones’ agility and customizability could make them ideal delivery vehicles in medical emergencies like cardiac arrest.  

Folkes had learned that one of the greatest obstacles in treating cardiac arrest was getting an automated external defibrillator (AED) to a patient quickly to prevent brain damage or death. So, he focused on developing a drone deployment system to reach victims in less than five minutes. He is working to deploy Freefly Systems’ Alta X drones to deliver AEDs, NARCAN nasal sprays for opioid overdoses, and tourniquets for severe injuries in suburban, rural, and some urban areas.  

Archer executives working on a first response system drone.

Archer UAS

Gordon Folkes, founder and CEO of Archer UAS and Spencer Hehl, Archer UAS chief technical officer, with an Archer First Response Systems vehicle.

When a 911 call comes in, operators can deploy a drone to the caller’s address or geographic coordinates. Once a drone arrives, it lowers the equipment or supplies to the site and returns to the dispatcher. Folkes says Archer’s system is about three minutes faster than traditional first responder efforts, including ambulances.  
In September, Manatee County, Florida, became the first local government agency in the U.S. to lease a drone from Archer. The company also announced a partnership in December with RapidDeploy, a software platform used by more than 500 public safety agencies and 911 call centers. 

These examples represent just a sliver of the grander vision for drones to tap into their abilities to help in all sectors, from helping first-responders with search and rescue efforts; drones equipped with 3D printers that can repair — and even construct — temporary emergency shelters by printing materials on the fly; and drone deliveries of all types of goods and services from Wal-Mart and Amazon’s airborne warehouses.

"As we move forward in the next two to five years, unmanned aerial systems are going to do a lot of good," predicts Folkes. "The sky’s the limit, and I think things are looking up.”


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