Emergency Response

Everybody knows the mantra: ‘In case of an emergency, stay calm.’ For first responders we might add ‘stay calculated.’ As life-threatening fires and traffic accidents progress, it is vital that firefighters and other emergency personnel know how to best respond. That’s where we come in: we fly over.

Avy Aera VTOL drone and Avy Dock drone station suitable for a drone network

Meet the Avyators behind our Network

For our final edition of the Tech Tuesday series, we put the Avyators responsible for building our docking station and developing the Avy Drone Response Network in the spotlight!

We get talking to Erik, Ralf and Kester, our engineers who have played a key role in the development of the Avy Dock, our drone station, and all the software that goes with it to ensure a future with instant deployment and autonomous operations.

What was your role in the development of our drone network?

Ralf - Docking Station Product Owner: My role was scoping the concept and initial design of the Avy Dock - the ground hardware part of the network. It will eventually enable the network to be more and more autonomous as it no longer requires a person to prepare and store the aircraft before and after flight because it can now live in the station, in its standby state.

Kester - Software & Controls Engineer: I’m responsible for connecting the drone station into our existing software infrastructure, which involves connecting over cellular so we have constant and remote access to the drone station. We’ve also built an MVP control system for the drone station, so you can access it through a secure website where you can have different functionalities like monitoring the drone in the docking station, opening the doors and turning the table for the drone.

Erik - Head of Engineering: I make sure that all parts that make up the Avy Drone Response Network are well integrated and meet the customer’s needs. This means looking at the requirements of each individual component that makes up a network, such as Aera 3, the docking station itself and all the software that ties it together while ensuring that the requirements and progress of each are in tune with one another.

What is the importance of our docking station for a future with drone networks?

Kester: Essentially what the drone station provides is an autonomous replacement to an operations team. An operations team keeps the drone healthy and safe, inspects it, charges it, prepares it for flight and makes sure that everything is safe. This is essentially what the drone station does except it doesn't need an operator to be present. The docking station is what brings us from a drone network to an autonomous drone network.

Erik: We want to offer drone networks that are, to a high degree, automated. The two main benefits of this are that it allows for cost reduction and faster response times of the drone. To achieve this high level of automation it is crucial to have ground infrastructure that is well integrated with the drone and can operate with very limited human intervention. We want to make sure that our customers, the network operators, spend as little time as possible doing work on the drone, like changing batteries, taking drones in and out of storage.

The drone is such a specific piece of hardware that it really requires a specialised place for it to land, to perform all these functions like storing it safely, keeping it climate controlled, having charging capabilities and connectivity while ensuring safety systems for user interaction
Ralf
Avy Aera in Rotterdam UAM
Aera taking off from her Dock at the Port of Rotterdam

What are the advantages of having an autonomous drone network?

Erik: Having an autonomous drone network will allow for significantly reduced operational costs and faster response times of the drone.

Kester: Fast response time, same argument as why autonomy always works. There’s this saying boring, dirty, dangerous - those are the types of things you want to automate. You don’t want an operations team sitting in the rain, waiting for a call because they’re not going to be at their optimal, whereas a docking station will happily do that for months and months.

Ralf: It’s important to emphasise that we’re not removing the user. The user is still there, it’s just that the role of the operator is taken out more and more. For example, one person could operate and oversee multiple drones simultaneously, this way the utility per user goes up drastically.

How have we improved the integration between our drone and station?

Ralf: Our first prototype of the docking station had its own control interface and we’re now moving towards the interface you use to control the drone. We no longer need separate software.

Kester: We currently have an RTK GPS tower on the drone station itself which we’ve basically been using to allow the Avy Aera’s have a much more precise GPS location when they’re near a station. This itself has improved the performance of the Aera. We have this requirement because the Aera needs to have a very precise landing on the docking station so that it lands safely.

Erik: We’re in the process of embedding the docking station into the networking software that Avy offers, so operators can easily plan missions between docking stations from the same interface that they operate the drone from. This requires a lot of custom code that will run on both the docking station’s computer and the drone’s flight control computer, as well as the mission planner on our ground control station.

What were the main challenges during the development?

Kester: The software integration has been the biggest challenge for me. It’s been a huge task to integrate all the different actuators and sensors - like the doors and the table of the station. We use a Raspberry Pi with a custom set of circuit boards and a set of relays, like analog input/output boards for all of our sensing and actuating, as well our control logic and the communication to the outside world over cellular.

Erik: Some of the main challenges in designing the docking station are striking the right balance between docking station size and landing accuracy of the drone in high wind conditions.

Determining how to integrate the docking stations into the network from a software standpoint is also a challenge. This is completely novel technology so it requires a lot of fundamental work, like drafting new software architectures that work with the envisioned use cases, the capabilities of the drone and docking station as well as the communication network setup.
Avy Aera VTOL drone for firefighters
Testing the Avy Dock for emergency response with the Brandweer

Why integrate a docking station into operations rather than only using a drone?

Kester: It essentially replaces an operations team but in an autonomous way and is ready 24/7 in all weather conditions.

Erik: The drone should be the workhorse of the network, not the people operating it. In order to achieve that, we want to take the boring and repetitive work parts out of the equation for the operator like swapping batteries, storing or assembling the drone before and after each flight. It is those tasks that the docking station can take over from operators, so they can focus on doing actual work with the drone, like transporting medicine, blood, or reacting to emergency calls from the fire brigade.

What makes our drone network solution so unique?

Erik: A highly integrated network solution for a drone the size of Aera 3 doesn’t exist. Definitely not one that caters to drones that can fly BVLOS for distances of 100km, and that allows for the integration of multiple drones and docking stations into the network.

Ralf: It’s quite a complicated problem to solve, it’s relatively doable to build one drone and to operate it while simultaneously working on it if an anomaly pops up but to build both a drone and a station so reliably that it can be a network and can be used repeatedly and remotely hasn’t really been done yet.

Big thanks to Erik, Ralf and Kester for wrapping up our Tech Tuesday series - what a ride it’s been! The goal of this series was to shed light on all the different aspects that make up the uniqueness of our new Aera and total network solution. We hope to have succeeded in that and look forward to hearing from you if there are any more questions feel free to reach out to us via fly@avy.eu.

Glossary

Actuators: a device that causes a machine or other device to operate.

MVP: Minimum Viable Product is a version of a product with just enough features to be usable by early customers who can then provide feedback for future product development.

Raspberry Pi: a series of small single-board computers that provide a set of GPIO (general purpose input/output) pins, allowing you to control electronic components for physical computing and explore the Internet of Things (IoT).

Relays on a circuit board: an electrically operated switch. It consists of a set of input terminals for a single or multiple control signals, and a set of operating contact terminals. They are used where it is necessary to control a circuit by an independent low-power signal, or where several circuits must be controlled by one signal.

RTK (Real-Time Kinematic) GPS Tower: is a proven method of positioning in real-time at the cm-level and used to improve the positional accuracy of GPS systems, by calculating and then transmitting differential correction data via radio to allow the roving GPS system of the Aera to correct its position.

Curious to know more about our network solution?

If you're considering integrating docking stations into your drone operations, reach out through our contact form and let's get in touch!