Much has been made of the commercial potential of drones, yet actually implementing commercial drone applications seems to be mired in a complex web of unclear regulations and doubt about technical feasibility. While it may yet take a long time to work through the regulatory issues, Cisco is moving ahead with an ecosystem of partners to develop and test technical capabilities needed for various commercial applications. (We even sponsored a “DIY drone” workshop to help employees in India better understand the capabilities of drones.)
A few weeks ago, Cisco led a multi-party, multi-geography effort in Dubai to demonstrate the potential of using drones for traffic monitoring and control. We wanted to demonstrate the practical use and technical feasibility of several drone capabilities, including:
- Safe, authorized drone flights over crowded urban areas
- Use of various kinds of cameras and sensors to collect data and provide an accurate picture of the situation on the ground
- Integrating drone control and sensor data into collaboration and Internet of Things (IoT) platforms
- Use of fog computing and analytics to provide real-time insights and alerts
One of the big hurdles we needed to overcome before we could do anything else was to get approval from the Dubai Civil Aviation Authority to fly drones in the middle of Dubai over Al Jafiliya Metro Station and other urban assets. Since existing drone regulations in most countries prohibit this, obtaining this approval was a key step in proving the viability and safety of such remotely-piloted flights — and could contribute to shaping future regulations around the world.
We conducted 24 missions — over both desert and metro areas — in late September and again in October of 2016. This totaled 180 kilometers of successful remotely-piloted flights with full autonomous operational capabilities. All flights were equipped with both a high-definition video camera and a thermal camera, and we were able to share images in real time over a VPN-secured 4G network. This allowed members of the team to view a live feed over Cisco’s WebEx collaboration platform.
My colleague and Solution Architect for this effort, Angelo Fienga commented, “Embedding real time video and sensor data from drones into collaboration and IoT platforms bring traffic monitoring – and solutions, to a completely different level.”
As you might expect, the live video feed provided a great picture of overall traffic conditions on the ground. But we also had photogrammetry capabilities, combining photos with geometry to precisely measure real distances — the height of a pole, length of a car, or even the size of a pothole. This kind of real-time inspection can help identify and solve critical situations while they are happening. And it can also improve planning for new construction or the placement of utility lines by enabling engineers to obtain precise measurements without having to physically go out into the field.
A WebEx live stream enabled both remote monitoring and control.
In a real traffic monitoring application, the WebEx connection would enable traffic controllers to pinpoint a traffic issue while it’s happening, and issue an alert, or perhaps change the timing of a traffic signal to correct the bottleneck. But ultimately, our objective is to process all the data using fog analytics and be able to automatically issue alerts and recommendations through intelligent machine learning algorithms.
“Drones play a pivotal role not only in traffic management but also in public safety,” says drone specialist Nico Darrow of Cisco’s Atlanta office. “They are cheaper, faster, and more scalable than conventional methods. With predictable arrival times and historical analytics, machine learning algorithms can optimize traffic flow and alert first responders to accidents and hazards.”
I am grateful for the team of experts and partners who collaborated to bring this proof-of-concept to life. In addition to Angelo Fienga and Nico Darrow, the Cisco team also included Jawad Aboudi of Cisco Dubai, who was our local liaison. The following ecosystem partners helped deliver the complete solution:
- Be-Link, for drone operation and logistics
- ADPM, for providing custom-built drones
- ISE-NET, for data processing and analytics
- NeraTech, for offering the geo-portal function
This initiative in Dubai is just the latest demonstration of Cisco’s strategic place in the emerging drone ecosystem. Do we make drones? No. But we are creating new, secure, drone connectivity and computing platforms. And we are bringing these together with existing IoT and collaboration assets like WebEx, Spark, and Jasper to help extract IoT value from drones —value like faster, cleaner, safer traffic solutions.