October 23, 2017
Getting drones to market faster: Optical technologies for unmanned aerial vehicles
Drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), were first used in the Vietnam War as a safer, less costly alternative to manned military aircraft. Today, they’ve been widely adopted for military, consumer, and commercial uses. By 2020, drones will be a $100 billion market opportunity in construction, agriculture, insurance, offshore oil and gas drilling, public safety, journalism, border protection, real estate, utilities, pipelines, mining, clean energy, photography, cinematography, and others (Goldman Sachs Research). With such a large market potential at stake, getting to market faster is critical.
The latest optical technologies in drones
Today’s drones feature high-performance cameras that can shoot images from overhead, on land, and underwater. DJI, Walkera, Yuneec, and Parrot have taken drone-image quality to the next level. For example, the DJI Zenmuse Z3 is an integrated aerial zoom camera that is optimized for still photography. Its 7x zoom consists of 3.5x optical and 2x digital lossless zoom, which creates a 22mm to 77mm equivalent focal length range.
Drones with different types of sensors—including multispectral, LIDAR, photogrammetry, and thermal—can provide 3D models for tracking hurricanes and other weather systems, 3D maps of crops and mines, and other uses. Images are usually transmitted to the operator real-time using radio signal or 4G/LTE using First Person View (FPV) technology. The operator can be miles away from the drone and still receive the signal.
Optomechanical design inspired by bird necks
Stabilization systems on board drones are necessary for high-quality imagery. David Lentink, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Stanford, studies biological flight as an inspiration for designing drone-mounted cameras and other systems. Lentink and his team investigated the ability of swans and geese to keep their heads still while beating their wings and facing strong headwinds. The research revealed that the birds’ necks function like a car’s suspension system.
A drone’s version of a sophisticated bird neck consists of an integrated camera and a gimbal—a pivoted support that allows rotation of an object about a single axis. The camera can capture quality photos, film, or 3D imagery because the gimbal protects the camera from the vibrating drone. Many newer drones use a 3-axis gimbal because it offers the best video stability.
The right tools for designing imaging optics in drones
When designing optical systems for drones, integration between optical and mechanical engineers is critical because the space and weight requirements make failed physical prototypes extremely costly. “The best onboard camera and stabilization system won’t make a difference if the drone is too heavy to fly,” said Andy Ferris, Product Manager of LensMechanix at Zemax. “A decision by a mechanical engineer could impact the optical design and restart the development cycle. Modern virtual prototyping solves this problem.”
OpticStudio and LensMechanix are the tools of choice for engineers who design optical systems for drones. By simulating the impact of mechanical components on optical designs in a virtual prototype, mechanical engineers can catch and correct design issues early. The cost of making design changes in 3D models is significantly lower compared to making changes after a failure of a physical prototype.
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