Flying drones without GPS

It was only recently that the South African president announced plans during a meeting with government officials to introduce drones technology to keep an eye over government infrastructure in a bid to combat vandalism.

Electricity cables both along the power grid and the railway lines keep disappearing; and there is always the general health of roads, bridges, communication equipment to keeps tabs with. President Cyril Ramaphosa was right that drone technology can come in handy in maintenance and monitoring cases – and there just might be a perfect drone for such purposes; a drone that can work even without access to GPS.

Or maybe especially without GPS.

A South African mining services company has successfully trialled underground drone flights using a technology called hovermap, which – according to its developer, Australian company Emesent – “is a smart mobile scanning unit which can be hand held or mounted to a drone to provide autonomous mapping in challenging inaccessible areas. Equally capable above ground or underground, indoors or out, hovermap is your complete mobile light detection and ranging (LiDAR) mapping solution.”

When attached to a drone, the technology can act as a collision avoidance sensor, providing the drone with a virtual safety bubble by producing a three-dimensional map of the drone’s surroundings and identifying nearby obstacles like walls, fences, trees; even people.

Cape Town based Dwyka Mining Services CEO Jamie van Schoor told a local weekly magazine, Mining Weekly that his company had tested the hovermap technology at one of its offices in Johannesburg, and returned with encouraging results, which could accelerate drone adoption for safe underground missions in the mining industry.

“Mines are characteristically focused on making environments safer and enhancing workflows, improving efficiencies,” van Schoor said, adding that the special quality of hovermap to work without GPS allowed for safe operations in hard to reach areas in mining shafts.

“Drones usually rely on GPS for localisation, navigation and flight control,” said Emesent of their product. “But hovermap uses LiDAR data and advanced algorithms on-board in real-time to provide reliable and accurate localisation and navigation without the need for GPS. This allows drones to fly autonomously in GPS-denied environments, enabling a host of new applications such as flying and mapping in underground mines, inside warehouses or inspecting underneath bridges.”

Seeing as they seem to be starting to warm up to drone technology in official government circles – having made moves to purchase surveillance drones for border patrols, and entertained discussions around the use of drone technology in other areas of government business – one hopes that the South African government will make good on this newfound, if grudging, acceptance of drone technology and explore the possibility of deploying technologies like hovermap to safeguard its infrastructure.

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