Innovation Profile: Solving Drone Positioning Problem


By Robert Prestgard-Duke

With persistent warfare around the globe and the continued use of landmines within these warzones there remains a continuous problem of having to deal with these unexploded devices.  According to the United Nations there are more than 110 million active landmines scattered across 70 countries with many of these countries no longer being at war.

One robotics company named 5D Robotics, based out of Carlsbad, California, says they have developed software that takes a serious step towards solving this problem.  One of the main problems for using drones in this way has been the unreliability of GPS which can go down, is not available in certain areas like canyons, and can be easily jammed during combat.  Despite this problem, the draw of using an unmanned system to find these dangerous explosives is obvious and the government has given numerous grants in pursuit of solving this problem.

The 5D Robotics company believes they have with their innovative software and hardware.  This software and hardware, once installed on a drone, allows the drone to use ultra-wideband positioning modules which act like posts.  These “posts” then allow the drone to navigate its surroundings and can be used to map areas, detect IEDs, and follow another person or vehicle.  This innovation gives other striking improvements as well.  With the ultra-wide band drones can map areas to the centimeter while GPS can only map accurately in feet.  This allows the drone to mark and find landmines very accurately .

Additionally, the drone does not get confused by shadows, dust, or overgrowth and is able to sense obstacles and stop if something is in the way.  This has been a consistent problem with other automated drone software that can become “confused” by these outside or unexpected elements and result in the drone being unreliable.  Within the context of finding explosives this unreliability is unacceptable, which is why 5D Robotics’ new, reliable software is so innovative.

The software has also been based around the military use of providing squad support.  The drone or other robotic vehicles that the software has been installed upon can easily carry gear and follow someone around with it.  This is because the 5D Robotics company’s software uses the ultra-wideband positioning to “tag” a target and follow that person.  This means that no human being needs to be in direct control or actively steering the robot.

Though for now 5D Robotics has been guiding and paying for these innovations for military use, David Bruemmer, 5D Robotics founder, hopes to take the company into more commercial areas as well.  He believes that the software and platform would be very helpful to utility companies for doing things like monitoring pipelines and generating 3D maps of power lines. “The tracking capabilities would allow a single user to ‘virtually tether’ an aerial drone to follow their car,” Bruemmer said.  “They can then drive their car instead of piloting the UAS drone. Meanwhile the drone is able to build up detailed 3D maps and survey the area from a bird’s eye perspective.”

The company is also looking into the technologies being used within the agriculture sector.  Through the drone’s impressive mapping technology, it could be used in a number of ways in farming such as mapping out areas as well as possibly monitoring different crops.  5D Robotics is currently working to test the technology’s applications in agriculture in Encinitas.  The company also believes that the software could be incorporated into existing drones with very positive effects putting no real cap on the positive outcomes of this innovative technology.  Bruemmer postulated that the technology could even be used by drone enthusiasts or toys for children because of the software’s ability to stop the drone before it hits anything.  To prove this safety, 5D Robotics even showcases several films on their website showing this capability with one video even showing children playing with one of the drones.

Because of these innovations, 5D Robotics has been expanding quite quickly with Bruemmer being initially based out of Idaho National Laboratory but now running the company out of Carlsbad.  The company now operates alongside the Carlsbad-based AerialMOB, which helps with testing the technology.  This is especially useful since AerialMOB has an exemption from the Federal Aviation Administration to commercially fly drones, seriously aiding in any testing of their products.  Additionally, the Carlsbad Chamber of Commerce has given 5D Robotics an award in information and communication technology because Chamber President Ted Owen said they are unique in their environment and their expected growth is significant.  President Ted Owen also remarked that “Having spent 20 years in the marines, I can tell you it’d be really nice to have these vehicles where you don’t have to drive them.”

With these innovative technologies under their belt, and 5D Robotics looking to expand into other fields besides the military, the company is of key interest when watching innovations in drone technology.