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New Drones are Taking Off -- Vertically and Horizontally
By Brad Frischkorn

Drone pilots who lament the short flight time of multi-prop drones, and fixed wingers who dream of better hovering capability will both be able to rest easier soon, thanks to new designs that promise to reshape the market.

Autel Robotics, a newbie drone maker based in the northwestern U.S. state of Washington, is hoping that its new series of tiltrotor aircraft will ignite interest from industrial customers.

The company made a splash with its display at the first annual Tokyo Drone Expo earlier this year, as its massive white Kestrel prototype hung menacingly over the firm’s floor display. The machine’s elegant design sported a massive 11.5 feet wingspan, a V-shaped tail, and four tiltrotor propellers to push, pull, and lift the craft at the same time.

Tiltrotor aircraft typically have propellers that can be turned from horizontal to vertical position midflight, combining the functionality of a helicopter with the cruise performance of a conventional airplane. Such craft carrying people have only recently broken into popular use with the U.S. military’s adoption of the Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey, which is fitted with two massive propellers that allow for vertical take-offs and landings.

The Kestrel’s miniaturization of those same capabilities is something new to the drone world, leading some to dub it the most efficient electric unmanned aerial craft in the world. It sports a maximum takeoff weight of 14 kgs, a 40 mph top speed, a 100 km range and a flight time of up to two hours.

“The Kestrel is intended for industrial use, primarily for urban surveillance, geographical and agricultural mapping, and so it needs to have a range and battery capacity to fulfill those tasks,” says Autel marketing specialist Yeni Ye, who headed the company’s delegation to the expo from Shenzen, China. “Its ability to take off and land vertically allows for launching and recovery in very small areas.”

The Kestrel can carry a 2kg payload along with a nose-mounted camera, which could give it some utility in humanitarian missions. The entire unit can be disassembled into tail and nose sections for storage and transport.

Autel plans to launch the Kestrel around March 2017. Miss Ye puts the likely retail price around $15,000 per copy.

The company may hit a sweet spot with in the U.S., where agri-businesses are looking at a scalable way monitor nitrogen cycles and plant photosynthesis. The Kestrel’s dedicated flight control system combines automatically-generated flight routes with infrared multispectral sensors to enable detailed crop condition monitoring across large parcels of land.

Considering the recent loosening of government rules for unnamed aerial vehicles (UAVs), the impact of drone efficiency on the U.S. farm sector could be huge. By 2050, ‘agdrones’ could very likely comprise up to 80% of commercial drones in the sky by 2050, says psfk’s Macala Wright in an industry report.

With facilities and personnel in both the U.S. and Europe, Autel is now aggressively seeking partners to help market its gear in Japan, where strict regulations have heretofore hindered sales, says Ms. Ye.

“It would be great if Japanese bandwidth rules could be relaxed to the point where agricultural needs and the manpower shortage could be addressed at the same time with drones. But eventually we feel that we can design drones that fit regulatory and industrial specs while also meeting customers’ needs.”

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Autel Robotics' Kestrel prototype drone

"It would be great if Japanese bandwidth rules could be relaxed to the point where agricultural needs and the manpower shortage could be addressed at the same time with drones." -- Yeni Ye

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