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Building an ecosystem for responsible drone use and development on Microsoft Azure

Posted on October 30, 2018

Director, Azure Internet of Things

The next wave of computing is already taking shape around us as IoT enables businesses to sense all aspects of their business in real-time, and take informed action to running cloud workloads on those IoT devices so they don’t require “always on” connectivity to the cloud to make real-time context-aware decisions. This is the intelligent edge, and it will define the next wave of innovation, not just for business, but also how we address some of the world’s most pressing issues.

Drones or unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) are great examples of intelligent edge devices being used today to address many of these challenges, from search and rescue missions and natural disaster recovery, to increasing the world’s food supply with precision agriculture. With the power of AI at the edge, drones can have a profound impact in transforming businesses and improving society, as well as in assisting humans in navigating high-risk areas safely and efficiently.   

With these advanced capabilities also comes great responsibility including respecting the laws that govern responsible drone use in our airspace, as well as the applications of the drones to scan the environment. We believe it is important to protect data wherever it lives, from the cloud to the intelligent edge.

In addition to building the platforms for innovation, we at Microsoft believe it is crucial to also invest in companies and partnerships that will enable the responsible use of drones and associated data. Today we are making two important announcements that further our commitment to responsible use of drones as commercial IoT edge devices running on Microsoft Azure.

AirMap powered by Microsoft Azure

Today we announced that AirMap has selected Microsoft Azure as the company's exclusive cloud-computing platform for its drone traffic management platform and developer ecosystem.

Drone usage is growing quickly across industries such as transportation, utilities, agriculture, public safety, emergency response, and more, to improve the efficiency and performance of existing business processes. Data generated by drones is infused with intelligence to augment the value that companies and governments deliver to customers and communities. However, concerns about regulatory compliance, privacy, and data protection still prevent organizations from adopting drone technology at scale.

AirMap works with civil aviation authorities, air navigation service providers, and local authorities to implement an airspace management system that supports and enforces secure and responsible access to low-altitude airspace for drones.

With AirMap’s airspace management platform running on Microsoft Azure, the two companies are delivering a platform that will allow state and local authorities to authorize drone flights and enforce local rules and restrictions on how and when they can be operated. Their solution also enables companies to ensure that compliance and security are a core part of their enterprise workflows that incorporate drones.

AirMap selected Microsoft Azure because it provides the critical cloud-computing infrastructure, security, and reliability needed to run these mission-critical airspace services and orchestrate drone operations around the world.

Earlier this year, Swiss Post, the postal service provider for the country of Switzerland, joined with drone manufacturer Matternet and Insel Group, Switzerland’s largest leading medical care system, to fly time-sensitive laboratory samples between Tiefanau Hospital and University Hospital Insel in Bern. This was an alternative to ground transport, where significant traffic can cause life-threatening delays. The operations are supported by Switzerland’s airspace management system for drones, powered by AirMap and Microsoft Azure, for safety and efficiency.

DJI Windows SDK for app development enters public preview

Last May at our Build developer conference, we announced a partnership with DJI, the world’s leader in civilian drones and aerial imaging technology, to bring advanced AI and machine learning capabilities to DJI drones, helping businesses harness the power of commercial drone technology and edge cloud computing.

Today at DJI’s AirWorks conference, we are announcing the public preview of the Windows SDK, which allows applications to be written for Windows 10 PCs that control DJI drones. The SDK will also allow the Windows developer community to integrate and control third-party payloads like multispectral sensors, robotic components like custom actuators, and more, exponentially increasing the ways drones can be used in the enterprise.

With this SDK, we now have three methods to enable Azure AI services to interact with drone imagery and video in real-time:

  1. Drone imagery can be sent directly to Azure for processing by an AI workload.
  2. Drone imagery can be processed on Windows running Azure IoT Edge with an AI workload.
  3. Drone imagery can be processed directly onboard drones running Azure IoT Edge with an AI workload.

We take the security of data seriously, from the cloud to edge devices such as drones. Azure IoT Edge includes an important subsystem, called the security manager, which acts as a core for protecting the IoT Edge device and all its components by abstracting the secure silicon hardware. It is the focal point for security hardening and provides IoT device manufacturers the opportunity to harden their devices based on their choice of hardware secure modules (HSM). Finally, the Azure certified for IoT program only certifies third-party Azure IoT Edge hardware that meets our strict security requirements.

We are encouraged by all the creative applications of drones we are seeing on Azure today across industry sectors, and the following are a few examples of this.

  • SlantRange: Is an aerial remote sensing and data analytics company servicing the information needs of the agriculture industry, with over two decades of experience in earth science, defense, and intelligence applications. The company has patented foundational technologies for aerial crop inspections and introduced innovative analytical methods that deliver valuable agronomic data within minutes of collection, anywhere in the world, using low-power edge computing devices. These technologies have propelled SlantRange's growth from a few Nebraska corn and soybean farms just a few seasons ago to over 40 countries and a wide variety of crops today, including contracts with many of the world's leading agricultural suppliers and producers.
  • Clobotics: Is a global AI company helping wind energy companies to improve its productivity by automatically inspecting, processing, and reporting wind turbine blade defects. The company has inspected over 1,000 wind turbines in the past few months around the world. Clobotics’ end-to-end solutions combine computer vision, machine learning, and data analytics software with commercial drones and sensors to help the wind energy industry automate its inspection service. Clobotics’ Wind Turbine Data Platform, along with its computer vision-based edge computing service, provides a first-of-its-kind wind turbine blade life-cycle management service. As a Microsoft WW Azure partner, Clobotics works closely with Microsoft Azure and the IoT platform to provide the most innovative and reliable services to its enterprise customers.
  • eSmart systems: Brings more than 20 years of global intelligence to provide software solutions to the energy industry, service providers, and smart cities. By bringing AI to the edge on Azure IoT Edge, eSmart Systems are revolutionizing grid inspections. Their Connected Drone solution has the capability to analyze 200,000 images in less than one hour, this is more than a human expert can do in a year. The result is reduced operational cost, better insights into the current status of the grid, and fewer outages.

Earlier this year we announced a $5 billion investment in IoT and the intelligent edge to continue innovation, strategic partnerships, and programs. The latest announcements with strategic partners like AirMap and DJI continue to push the boundaries of what is possible, and we look forward to seeing what our joint customers go on to build.