Aviation Lessons Learned:
A Technical Perspective from Goats to Integrated Solutions
Microdrones is a growing company offering leading edge UAV technologies and services. In a rapidly expanding and evolving marketplace, the company’s development team is delivering safer, more robust and efficient drone systems that are easier to operate.
Michael Pontz leads technical aviation development at Microdrones. For his contribution to an overall drone solution, the bottom line is aircraft flight performance. He told Inside Unmanned Systems, “Here at our facility in Siegen, we do development of our flight platforms and everything connected to that. The team I lead covers the navigation part and the interface with payloads. And I would say very generally one of the ongoing and continuous tasks is to find ways to improve the performance of the system. In the end, this always means longer flight time. We want to be able to maneuver our aircraft and use the energy in the battery as best we can for as long as we can.”
Pontz said weight reduction in particular is very important. “We want to cut every gram that we can possibly cut. The md4-1000 was designed to carry a 1,000-gram payload, so if we can reduce the weight of the vehicle, if we can save 10 grams on 1,000, that’s 1% of the nominal payload, so we can then increase the payload.
“We are very lucky to have Schübeler who makes our light-weight rotors. We are also working on extending the over-all efficiency of the motors.” He said Microdrones is putting a lot of effort into looking at future motor designs for reducing thermal losses, looking at new materials and improved production processes, all in house.
Own Navigation Core
From the outset, Microdrones has implemented its own proprietary navigation algorithms. “Our team of aerospace engineers understand navigation theory and practice. Our vehicles are equipped with navigation and location components by the industry’s best-known manufacturers. For example, on-board modules of note include the Applanix APX-15/20.
“We intentionally do not want to mix the navigational and the payload parts,” said Pontz. “These should be completely independent, because we do not want the navigation chip to be used for payload commands.”
Pontz said vehicle position is accurate to within 45cm, sometimes 35cm, and that’s plenty of precision for most use cases. “In the mapping industry, where you generally have a wide area for landing, a basic level of precision is required. The Applanix georeferencing module with IMU always knows where it is, knows where the payload is positioned, so this helps to further tighten up our trajectory.
“There are applications and a use case for increased precision on the drone side,” he said. “If you think about precision landing, for example, if we want to fly to a charger or if you want to land on a ship, on a platform, then more precision is called for, and we can respond to those special cases.”
“We want to be able to maneuver our air-craft and use the energy in the battery as best we can for as long as we can.”Michael Pontz, Technical Solutions
Diversity Makes the Team
Pontz personally leads a team of 20 in Siegen, Germany. A local man himself, he is a prime example of how Microdrones has brought together personnel with unique skills and backgrounds to forge an effective team.
Pontz holds a Ph.D. in Astroparticle Physics from the University of Siegen, having earned his degree studying some very special and elusive subatomic particles called muons. Much of his Ph.D. work was carried out at the Pierre Auger Observatory in Argentina, where arrays of massive water tanks are used by researchers to detect muons streaming down to Earth from outer space. “The work I did there has no practical application,” he admitted. “It’s basic research. We didn’t care about how we could use the results in the real world. We just wanted to know.”
But that doesn’t mean the work didn’t lead to anything. If an in-depth knowledge of subatomic physics isn’t exactly a part of his current job description, Pontz did pick up valuable lessons as a student that he still applies today. He isn’t just a smart guy who ended up at Microdrones; the scientific knowledge he gained during his Ph.D. work made him a perfect fit for designing, developing and relentlessly improving advanced technology systems, all skills that he brings to bear at Microdrones.
Moreover, it was in Argentina that he first came into contact with drones. Pontz explained, “We were using a telescope in combination with our field sensors in these massive water tanks. As part of the calibration procedure, the observatory flew an octocopter with a light source of a defined intensity in front of the telescope. It was the first time I had seen a drone in action and I was fascinated.
“Software development was another thing I had to learn when I was doing my research. When you are setting up electronics and doing things like complex statistical operations, you often have to create your own tools, so I had to learn programming. In fact, I originally joined Microdrones in 2013 as a software developer.”
Learning ‘On the Hoof’
There were more practical lessons to be learned in the South American wilds: “The nice thing at the office is that you can relax and think about all kinds theoretical problems, but if you let other people do the hands-on work, you can miss what’s really going on. In Argentina we were having a lot of problems with our electronics and our data collection—it just would not work. Our sensors were spread out all across the local fields and what we eventually realized was that someone was letting their cows and their goats out and they were chewing up our cables. I guess you didn’t have to be an astrophysicist to figure that one out.”
Pontz said one of his most important responsibilities today is getting to know the people on his team, discerning what they do best and what they enjoy. “If we can figure out what a person’s ‘real profession’ is, what they are enthusiastic about, then we can get them in the right position to do their best work for Microdrones.”
Professional Markets Define Direction
As Microdrones moves forward as a company, Pontz said, one clear objective for developers is to continue to make the platforms safer and easier to control. “At the beginning of the company, there were a lot of drone enthusiasts out there,” he said. “They wanted to fly drones and look at them and handle them. Then I think there was a turning point, about 2013-14, when customers changed. We were now looking at more of a professional mapping community. They are not actually interested in drones. They want to fulfill their task, their application, and the drone is just a tool.”
What is now called for, Pontz said, is much more of an “easy-button” approach. “They want to push a button and see the whole planned mission performed: take-off, data collection, and return and landing, all with minimal intervention by an operator. We are continuously improving the overall system to efficiently collect data and provide deliverables that improve business decision making. Developing aircraft platforms that are light, efficient, nimble, resilient and easy to operate. That supports the end user goal of efficient data deliverables.”
The Microdrones facility in Canada includes a top-notch team of programmers working on these very challenges. “We have our team working on this post-processing side,” said Pontz, “to improve on the complete workflow. And with all this, another part of our work becomes ensuring that we have a good coordination. We need to work closely with our colleagues, sometimes at different locations, to be at our best efficiency. We are now a company with more than 240 people, and there are a lot of great ideas.”
If that’s Pontz’s worst problem, we see nothing but further success in Microdrones’ future. As long as someone is watching the goats.
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