Desert Rotor’s Debin Ray (Right) and Joseph Burch (Left) launch the 12PCX at InterDrone 2016.
In the last few years the drone industry has grown by leaps and bounds, with UAVs being deployed to assist with everything from land surveys, to search and rescue, and even the occasional burrito delivery. With many drone conversations centering around consumer-based technologies and the security concerns that camera-equipped drones present, it’s easy to overlook the growing number of commercial applications utilizing drones of every shape and size to change the way industry operates. While the applications for UAVs run the gamut, one factor unites them: every drone needs a reliable control system, and today’s commercial drones require something far more complex than your standard R/C remote.
Enter Desert Rotor, an Arizona-based company creating innovative all-in-one UAV ground control stations for today’s growing fleet of commercial UAVs. Desert Rotor is using OnLogic’s ML100 Industrial NUC in their new Mantis 12PCX to provide drone operators with a self contained control solution that’s rugged, reliable and eliminates much of the complexity in ground control setup. We spoke with Debin Ray, Managing Director of Desert Rotor, about the burgeoning drone industry, what goes into creating a self-contained UAV ground control station, and why he chose to integrate a OnLogic embedded PC into the Mantis.
OnLogic:Can you give us a quick introduction to Desert Rotor? Debin Ray: Sure, Desert Rotor is a team of highly skilled professionals dedicated to providing innovative, simplified and cost effective ground control systems. These systems are used to manage and pilot commercial unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). The backgrounds of our team members range from aerospace and software, all the way to financial services firms.
LS:What led you to create Desert Rotor? Why UAV Ground control Stations? DR: My whole life I have been fascinated and passionate about anything that’s remotely operated, and with anything related to wireless technology in general. Around 2010 I joined a well known R/C enthusiast club called Sun Valley Fliers in Cave Creek Arizona. In this club I met some of the most skilled R/C pilots, engineers and aerospace professionals in the world. As commercial unmanned technology progressed I saw an opportunity to start a company to help facilitate the use of that technology in the professional space. A lot of unmanned technology naturally developed from the R/C world. I wanted to build Desert Rotor as a home for knowledge experts when it came to remotely operating unmanned vehicles. A defense contractor heard about Desert Rotor and they soon became one of our most prominent clients. They had us assist them with unmanned technology. Desert Rotor started to gain momentum and we shifted our focus to bringing a commercial grade UAV flight control system to the market.
LS:What have been the biggest changes or innovations in the UAV industry over the last 5 years? DR: Roughly around 3 to 4 years ago various technologies crossed paths that naturally began to enable highly capable, affordable systems. Advances in long range radio transmission, wireless video systems and autopilot software have all combined to create the backbone of the modern commercial UAV.
One of the biggest innovations has been the Autopilot software/hardware that most UAV systems now use. Autopilot systems execute software code that keeps aircraft stabilized and in the air with ease, and utilize GPS technology to assist UAV operators in flying highly complex systems.
LS:Can you talk a bit about the Mantis 12PCX and exactly what it does? DR: The 12PCX is a highly innovative ground control system for unmanned aircraft. We essentially integrated 3 major technologies into one form factor. We integrated the OnLogic ML100 Embedded PC with wireless video receiving technology along with radio transmitter functions. This technology all together allows one to manage, operate and pilot UAVs using a 3-Axis joystick and various hardware/software tools we built in.
LS:Who might use this type of controller? DR: The target audience for this type of system encompasses nearly all commercial users of UAVs. This includes Civil Engineers, Movie Production, Agriculture, Aerial Inspections, Law Enforcement, Search & Rescue and the countless other applications UAVs are now assisting with.
LS:What has been the most challenging part of creating the Mantis 12PCX? DR: There are so many ways to manufacture technology these days. The biggest challenges were how to build a high quality system, have a quick production turnaround and offer it at the lowest price possible.
The Desert Rotor team spent countless hours researching and prototyping ways to design and manufacture the 12PCX. While all this was an epic challenge the Desert Rotor team viewed it more as a learning opportunity and we really embraced the challenge.
LS:What differentiates Desert Rotor, and the Mantis 12PCX, from other players in the drone control industry? DR: The Mantis 12PCX is state of the art when it comes to its all-in-one form factor and the breadth of features it offers. Our competition comes in various shapes and sizes. Most UAV operators are still using R/C transmitters, the ones you see flying toy airplanes. Using this method for commercial applications forces you to use a laptop, a video receiver, antennas, countless cables, and battery systems and chargers. The process to learn and setup ground system components is very overwhelming and time consuming. Also R/C transmitters have a very archaic layout designed decades ago and not intended for modern commercial UAVs.
Our system not only streamlines all those necessary components, but it also allows the pilot to fly more naturally. We offer a Hands On Throttle and Stick (HOTAS) layout. This layout is used in the defense industry and in the gaming industry. The layout is conceptually easier on the brain. This allows for more precise piloting, a shorter learning curve and, as a result, a much shorter required training time.
LS:What were some of your computer hardware challenges in building the Mantis? DR: The primary computer challenge we had was finding an embedded PC that not only had a small footprint but also packed a ton of power, had customization options and came with the supplier support we need. We found all of that with Onlogic and the ML100.
The side of the ML100 Industrial PC (top) can be seen when the access panel is opened.
LS:What exactly is the ML100 being used for in the Mantis 12PCX? DR: The ML100 is the field computer our end users need to operate their UAV. Users need access to a wide variety of software programs to manage, operate and pilot their UAV fleet. The inclusion of an embedded PC gives them the ability to access the internet and their company’s VPN. Essentially by integrating a PC into our flight control system it streamlines the entire process of setting up and flying UAVs.
LS:Where do you see the Drone/UAV industry heading in the next 5-10 years and beyond? DR: The next few years we will see dramatic advances in the UAV industry. Various companies are working on different sensor technology that will increase UAV capabilities to all new levels. Currently UAVs can self stabilize, follow GPS instructions and collect actionable intelligence via cameras.
UAVs will soon have functionality that exceeds just retrieving aerial images. UAVs will have the ability to pick things up, drop things off, fix things and manipulate the environment around them.
LS:When will the Mantis 12PCX be available and what is the cost? DR: The 12PCX was released to the public at the InterDrone 2016 Conference in Las Vegas on September 7th and we were overwhelmed by the response. It was clear that the industry recognizes the advances we achieved with the 12PCX. We expect to start shipping units to a number of very interested clients by December.
A 12PCX that has all the ground components you need to operate any type of UAV is $9,000 and caps around $11,000 if certain upgraded options are requested. The price point is highly competitive given the fact that the 12PCX is a universal system. You can fly fixed wing crafts, multi-rotors and virtually any autopilot system in the market place. Any other ground system currently available costs 2 to 3 times more and forces pilots to use a very complicated system and proprietary vehicle. We’ve tried to make things as simple and accessible as possible for our clients.
Read more about Desert Rotor, and learn how other innovators are using OnLogic hardware, on our Customer Stories page.
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Darek is the Communications Manager at OnLogic. His passion for both journalism and technology has led him from the newsrooms of local papers to the manufacturing floor of IBM. His background in news gathering has him always on the lookout for the latest in emerging tech and the best ways to share that information with readers. In addition to his affinity for words, Darek is a music lover, juggler and huge fan of terrible jokes.