If you remember, Skydio initially unveiled their dock about two and a half years ago, and that initial prototype was a tiny metal box.
Since then, they have been making refinements to the hardware and software to develop their final version of the dock, which just looks so Skydio. Like, it matches the design aesthetic of their drones perfectly.
With that said, the functionality of the dock is equally as impressive, and you don’t really understand how much goes into making it work, until you learn the nuances and what’s happening behind the scenes. Like, it’s not just a box that holds and protects a drone.
Skydio Dock and Dock Lite
So Skydio actually surprised us with 2 versions of the dock.
We, of course, have the standard dock that fully encloses the drone, and is built for outdoor use. This protects the drone from the elements. Whether it is hot, cold, rainy, or dusty, the drone can sit inside here and stay charged until it’s needed.
The big surprise, though, was the Dock Lite which is basically a small, carbon fiber tripod with a landing area mounted on top. This offers all the same functionality as the full-scale dock, just without the protection from the elements.
That makes the Dock Lite perfect for indoor use and comes with the obvious benefit of being more affordable.
To better understand how the dock works—there is a polycarbonate door in the front that opens to allow the arm to extend out. The drone sits on the end of this arm, cradled in a small cup-shaped landing area that fits the underslung battery perfectly.
Once the arm is fully extended, the door closes behind it so that the propellers don’t kick up any dust, dirt, or debris into the dock itself.
As the drone takes off, it does a 360 spin, that calibrates the navigation cameras and then comes to a hover.
From here, it will embark on its mission, which can be viewed live through Skydio’s Remote Ops software. So, you can see exactly what it’s doing at every moment, from its telemetry to the images that it’s capturing.
This isn’t necessary, though, as the drone is fully autonomous. So after you set that mission, it will know when it needs to take off, and what it needs to do. And once it’s finished that flight plan, it will land and upload that data for you to analyze with your team.
Speaking of landing, this is perhaps my favorite part, seeing the arm extend back out of the dock, the drone coming back down on its own, and then eventually touching down on that small landing cup.
This design element is really clever, as it allows the drone to perfectly connect to the charging pins each time, so it’s ready for the next mission.
Speaking of charging, when using the dock, you’ll have to make sure you are using the new batteries that have charging pins on the bottom.
The landing area has another set of pins that make a connection and supply power to the battery.
In talking to Skydio’s team, they wanted to simplify the charging with as few moving parts as possible, so there are very few points of failure.
Some docking stations have really complicated mechanisms inside the enclosure to like swapping the battery on the drone, but in the case of the Skydio dock, you could just run multiple docks in tandem.
Now in order to manage multiple drones, if you are in a situation where you need to, Skydio’s Remote Ops software gives you the ability to easily view your fleet, the status of each drone, and the dock.
And ultimately, control each of them manually is necessary. This means that you can even have one of these docks and be able to make use of remote ops as, right from your web browser, you have full control over the drone.
So let me give you a scenario. You’re a project manager on a construction site and your client is asking for you to confirm that a delivery has been made of, let’s say, iron beams.
Rather than walk the job site, you could be anywhere with an internet connection, grab your laptop, and then manually take control of that drone and fly to where you need to go.
You can grab a picture, which will then be uploaded to the cloud once you land. You can go grab that picture, and send it to your client. And remember, this can be done from anywhere. Likewise, you could be at your house, in the office, or across the country and complete this mission.
These dock missions can also be completed indoors, as I’ve mentioned. So, the remote ops missions that we were flying were inside the dock warehouse from Skydio’s headquarters, which is about 20 miles away.
You basically just use your keyboard and mouse like you’re playing a video game to maneuver the drone around.
It’s a really fluid and stress-free experience, as Skydio’s autonomy ensures the drone doesn’t crash, even in tight spaces.
This makes the flight experience feel really unique, but what’s also unique is those indoor automated flights where the drone can fly around inside on a preplanned flight mission and capture different images around the site while adapting to the environment.
As you can imagine, the inside of a warehouse or construction site is constantly changing, but the Skydio is smart enough to make decisions on its own and alter its flight path for safe operation.
For these repeatable flights, Skydio uses its visual positioning system to build a map that notes specific landmarks to make future missions easier.
This map is then uploaded to your cloud and can be shared with other drones that might be running the same mission.
This gives your Skydio a “long-term memory” to deliver more accurate flights that are down to a 10-20 cm difference.
This is far more accurate than VIO, or Visual Inertial Odometry, which can potentially drift between 1-5% of your distance traveled. This is when the drone’s onboard navigation cameras would use local features to estimate motion.
To demonstrate just how accurate Skydio’s drones are between flights, there are two specific examples that I want to share.
The first is an outdoor flight on this small construction project. Running the same repeatable mission on a 30-minute interval, the drone was able to deploy from the dock autonomously, capture all the images it was told to on its flight path, and then land to recharge.
Each image captured between flights is taken from the same spot with little deviation, and this goes for video, too, allowing you to create some pretty cool time-lapses over the course of your project.
The next example is from an indoor flight in this tight little corner of a clock. Just like the exterior mission, photos were taken every 30 minutes over a 24-hour period, and the drone was able to maintain a similar position between each flight.
This level of accuracy will ultimately make the drone safer for any flight, both indoors and out, but it will also give you better results.
Your photos and videos will be the same each time and won’t deviate from that spot over the course of multiple flights.
Think about this—you can use the Skydio and dock to plan an autonomous mission that captures a photo of the pressure gauges around a refinery every hour.
Thanks to how accurate the visual positioning system is, you can be sure that the pressure gauge will be properly photographed instead of say getting a photo that is 5 feet off of its mark and missing that information for that hour.
So overall, I think that Skydio’s dock is going to get a lot of use across construction sites, refineries, inside of warehouses, and really anywhere that you can use constant monitoring.
I mean, the more I think about it, there are probably more places that could benefit from having a dock on site than places that couldn’t.
Through harsh weather and GPS-denied environments, Skydio’s drone will be able to work and safely navigate the terrain.
I, personally, can’t wait to see how these docks are used in the real world. If you have any questions, please let me know in the comments, and I would be happy to share some of the knowledge that I’ve gained from seeing the dock in action.
I also got a chance to sit down with Adam, the CEO of Skydio, to discuss the dock a bit more in-depth, and it was fascinating hearing his take on this new system.
Note: remote drone operations outside without a pilot in command are currently not allowed by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) unless you have a special waiver. Remote drone operations indoors are allowed as the FAA does not control indoor airspace.
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