June 3, 2023

Drone docks: what are they, and why are the so hot this year?

drone docks what are they and why are the so hot this year

You might call it drone-in-a-box, or you may refer to it as a drone dock. But either way, drone docks like the DJI Dock are a key product for many commercial drone operations.

Some of the biggest drone manufacturers, including DJI and California-based Skydio, are leaning into them especially seriously this year. And there’s a big reason why 2023 is the year of drone docks (hint: it has to do with the Federal Aviation Administration).

What are drone docks?

A drone dock is typically considering anything that functions as a landing and charging station for drones, providing a safe and convenient location for drones to land and recharge their batteries, without requiring manual intervention by an operator.

Typically they can open and close (like a box), allowing the drone to land inside and remain secured in their, so others can’t steal it even if it’s unattended in a space where other humans are present (many docks can be bolted to the ground or other stationary objects). And in spaces where humans are definitely not present, like oil pipelines in the middle of nowhere or large, sprawling fields, they allow the drone to land and recharge without mandating a human go out there.

Drone docks vary in their “skills.” Some offer automatic charging through systems like induction. Others can swap batteries. Typically the drone docks are weatherproof to protect the drones from environmental elements. The smartest ones offer up remote monitoring and control systems to manage the drone operations.

Drone docks are particularly useful for applications such as aerial surveillance, inspection, and delivery services by improving the efficiency and safety of drone operations, all the while reducing the need for manual intervention and allowing drones to operate autonomously for longer periods.

For example, BNSF, which is one of North America’s largest freight railroad companies, is using drone docks to track cargo on trains and organize which track each car is place on. Even with 99.5% accuracy, that means 10 rail cars in a sea of 2,000 in the rail yard are lost in the crowd, meaning supervisors must roaming around, physically looking for missing cars for up four hours every day. With the DJI Dock, railyard teams automate the process of finding lost cars, turning the current four-hour manual search into a quick “CTRL+F.”

The most popular, highest-rated drone docks out there

Many of the big names in drones make their own drone docks. Other third-parties also make drone docks for some of those big name drones. And don’t forget the other drone-in-a-box companies.

DJI Dock

DJI Dock

It wasn’t until this time last year that one of the biggest names in the business, DJI, launched its own drone in a box, called the DJI Dock.

The DJI Dock is a 90 kg autonomous docking and recharging station. Consider it an epic, smart box designed specifically for the DJI M30 series of drones. It can charge an M30 drone, and then automatically send it off into the skies, as programmed through FlightHub 2. The DJI Dock has a climate-controlled interior, is rated at IP55 and the core internal components are IP67, and it’s waterproof and dust-proof even when it is open. It’s capable of charging in extreme temperatures ranging from -35 to 50 degrees Celsius.

With it, DJI Matrice 30 series drones become capable of truly autonomous takeoff, landing and charging anywhere within a 7 km radius. Upon landing in the dock, drones automatically recharge via a fast charging and battery cooling system. DJI says your drone can take off again only 25 minutes after it landed.

As far as the dock’s size? It seems to fit the Goldilocks sweet spot of being too heavy to steal if it’s left out in public, as it weighs a massive 90 kg (which is about 200 lbs). Then again, it’s small enough to be transported on a standard pickup truck.

The Dock was released in March 2022, the same time that it announced the DJI Matrice 30. From there, DJI spent the end of 2022 and the first half of 2023 promoting its DJI Dock fairly aggressively. That included a keynote at the NestGen 2023 virtual summit and a live demo for attendees at the DJI AirWorks 2022 conference in Las Vegas (yes, DJI was able to launch drones from the Las Vegas Strip).

Here’s a video of the DJI opening up to accept a drone coming in for a landing:

Skydio Dock

Not to be outdone, strong DJI competitor Skydio closed out 2022 by launching a set of drone docks of its own. In December 2022, the California drone maker gave a key glance inside its progress building three related products:  Skydio Dock, Skydio Dock Lite, and Skydio Remote Ops. The Docks have already made huge waves in the industry, including earning a nomination for AUVSI’s XCELLENCE in Innovation as part of the group’s sixth annual, 2023 AUVSI XCELLENCE Awards.

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While not publicly available yet, the launch of Skydio Docks means Skydio is seriously about playing in the sand box.

Currently, Skydio is limiting its drone docks to hand-selected early access partners, including the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) and California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) to monitor large areas of construction for highway development, often in remote areas, with support by the Skydio Dock. The Skydio Dock is also currently being used by Southern Company, an electric power distribution company at electrical substations for post-event inspections, where drones conduct assessments that can inform better decisions, such as what resources to send to a site and how quickly.

You can apply to become a Skydio Early Access Partner for yourself.

Skydio says its dock allows operators to station drones in harsh outdoor environments (as well as complex indoor facilities) at a fraction of the cost, size, and complexity of existing solutions.

Skydio Dock

A crucial FAA waiver to expand use of the Skydio Drone Dock

One of Skydio’s early access partners, Commonwealth Edison Company (ComEd), took a massive leap this month when it announced that, for the first time, its certified pilots would operate drones remotely using Skydio’s Drone Dock. That’s a big cost (aka staff) saver as crews can perform inspections without having to be in-person.

ComEd is a massive U.S. energy provider, with approximately 10 million customers.

It all largely came down to a permit from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which approved an operational waiver allowing ComEd pilots to remotely operate drones without a visual line of sight from any location across northern Illinois.

For now, Skydio Drone Docks are installed simply at ComEd’s Chicago Training Center. But the company said the installation of additional docks is expected later in 2023 at secure locations throughout ComEd’s service territory.

And that’s not all; Skydio’s got two drone docks. Skydio Dock Lite is designed with indoor spaces in mind, as it’s pretty small (it can even be mounted on a rack or shelf to maximize space savings). That might be a better fit for drones, say, monitoring warehouses.

FlytBase drone docks docking station for the DJI M300
The FlytBase docking station for the DJI M300

Third-party docks for DJI drones

Other companies have bade docks for popular drones. Among the most notable examples was the team up between two drone companies – FlytBase and Hextronics — to build a Drone Dock for the DJI M300 drone.

Their Atlas 300 dock is basically a robotic battery swapping mechanism that can house up to eight batteries, with a lifespan of more than 2,000 cycles. It’s designed to accommodate a variety of payloads, including LIDAR, thermal and mapping cameras, parachutes, and other sensors. It’s also air-conditioned, climate-controlled and all-around weatherproof.

Hextronics separated builds its own dock designed specifically for pickup trucks called HexTrucks.

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Drone-in-a-box companies like Percepto

DJI and Skydio are relatively new to drone docks, but companies touting drone-in-a-box solutions are hardly new. Israel-based drone service provider Percepto doesn’t offer a drone dock you can buy, but rather markets its “drone-in-a-box” services.

When you work with Percepto, which by the way was named one of Time Magazine’s 100 Best Inventions of 2021, you get an AI-powered, end-to-end solution that collates and streamline data gathered via your Percepto drone.

Percepto’s Air Max and Air Mobile drones are typically stored in a drone dock called Percepto Base. The bases are designed to be relatively light and easy to relocate, while still being durable to withstand complicated environmental conditions. They’re also designed for infrequent maintenance, and should theoretically provide protection against even extreme environmental phenomena, such as hurricanes. In fact, the company in summer 2020 became the first drone company to build a product that passes Level 5 hurricane testing with its Sparrow drone, which can fly at a wind speed of up to 155mph).

What features do the best drone docks have?

Drone docks vary in capability and quality. But as the technology progresses especially well into 2023, here are four features every drone dock should have:

Fast charging: The early days of drone docks were primarily to serve as charging pads at the midpoint of long drone flights. Of course, fast charging is crucial. For example, the DJI Dock can get the M30 drone charged and airborne again in an estimated 25 minutes.

Durability: A drone dock that sits by itself outdoors needs to withstand unpredictable weather. Consider IP55-ratings, ability to withstand extreme temperature swings, and waterproof internals a must-have.

Easy setup and maintenance: Drone docks might need to be moved around, and they should be able to be operated by pretty much any crew. They should be simple to install (which typically should only entail bolting it down, connecting it to a power source and connecting it to an internet source).

Integration with software: While the initial drone docks were all about charging, these days the standards are higher. Drones should be able to talk back to people on the ground in real-time upon landing at their docks. After landing and while charging, the best drone docks can store and send data to teams for instant data processing via cloud control.

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The DJI Dock

Why drone docks are the future

While some envision drones flying around busy cities delivering packages, the most realistic use case of drones is that they fly in all the places that humans don’t go. The most lucrative drone use cases tend to revolve around remote infrastructure inspections, such as oil pipelines or train tracks.

So what’s holding drone docks back? It was alluded to earlier in the Skydio section, but restrictions on BVLOS and unsupervised flights restrict the ability to convey the true power of drone docks. Currently drones cannot fly in the U.S. outside of an operator’s line of sight unless the operator has obtained an FAA waiver, making scalability and widespread use cases unrealistic.

Some companies including Percepto have attained those waivers. In 2022, Percepto this winter received Federal Aviation Administration approval to conduct BVLOS drone operations using its drone-in-a-box tech for Delek US Holdings’ refineries located in both Tyler, Texas and El Dorado, Arkansas, marking the first BVLOS drone flights of U.S. oil refineries.

And just a few months later, in March 2022, the FAA’s Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) Aviation Rulemaking Committee (ARC) released its final report, which establishes a basis for scaling uncrewed flight in the national airspace. Experts predict that a proposed rule for BVLOS operation will be made public by the end of 2023.

And when BVLOS operation becomes more attainable, expect drone dock technology to really take off.

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