Five Good Questions: Lori Scott, NatureServe

Lori Scott is chief information officer and vice president for technology and partnerships at NatureServe, which, for nearly 50 years, has been the authoritative source for biodiversity data throughout North America. Scott oversees NatureServe’s technology team, with a portfolio that includes software product development, user support, and IT infrastructure for mission-critical enterprise information management and delivery systems.

Q: What is NatureServe and how does it work
to enhance biodiversity?

A: We’re a nonprofit that is the hub of a network of programs, and we work with partners in every state in the U.S. and every province in Canada. This is called the NatureServe Network. That network was initiated by the Nature Conservancy in the 1970s, and then in 2000, NatureServe was spun off as an independent non-profit. They [the Nature Conservancy] have a land protection mission, and there just wasn’t good data on which to base those decisions. So, to be less opportunistic and more strategic, a system was designed for tracking what exists where and how it’s doing.

Q: How are things going on the biodiversity front, and what is the importance of maintaining as much of it as possible?

A: Well, it’s not great. There are a lot of headlines you could pick from in terms of the number of species facing extinction or that have gone extinct. In terms of why it matters, it’s sort of the basis of all life. So, biodiversity can be genetic, diversity of species, diversity of ecosystems. We’re all connected. And so everything we really rely on comes from that diversity. Seventy-five percent of our crops depend on pollination. About half of the medicinal drugs we use…that have been approved in the last 30 years have been derived from natural products. And then climate regulation, flood control, all the things we’re seeing in the headlines about climate. They’re very integrated and interrelated with biodiversity and the health of the environment.

Q: How have the types of data you use changed over the years?

A: Some aspects of our data model are very similar in terms of the kind of core data we need to know about each species. That’s fairly consistent, but how we map it has changed dramatically. It used to be biologists would go into the field to survey for species, and they would map things on paper, on quad sheets or topo maps. But we got to using GIS really as soon as it started. Esri’s history is about the same as our network’s history. It’s about 50 years old as well. So, we were using the very earliest forms of GIS once it became available, and transitioning from paper-based mapping to GIS mapping. And, of course, our database went from index cards to actual computer databases, once that became available to fit in less than an entire room. Drones and satellites added another dimension in terms of doing more remote monitoring.

Q: What new technologies are coming to the fore, beyond satellites and drones?

A: I’d say one of the newer ones, it’s not that new, but call it citizen science…I mean, everyone has a sensor in their pocket these days. And so, there’s a flood of new data coming in from people out observing and posting those observations. Harnessing that huge volume of citizen science data and parsing it, kind of looking for the needle in the haystack, that’s something we’ve been doing.

Q: What is NatureServe’s Map of Biodiversity Importance?

A: Increasingly, the technological advancement we’ve been using is predictive modeling of the habitats that are suitable for a species. We can do this quite accurately with all this great species occurrence data we have to train the models and combine this with really high-resolution predictor layers to predict species habitats. We’ve modeled over 2,200 of the most imperiled species. We did a massive scaling up of our modeling in the last few years. That was the Map of Biodiversity Importance project that is the next frontier in filling in the gaps on the map.

David Ronnefalk Joins Hitec Factory Team

Hitec is thrilled to announce the addition of David Ronnefalk as our Flagship Racing Driver to the Hitec Factory Team. David’s illustrious R/C career began when he was just a young boy, and at age 13, he became the youngest winner to secure the Swedish Nationals title. That very same year, in 2009, he secured the European ‘B’ Championships in Switzerland, solidifying his remarkable talent and ensuring he discovered his R/C career path. By 2015, David had become a full-time professional racer and he continues to dominate every series he enters.

Exclusively running Hitec servos in 1/8th and 1/10th on-road and off-road classes worldwide, David is an amazing addition to the Hitec family, as a team driver, brand ambassador and product development consultant. We look forward to a lucrative and winning partnership, both on and off the track. “Skål!” to years of combined success, and an elevated Hitec experience for us all!

“I’m really excited to start working together with everyone at the Hitec Group! It’s safe to say that Hitec doesn’t need much of an introduction with their business marking the 50th Year Anniversary. When I started racing in the early 2000s, my cars were equipped with Hitec gear and it’s awesome to now have the opportunity to be involved in the development of their products. Looking forward to many years of cooperation and success!”

David Ronnefalk / Hitec Factory Team Driver

Topcon Expands Compact Solutions Portfolio with 2D-MC Automatic Grade Control Solution

Courtesy Topcon Positioning Group.

Topcon Positioning Systems has announced 2D-MC, an automatic grade control solution for compact track loaders. Now available in North America, 2D-MC is a low-cost 2D machine control system that is designed to be installed directly onto select grading attachments. Connecting directly to the machine’s controls and an easy-to-use wireless display, the solution works along with familiar rotary laser technology to provide simplified operational visibility, with all the information needed to hit target grade with greater precision and in less time.

Ideal for slope work, sidewalk grading, road base and drain rock replacement, parking lots, sports fields, landscaping, flat pads, indoor work, concrete site prep and more, 2D-MC is an automatic grade control solution designed to adapt to different grading attachments for compact equipment, leveraging the performance of machine control technology with the accuracy of laser positioning.

“Compact equipment has proven to be essential on job sites of all sizes, and these new functionalities are a testament to Topcon’s dedication to the evolving needs of today’s contractor,” said Murray Lodge, executive vice president. “Now that the benefits of machine control are available for compact equipment, these systems can provide the operational gains that help contractors get more work done in less time, allowing them to bid on more and/or larger jobs.”

Familiar Job Site Technology
The 2D-MC system utilizes laser receivers to work with rotary lasers. If a user is familiar with rotary lasers, no additional tooling or training is needed to determine the correct grade for the grading attachment.

The system may be customized by using either a dual laser receiver setup for elevation at both edges of the blade, or a single laser receiver with a highly accurate dual-axis tilt sensor for elevation and slope determination. The 2D-MC system fits right in with many of the tools already implemented, and the ability to use the software on Android devices like a CT8X2 tablet gives the customer the advantages of utilizing an interface with which they are comfortable.

Simple Software
Developed from Topcon’s 3D-MC software platform, 2D-MC has a simplified purpose-built app that maintains a similar visual user interface, offering convenience and familiarity when customers add higher-end 3D-MC technology to their fleet.

The app has a simple user interface with a straightforward “progressive” grade arrow indication. This provides the operator with an easy-to-see “work completed” and “work remaining” visual. With adjustable increment/decrement elevation control right from the machine’s joystick, set/match elevations/slopes, valve adjustment capabilities, automatic updates and simple menus, an operator can get up and running on the system in very little time.

Click here to view a 2D-MC testimonial video. For more information on Topcon’s compact solutions portfolio, visit

Topcon Provides GNSS Correction Services for Emergency Response Teams in California

In response to recent disaster declarations throughout California, Topcon Positioning Systems is offering free access to its global navigation satellite system (GNSS) correction services network to essential emergency response agencies and personnel in designated disaster areas. GNSS receivers are used for construction and surveying work, geographic information system (GIS) mapping done by utilities and public works organizations, and others engaged in infrastructure assessment and building.

Beginning January 8, 2023, the state of California has been stricken with multiple severe weather events. Caused by unusually powerful atmospheric rivers, bomb cyclones and other severe winter storms have resulted in unprecedented emergency conditions throughout the state, including catastrophic flash floods as well as mud and debris slides.

“During major disaster response and recovery, local utilities and municipalities, local FEMA and Army Corps of Engineers, essential emergency services such as utility and construction companies have to go out and find out what’s broken, what’s been wiped out, and they need the ability to utilize positioning technology,” said Jason Killpack, director, business development, emerging business, Topcon Positioning Systems. “The challenge for a lot of these companies, services and agencies that come into disaster areas is they don’t have any of the local maps to know where the benchmarks are. If they find a benchmark or control point, they don’t know what the local coordinate values are. Topnet Live offers all constellation correction services that any commercial GNSS receiver — regardless of brand — can utilize to gain corrected position. It doesn’t have to be a Topcon receiver.”

The emergency Topnet Live subscriptions will be active for 90 days at a time and will support any brand of dual-frequency GNSS equipment that can use Topcon’s standard NTRIP correction message (RTCM 3.x). Topcon and its distributors will manage these subscriptions as a service for essential agencies to aid in the assessment of damages and start the rebuilding process.

“We’re headquartered in California, and we want to help take care of our home state in a time of crisis,” said Killpack. “We will offer these correction services free of charge through this emergency subscription service to anybody that needs them, regardless of who they work for, what kind of equipment they have, and for the next 90 days they can connect to our network to get the corrections they need to get their essential job done.”

To activate the service through a participating Topcon distributor in California, contact information is provided here:

Measuring Global Ice Melt

Drones become tool of choice in monitoring threatened glaciers and ice sheets.

A team at Northeastern University is Using this jetyak, an ocean drone, to take high-resolution 3D photos of icebergs in Greenland to monitor their size. Photo courtesy of Northeastern University.

Icebergs breaking off from the Greenland ice sheet are rapidly melting because of climate change—part of a massive wave of ice loss that could trigger nearly a foot of global sea level rise. Measuring these large pieces of moving ice to determine how quickly they are shrinking, however, has long been a challenge.

Over the past decade, researchers have turned to drone technology to monitor melting ice in remote corners of the world. In Greenland, for example, a team from Northeastern University has deployed a kayak-sized unmanned surface vessel to navigate around icebergs, equipped with a camera to capture images of the structure above the water and a sonar sensor to measure the submerged ice.

Along with the ocean robot, the team also flew unmanned aircraft to map the shape of the icebergs, which can be dangerously unpredictable. “You don’t want to be anywhere close to them in a manned vehicle,” said Hanumant Singh, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Northeastern. “A chunk the size of a five-story building can fall off.”

As temperatures continue to climb due to human-driven climate change, researchers are assessing the melting ice and the effects it will have, not only on sea-level rise but also on the nearby communities. This means the world’s ice sheets and glaciers need to be repeatedly measured to show how they are changing over time.

Using drones to measure these shrinking ice sheets and glaciers not only saves money but also produces more detailed images of how these massive structures are changing. “It’s much higher resolution than the satellite images that have been used,” said Andrea Blindenbacher, president of Drones for Earth, a Swiss organization that has used drones to map glaciers in the Alps.


The world has two massive ice sheets, in Greenland and Antarctica. While scientists know that warmer temperatures are melting billions of tons of ice mass from these structures each year, they do not know how much sea levels will rise and how quickly it will occur.

The gap in data stems from incomplete mapping of the 54-million-square-mile Antarctic ice sheet, the largest on Earth. With 90% of the Earth’s ice mass, if the Antarctic ice sheet melts completely, it would trigger sea levels to rise by 190 feet, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

“Antarctica is the largest contributor to uncertainty in future sea-level rise in our models,” said Thomas Teisberg, an engineer and Ph.D. candidate in electrical engineering at Stanford University. “It’s got a lot of really complicated physics that are not super well understood, especially when it comes to the high-end climate scenarios.”

In Antarctica, most of the ice sheet’s loss occurs through the coastal margins, the interface between the ice and the ocean’s warmer water. The dynamics that occur at that intersection, however, are difficult to observe and incorporate with existing climate change models.

While conventional airplanes outfitted with antennas have been mapping Antarctica’s ice shelves—the places where the ice and ocean meet—the surveys are expensive and logistically complicated, Teisberg said.

“There’s just not a lot of good options for accessing these areas with radar instrumentation,” he said. “We’re hoping that UAVs could bridge that gap by giving you access to areas that are not safe for humans to traverse on the ground, at a fraction of the cost of crewed aircraft approach.”

Using a small drone with a fixed, two-meter wing span, the team modified the drone, which it called Peregrine, by equipping it with custom-designed antennas and ice-penetrating radar. The team tested the drone in Iceland last summer, and hopes to begin deploying it in Antarctica and Greenland next year.

The goal of the project will be to cover the coastal regions of the Antarctic ice sheet that have not been measured. “Antarctica is so huge and so remote—it’s 40% larger than the continental United States—and it’s about the most inhospitable place to humans and airplanes that you can imagine, so it’s just been incredibly hard and expensive to collect the data,” Teisberg said. “The hope is that by using UAVs we can reduce that cost and reduce the risk to human lives in flying these missions.”


Greenland’s ice sheet is nearly nine times smaller than Antarctica’s, but it is more vulnerable to climate change because of its location in the Arctic, which has been severely impacted by warming temperatures. A recent study predicted that 3.3% of Greenland’s ice sheet will melt before the year 2100, triggering nearly a foot of global sea-level rise, according to the findings in the journal “Nature Climate Change.”

You don’t want to be anywhere close to them [icebergs] in a manned vehicle. A chunk the size of a five-story building can fall off.”

Hanumant Singh, professor of electrical and computer engineering, Northwestern University

While it is easier to study Greenland’s ice sheet because of its size, it is difficult to measure its towering icebergs because they are constantly moving. That is why researchers at Northeastern University built an unmanned, gas-powered robot called the jetyak to get around that problem.

Deployed in the Sermilik Fjord to measure a dozen icebergs, the jetyak is equipped with a camera that takes raw images of the ice exposed above the water. The robot then uses the photos to help it move around the icebergs as a sonar sensor on the vehicle measures the submerged ice, which accounts for more than 90% of the structure.

“When you get melt from Greenland or from Antarctica, that’s water that was locked up on land that’s suddenly coming into the oceans, so that’s what’s going to cause sea-level rise,” said Singh, who is leading the project. “So, we’re very interested in seeing how much water is melting from these sources so we can try and figure out how much we expect things to rise over time.”

To get a complete picture of the icebergs, Singh’s team uses aerial drones to take 3D views of the top of the icebergs, while a crewed ship is used to conduct sonar mapping of the ice structure beneath the surface. The research team, which is stationed on the ship during the expedition, also relies on a variety of techniques to track the glaciers’ movements, from artificial intelligence to simultaneous localization and mapping.

Measuring icebergs with a variety of unmanned vehicles is a unique approach in the field of climate mapping.

“That’s one of our strengths,” Singh said. “Some people will do one or the other. Everybody can buy a drone and try to do a map on the top. But then the side is really hard and the underwater is really hard and so that’s why we just do the whole thing at once.”

The goal of the continuing project is to generate maps that show how the icebergs are changing at two-week intervals by documenting how chunks are breaking off and how much melting has occurred. Because the effects of global warming are occurring so quickly, Singh said changes in the glaciers can be seen in three or four days.

“It’s happening at a constant rate and we just need to really understand it,” Singh said. “So, that’s why we’re really interested in this problem so we can make a difference in understanding problems of very big scale which are important for humanity.”


In southeast Alaska, the Mendenhall Glacier north of Juneau has triggered flooding every summer since 2011, as a basin alongside the 14-mile-long structure has overflowed with water. The glacier floods, which fill the streets and empty into houses, are a direct result of climate change as a second glacier that once connected to Mendenhall thinned and left the basin in its place.

Because the reservoir is covered in ice and surrounded by steep topography, there was no way to determine how much water had collected in the basin. In 2017, researchers at the University of Alaska Southeast began deploying drones to measure how it was filling with water every summer.

“Ultimately what matters for the floods is the total water volume or the storage capacity of the basin,” said Jason Amundson, associate professor of geophysics at the university in Juneau. “And that depends on the thickness of the glacier itself, which acts as a dam.”

By deploying a drone, Amundson and his research team have been able to map the basin connected to Mendenhall five or six times each summer, producing images that show the reservoir’s water level and the presence of ice that has fallen into it from the glacier’s sides.


The goal of the project is to assess the likelihood of flooding and the changes in the basin’s structure over time. “It’s a hazard for the city and they want to know what’s the risk from these floods, how big could they get and how are they going to change in the future, in 10 or 20 years,” Amundson said.

In Switzerland, flooding from ice melt is also a problem as glaciers are quickly thinning, sending massive pieces of ice rolling down its steep mountains. In some areas, water that has built up behind the rocks can quickly flow down into valleys and cause extensive damage, said Blindenbacher, of Drones for Earth.

“In Switzerland, one would try to find preventive measures,” Blindenbacher said. “There will be an assessment of the risk level, and once it reaches a certain level, that means that there’s a significant danger and potentially people have to be evacuated, the area has to be cleared and only certain activities are allowed.”

Switzerland’s glaciers lost 6% of their ice in 2022, the most in any year, according to a study by the Cryospheric Commission of the Swiss Academy of Sciences. Previously a loss of 2% over 12 months had been viewed as “extreme.”

A research group at the Free University of Brussels has monitored the shrinking ice in the Alps by tracking two glaciers—the Morteratsch and the Pers—each September for the past two decades. “What we see is over the 20 years the glaciers are increasingly losing mass, and especially the previous year, which just ended in September, there was a record amount of loss in the Alps,” said Lander Van Tricht, a researcher and Ph.D. candidate at the university.

Researchers have opted for drones to track ice melt in the Alps because the areas they are assessing are both inaccessible due to the rugged topography and dangerous because of falling rocks. In 2020, Drones for Earth, for example, used a fixed-wing senseFly drone to measure the Glacier d’Orny on the southern border of Switzerland, which is now crumbling due to melting ice.

“The whole side of the valley is basically eroding, and ultimately the whole valley has become more open because of that erosion,” Blindenbacher said. “That was what we were interested to see so we went out there and mapped it. We even stayed the night up there in tents and we could hear the rocks falling throughout the night.”


In the frigid temperatures of glaciers and ice sheets, many researchers have relied on fixed-wing drones to measure ice melt because they tend to work better in colder climates and with thicker ice sheets. In addition, fixed-wing drones can travel farther than quadcopters.

“Quadcopter-based surveys are a lot easier to do, but they have somewhat limited use once you start talking about large spatial scales,” said Teisberg, the Stanford researcher. “It’s usually a useful spatial scale for a relatively small mountain glacier but when we’re talking about Antarctica and Greenland, we want to be doing surveys on the order of tens of hundreds of kilometers.”

This fixed-wing drone was developed by a team of researchers at Stanford University to measure the coastal regions of the Antarctic ice sheet. Photo courtesy of Thomas Teisberg/Stanford University.

The fixed-wing aircraft with its single propeller that his team at Stanford tested in Iceland last summer was extensively modified so the researchers could mount two custom-designed antennas on the drone. To measure the ice, a radar sounding a chirp is sent out on one antenna and the researchers listen to the reflections of that signal on the other.

While the radar doesn’t penetrate through the ice, it can detect the interior structure of the ice up to one kilometer deep and reflect the elements of that composition, such as layering, back through the antenna, Teisberg said.


While drones can take photos in clouds, severe weather, such as snowfall, can prevent them from deploying in frigid climates.

That is what happened in 2021 when Horst Machguth, an assistant professor of geoscience at the Université de Fribourg in Switzerland, and a team attempted to launch a WingtraOne drone over the Greenland ice sheet to measure the summer slush fields.

A researcher at the Université de Fribourg deployed this WingtraOne drone to measure water on the top of the Greenland ice sheet. Photo courtesy of Horst Machguth/Université de Fribourg.

Outfitted with a multispectral camera, the drone had mapped the terrain in 2020 with several successful flights. But a year later, the researchers were unable to get a second set of data to show changes in the water lying on top of the ice sheet because of torrential rain and a snowstorm.

“We thought drones would be a good method to get high-resolution images over a relatively constrained area around the camp,” said Machguth, adding it was his first deployment of drones for his research. “If we would buy such data from satellite data, that would be possible, but the resolution would be worse and it’s extremely costly.”

Another limitation of using drones to measure ice melt is they cannot cover wide-ranging areas because of the need to maintain communication with the aircraft from a computer at a ground station.

“If you have a mountain between you and the ground station with the tablet and the drone in the air, then you won’t manage to keep that communication link,” Blindenbacher said.


Despite those constraints, many researchers believe drones are still the preferred choice in measuring ice melt because of the harsh conditions that make arctic regions around the world inaccessible.

For Singh, at Northeastern, one way to ensure success is to deploy a variety of drones, including those on the water and in the air.

“If we look at all the different kinds of drones that we use, they are the only technique that we can think of that can very quickly and reliably do this work,” he said. “We want to map dozens of icebergs over a week so we have to be efficient. The basic idea is to bring all this stuff together and make it as reliable as we can, inexpensive, and then just do it and make sure that it’s so good that you can do again and again and again and again.”

Walk Before Running: Speakers Discuss Steps to Drone Delivery, AAM, Automated Vehicles

Drone Express CEO Beth Flippo, right, speaks on a BVLOS panel with the FAA’s Abby Smith looks on. Credit: Brett Davis

LAS VEGAS—The road to widespread drone delivery lies through flying beyond visual line of sight, full autonomy for passenger vehicles lies through the continued development of advanced driver assistance systems, and the road to advanced air mobility, or “flying taxis,” lies through piloted systems, according to speakers at CES 2023.

Jan. 6 speakers on a panel entitled “Drones: So Why Don’t We Have Widespread Drone Delivery Today?” said drone delivery is happening, but mostly outside the United States and outside of large cities.

Phillip Wallace, director of federal government affairs for Walmart, said the company has 37 delivery sites across seven states and made 6,000 deliveries over the past year. He said the company expected users to opt for drone delivery only in case of emergency, but instead they opted for convenience, ordering “everything from Hamburger Helper to hotdog buns.”

The number of drone deliveries pales next to Walmart’s sales, and the company would like to expand, he said, noting Walmart has 4,700 stores and 90 percent of the American population is within a 10-minute drive of a brick-and-mortar store.

Harrison Wolf, the director of global aviation policy at Zipline, said his company has been very active in creating a delivery model, but it’s mostly in Africa, in remote areas that are difficult to serve any other way.

“There’s just clamoring for more,” he said. The company does do drone deliveries in the United States, but it’s a small part of its work. “This is a unique challenge. The speed scale and scope is challenging for governments, when you have an iteration cycle that’s weeks, not years, the existing regulatory environment has to evolve.”

Getting drones type certified would be a big safety step, but Harrison said that process also has to be flexible. He said over the past five years, Zipline has gone through 100 iterations of its aircraft.

“That shows that constant change, iteration, need to be possible, and under the current regulatory environment that is very challenging,” he said.

Abby Smith, deputy executive director of the FAA’s UAS Integration Office, said “the only way forward to get to that scale Harrison talked about is for us to come up with a regulation that enables people to go beyond line of sight.”

The FAA chartered its largest-ever Aviation Rulemaking Committee, which produced a 365-page report on suggestions the agency is now working through. She wouldn’t say when that would be release for public comment—although some observers have speculated it will be this fall—but said, “we’re taking very seriously the recommendations from the ARC and are actively working putting together a proposal.”

The uncrewed systems industry has a wish list of things it would like to see change. Beth Flippo, CEO of drone delivery company Drone Express, said she’d like to had transponders on every type of aircraft, including aircraft that currently don’t have to carry them, such as crop dusters.

Wolf said he sees three technologies as being critical: sense and avoid, unmanned traffic management (UTM) and vehicle-to-vehicle communication, which will require additional spectrum allocation from the federal government, something the Federal Communications Commission is considering.

“These are technology issues that the industry can really help solve today,” he said.

Smith said UTM will not be part of air traffic management, as most of the drone industry wants to fly in Class G airspace, below 500 feet, where piloted aircraft are told “you’re on your own. That’s where most of the drone industry wants to fly. That is the area where we see UTM services providing the most benefit.”

One remaining challenge is public acceptance, but Flippo said the COVID pandemic has actually helped with that.

The attitude shifted from, “drones will spy on my in my backyard or they’re going to drop it on my roof, to we need to have this,” she said.

She added that she recently moved to Dayton, Ohio, which she described as a food desert, and said drones can bring products from supermarkets that are farther away. “What a benefit that will be for people who can’t drive that far. You’re going to see how cities change based on this, too.”

Changing Cities with AAM

Speakers predicted that advance air mobility—AAM, or flying taxis—will change cityscapes as well.

Tom Muniz, chief operating officer of Archer Aviation, said his company and others are working on electric vertical takeoff and landing aircraft that can carry four passengers on flights up to 50 miles.

People think of the Jetsons, and that the aircraft will be autonomous, but “the reality is, what we’re working on, is a much more pragmatic step-by-step introduction of just a new type of aircraft similar to what’s out there today,” he said. “In many ways, what you’ll see when these come to market is a new type of helicopter.”

Some companies are working on similar systems that would be autonomous, but those were not the focus of the Jan. 6 panel entitled “Advanced Air Mobility: Perceptions and Reality.”

Greg Bowles, head of government and regulatory affairs for Joby Aviation, said the initial aircraft will be extremely quiet and efficient and can fly from areas similar in size to heliports, so they can be located in more places.

“It’s absolutely going to be transformative,” he said. “A decade from now, our lives will be transformed, we’ll all have gotten here [to CES] in much more efficient ways.”

Echoing Flippo in the drone delivery panel, Bob Brock, director of aviation and advanced air mobility for the Kansas Department of Transportation, said it will change how services are provided to small, more remote cities and towns.

Ninety percent of Kansas live in towns with less than 4,000 people, “but being able to reach them with critical services is limited by what’s available,” and AAM would help with that.

Level 4

Just as the first AAM vehicles will be piloted, driver assistance technology will have to come before full automation for self-driving cars and trucks, said speakers on other panels.

“The business model to create Level 4 [automation] people thought was achievable with current hardware and software,” said Luis Dussan, the CTO and founder of AEye, which builds sensors for automated vehicles, in a panel on Jan. 5. “But they have made their way to level 2. It wasn’t for nothing those system are being used, and those algorithms are being put to good use.”

Level 2 refers to advanced driver automation systems, or ADAS, technologies such as lane keeping and automatic braking. People want highway autopilot systems, braking assist, traffic jam management and other technologies, he said. “Right now, it’s a path to full autonomy through ADAS.”

Ziv Binyamini, CEO of Fortellix Inc., which validates safety and automated systems, said tech companies went too hot in pushing for full automation too soon, particulary in urban environments.

“I believe in incremental advancement,” he said.

Speakers in a Jan. 6 panel on automation largely agreed. Lia Theodosiou-Pisanelli, vice president of partner programs and operations at the automated driving company Aurora, said Level 4 automation will likely first come in specific environments, such as trucks following a regular, predictable route.

“We were hoping Level 4 could handle everything,” all driving situations, she said. We’ve changed a lot since then.”

Greater autonomy could also be introduced in a carefully controlled fleet of vehicles operating in a predictable way, she said.

“You reduce complexity by reducing the operational domain of that vehicle,” she said. “You can limit the scope of what you’re deploying … and then develop the technology to meet that.”

Bentley Systems Announces Promotion of Brock Ballard to Chief Revenue Officer and Eric Boyer Joining as Investor Relations Officer

Brock Ballard, Chief Revenue Officer, Bentley Systems.

EXTON, Pa. – Bentley Systems, Incorporated, the infrastructure engineering software company, today announced that Brock Ballard, previously vice president and regional executive, Americas, has been promoted to the role of Chief Revenue Officer, and that Eric Boyer has joined as Investor Relations Officer. Ballard succeeds newly retired Gus Bergsma who joined with Bentley Systems’ acquisition of RAM International in 2005.

Prior to joining Bentley Systems in 2020, Ballard served in sales leadership positions with Dassault Systèmes, Autodesk, and Océ after earning a Bachelor of Arts in Communications and Information Sciences from the University of Alabama in 2001. He reports to Chief Operating Officer Nicholas Cumins, who said,

“In addition to leading our Americas account teams to unprecedented ARR growth, Brock has driven our Enterprise 365 subscription program globally, to reach new levels of business partnership with many of the world’s largest infrastructure engineering firms and owner-operators. Brock’s energy, resourcefulness, and collegial leadership have been proven through business development opportunities with our accounts to advance infrastructure by going digital. While we will all miss Gus Bergsma, we congratulate him upon his long-earned retirement and thank him for his relentless focus on delivering success and establishing a high-performing account advancement organization, preparing Brock for success in 2023 and beyond.”

Greg Bentley, Chief Executive Officer, said, “We could not have come nearly so far without Gus’s indefatigable resolve and empathy for both infrastructure engineers, where he started professionally himself, and for our colleagues whose successful careers in sales he, in many cases, launched, and certainly exemplified. Gus has shown the way from cofounding a startup to achieving Bentley Systems’ billion-dollar revenue milestone as a public company.

Eric Boyer, Investor Relations Officer, Bentley Systems. Image courtesy of Bentley Systems.

“And we now welcome Eric Boyer as our inaugural Investor Relations Officer, reporting directly to me. Eric combines a wealth of experience and strategic acumen to help us create a world-class investor relations function. I look forward to working very closely with Eric to extend and improve our outreach and communications with the investment community globally.”

Boyer brings over 20 years of experience in investor relations and equity research, a deep knowledge of capital markets, and a strong network of relationships. During his tenure as senior vice president and head of investor relations at IHS Markit Ltd., which was a global information services leader, its market capitalization increased from $8 billion to $44 billion. He was also consistently recognized by Institutional Investor as a leading IR professional. Prior to Boyer’s investor relations career, he spent more than a decade as a sell-side equity analyst at Wells Fargo and Deutsche Bank, where he covered various technology and related services sectors and was recognized by The Wall Street Journal’s “Best on the Street” survey for his stock selections. He earned a Bachelor of Science in Business Logistics and International Business from Penn State University in 1999.

A Decisive Battle Against Climate Change Looms

The temperature results are in and the planet is heating up, driven by the burning of heat-trapping fossil fuels. Governments are belatedly working to address the threat by advancing green technologies, but the barriers to success are daunting.

A June 2016 color photo from NASA’s Earth Observing-1 satellite of southwestern Greenland. According to NASA, melting in this area began relatively early in April and May resulting in this water. Surface meltwaters directly contribute to rising sea levels, but also infiltrates through cracks to the glacier’s base, speeding up ice flows, which further contributes to sea level rise. Photo courtesy of NASA Earth Observatory/Jesse Allen,

Climate change, for decades a seemingly distant eventuality, has by the 2020s become a manifest reality, one that ominously promises only to worsen in the remainder of this century.

Already, the last seven years have been the seven hottest on record. The sea level has already risen four inches since 1993. As temperatures rise, fires and hurricanes are becoming more destructive than ever.

Such globe-spanning trends under natural circumstances play out gradually over centuries and millennia, not year by year. But they are the product of bustling human expansion and industry across the globe, thanks to which there are more humans living longer lives, with access to greater amenities, than ever before.

Unfortunately, the fossil fuels that have made quality of life improvements possible have also multiplied emissions of heat-trapping carbon dioxide and methane to the point their accumulating impact threatens to undermine much of which has been achieved.

Fortunately, halting the runaway trend can be achieved by aggressively adopting efficient alternatives to energy-rich fossil fuels we still depend upon. And by the 2020s, world governments are belatedly taking seriously the tangible threats posed by climate change and investing billions of dollars to do just that. In turn, the private sector is responding to public incentives by not only advancing green technologies, but finally manufacturing them at scale.

Unfortunately, the investments in transitioning to a zero net-emissions economy remain outstripped by the huge scope of the problem and the consequences, both in economic damages and human lives lost to famine, fires and flooding.


The largest contributor to the climate crisis are emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2). For most of recent history, carbon dioxide levels hovered around 280 parts per million (ppm). But ever since the onset of industrialization in the mid-18th century England, that percentage has risen by 50%. In the last 20 years alone, we’ve gone from 365 to over 410 ppm, with a record 420-421 ppm reported in April through June of 2022.

A member of the U.S. Geological Survey employs an RQ-11 Raven drone in 2015. The agency uses unmanned aircraft “to monitor environmental conditions, respond to natural hazards, understand landscape change rates, recognize the consequences and benefits of land and climate change, conduct wildlife inventories and support related land management missions.”

This is a problem because CO2 and other greenhouse gasses trap solar radiation within the Earth’s atmosphere, causing global temperatures to rise by 1.1 degrees Celsius by 2022. Before even considering secondary effects, this temperature increase has negative impacts, as the global average actually implies much larger dangerous temperature spikes in some areas, resulting in increasingly frequent and lethal heat waves and droughts.

Unfortunately, much worse could yet happen: The Earth’s currently on track for warming around 3°C by 2100. The best-case achievable target would be to reduce global warming to just 1.5°C, averting many of the most destructive possible consequences of climate change. However, given the current rate of progress, attaining even 2°C will require a greatly enhanced effort.

Heatwaves are poised to become more frequent and intense. For example, if warming is curbed at 2°C, heat related deaths in Australia are still projected to increase from 142 to 600 annually. Every half-degree Celsius uptick also increases atmospheric moisture by 4%, increasing the likelihood of torrential rain storms. Humid heatwaves could actually prove even more lethal, as they inhibit temperature-regulation via sweating.

In dryer climates, increased temperatures make fires more likely to spread out of control and cause massive damage. Five of the six largest fires recorded took place in California and Oregon in 2020. Fires in 2017 and 2018 caused $40 billion in damage to the Sunshine State, while a year later Australian bushfires consumed 94,000 square miles, raising the temperature of the stratosphere across the globe, and causing the rough equivalent of $58 billion USD in damage.

Of course, fires, heatwaves and flooding will have huge negative secondary effects on health outcomes and the economy as health care facilities, energy infrastructure and homes are destroyed and jobs and lives disrupted. For example, a 2017 study by the National Bureau of Economic Research projected the U.S. would lose more than 10% of GDP should current warming trends be sustained to 2100.

The massive increase in carbon emissions is also altering the chemistry of the world’s oceans, as it transforms into carbonic acid (H2CO3), having already increased the oceans acidity by 30%. Current trendlines suggest PH could fall from 8.2 to as low as 7.75 by 2100. Such seemingly small changes can be fatal to many kinds of marine life. For example, CO2 levels also threaten coral reefs, with reef growth expected to stop at 450 ppm and existing reefs to begin dissolving at 550 ppm.


A secondary factor contributing to rising CO2 levels is deforestation. Trees naturally absorb and sequester CO2 in their trunks or roots—but when cut, their sequestered carbon is released. Peatlands also sequester CO2, which is released when the bogs are drained. Unsurprisingly, deforestation has been driven by human activities, particularly clearing lands for agricultural purposes (beef, soybeans and palm oil being the chief culprits) as well as the lumber industry. However, deforestation currently accounts for only a roughly 10% share of climate change, primarily because the CO2 contributions by fossil fuels are growing that much faster.


Methane (CH4) is the second biggest contributor to global warming after CO2, greatly outstripping tertiary greenhouse gasses such as nitrous oxide (N2O). Though more diffuse, methane traps 81 times more heat in the atmosphere per unit than CO2 does in a 20-year timespan. While methane emissions are produced naturally by wetlands, currently about 60% are due to human activity, coming from livestock, flooded rice fields, waste disposal and fossil fuel collection.

At the 2021 COP26 climate summit, 105 countries pledged to reduce methane emissions by 30% by 2030, including the United States, all EU member states and Brazil, Mexico, Australia and Nigeria. Unfortunately, China, India and Russia—the world’s top three methane producers—and Iran (the eighth largest) have not made methane pledges. Due to its greater per-unit impact than CO2, methane removal may offer greater bang-for-buck at reducing climate impacts, particularly serving as carbon offsets. A British government study found reducing methane emissions by 40% would shave .4-1°Celsius from global warming by 2050.

Unfortunately, there’s been less investment in methane removal technologies. Another approach is to tackle emitters of methane, including leaky undersea pipelines. As noted in Inside Unmanned Systems’ 2022 energy issue, deployment of UUV-type autonomous drones could allow for much more extensive inspection and repairs to compromised undersea pipelines. There is much variability in how well companies control methane emissions—according to the EPA, many of the biggest methane emitters are relatively small, obscure players in the energy industry.

The Earth’s Vital Signs

Warming Sea Water—The Earth’s oceans and other bodies of water absorb 90% of global warming increases—and that is reflected in a massive increase in solar energy absorbed from low double digits in the 1950s to roughly 337 zettajoules today. That buildup poses several problems distinct from atmospheric warming and melting glaciers. For one, an increase of 2-3° Celsius can result in a 60-100% increase in the destructiveness of extreme weather events like Hurricane Michael. As seawater heats up, it also expands, a phenomenon that accounts for one-third of the observed sea-level rise since 2004.

Earth’s Melting Ice—Rising atmospheric and water temperatures both contribute to melting of the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets, which store between them two-thirds of all fresh water on Earth. Since 2002, these have been shrinking at an alarming rate, with Antarctica losing 151-billion metric tons annually and Greenland, 273—contributing to one-third of the planet’s sea rise. Should climate change remain in the 2-3° range, damage to the ice sheets will likely be irreversible, requiring millennia to repair. For example, the total loss of Greenland’s ice sheet would eventually add 7 meters to sea level across the globe. Meanwhile, the minimum extent of Arctic Sea Ice has been shrinking 12.5% every decade, and already has gone from 7.54 million square kilometers in 1980 to 4.67 million in 2022.

Sea Level Rising—Since 1993, sea level has risen 20 centimeters (4 inches)—an unprecedent rate of growth in the last 2,500 years. But our current temperature rise of 3° C by 2100 could result in an overall increase of 1.5 meters.

The effects of sea-level rise aren’t equally distributed—they’re greater than average for countries near the equator, and milder at higher latitudes. In fact, the redistribution of water away from melting polar ice sheets toward the equator will self-reinforce by increasing the equatorial region’s general gravitational pull.

Colorless bleached coral at Hawaiian Island Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary in November 2015. Increasing water temperature cause coral to expel algae called zooxanthellae that give healthy coral its bright color.

The Climate Change Movement in the 2020s

The Paris Agreement of 2014, signed by 195 parties, is currently the cornerstone of intergovernmental efforts to mitigate climate change. The only major fossil fuel emitter not participating is Iran, though the U.S. dropped out from 2019-2020 under the Trump administration before rejoining in 2021.

Though the pledges of climate change progress made by signatory states are reviewed to measure progress, the agreement doesn’t impose consequences for failing to meet them. Many critics therefore argue the Paris agreement does too little, while on the opposing side there remain those hostile even to symbolic international commitments.

Despite its limitation, the Paris agreement appears correlated to several positive trends. For example, 76% of plans to build new coal plants have been canceled since 2014. Furthermore, the projected global temperature rise has already fallen from 4 to roughly 3° Celsius since 2014.

An additional factor is that developing countries like India, seeking to improve standards of living for their populations, want financial compensation to pay for their transition to green energy from wealthier developed countries, which have already reaped the benefits of two centuries of fossil-fuel based industrialization.

In principle, developed countries agreed to provide $100 billion annually in climate change financing to developing countries. In practice, financing only reached $83 billion in 2020. Meanwhile, at the COP27 conference this November, attendees concluded the actual total needed by developing countries was closer to $1 trillion annually.

Global Warming and the Pentagon

One organization that can’t afford to keep its head in the sand regarding climate change is the U.S. Department of Defense. That’s because its troops and bases deployed across the globe are already getting slammed by more destructive hurricanes and floods, and baked in the field by rising temperatures.

In one notable incident, Hurricane Michael in 2018 damaged or destroyed 95% of buildings in Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida, which, among other roles, served as the primary training center for F-22 Raptor stealth fighters. Meteorologists characterized Michael’s destructiveness as clearly induced by global warming.

Seventeen irreplaceable F-22s—which the Air Force says cost $143 million each—that couldn’t be moved in time were damaged, and despite $5 billion spent on reconstruction, the Raptor training center was not resurrected. The event likely influenced the service’s request to retire one-fifth of its F-22s in 2022.

The new National Defense Strategy released in October 2022 elevates climate change to a major national security threat due to its deleterious effects on readiness and capability. The Pentagon also holds melting Arctic ice responsible for increased security competition with Russia near the north pole, and believes more generally climate change will foster an increase in resource-driven armed conflicts as well as humanitarian disasters abroad and domestically, which will force it to commit more and more troops to crisis and disaster response.

The U.S. military also remains the greatest institutional generator of carbon emissions—in 2022 hitting 51 million metric tons of emissions, though that’s a substantial decline from a peak of 85 million tons of CO2 emitted in 2004. Fortunately, energy efficiency is a desirable quality in military platforms even absent climate change considerations, as it gives increased range and endurance and reduces logistical burdens.


Even in the best-case scenario of just 1.5° C warming, the negative impacts of climate change will continue to worsen. That means everyone from city planners to architects and gadget designers must take those anticipated impacts into account: designing devices for higher heat tolerances, building further inland with bigger levies, and improving communal resilience against droughts, famine and wildfires like those that have ravaged Australia, California and France in recent years.

Adaptation remains relatively under-resourced. Developing countries are spending roughly $70 billion annually on adaptaion but are receiving only $16.8 billion in climate adaptation assistance.

Unfortunately, skimping on climate adaptation is penny wise and pound foolish. According to the UN, $1.8 trillion in spending on adaptation now could save $7.1 trillion down the line, and increase agricultural yields by 30% by 2050. Conversely, if insufficient adaptation measures are taken, the number of people without adequate year-round access to drinking water could increase 39% to 5 billion.


The transition away from fossil fuels without major losses in capability and quality of life is only possible thanks to the improved efficiency of alternative energy sources, including reducing their costs. These include new economies of scale achieved in mass production of solar panels, energy-dense batteries and electrically powered vehicles. Rising gas prices also improve the relative attractiveness of alternatives.

Unmanned systems are among the technologies contributing to enhanced efficiency and lower costs. Here’s why, and how:

  • They’re smaller and lighter, and thus have reduced energetic requirements compared to manned platforms for which they can substitute.
  • Many use electrical or other environmentally friendly propulsion systems that release fewer greenhouse gasses.
  • They can perform routine inspections and maintenance tasks for geographically dispersed and often difficult to access solar and wind power facilities.
  • Uncrewed platforms may even be harnessed to produce energy.
  • They can perform tedious but important data collection on key environmental variables.

Ultimately, there is no single magic bullet to fixing the interlocking challenges climate change poses to humanity. Reducing the extent of warming and its many negative impacts will require implementation of diverse economic and political initiatives and technological innovations. The costs of accelerating that transition may be considerable, but remain much lower than those unavoidably incurred for failing to act until it’s too late.

Autel Robotics Announces EVO Max 4T Drone, Mesh Network at CES 2023

Autel’s new enterprise drone, the EVo Max 4T. Credit: Brett Davis

LAS VEGAS—Autel Robotics announced a new enterprise drone, the EVO Max 4T, at CES, along with a new mesh networking system, a drone-in-a box system and a long-distance antenna.

The EVO Max 4T has both a binocular vision system and millimeter-wave radar for obstacle avoidance, and carries a payload including a laser rangefinder and three cameras: a 48 megapixel telephoto camera with 10x Optical Zoom, 160x digital zoom, and a 1/2″ CMOS sensor; a 50 megapixel wide-angle camera with a 1/1.28″ CMOS sensor and 3840 x 2160 video resolution; and an infrared camera with a 640 x 512 resolution and 1.2 kilometer ranging distance.

The system also features Autel’s new mesh networking system, A-Mesh 1.0, which allows multiple drones to be controlled by one pilot using a small tablet. The system also allows multiple aircraft to act as signal relays, extending the range of the system.

Potential applications for the EVO Max 4T include search and rescue, firefighting support, mapping, and inspection, the company said. The cost for the system is about $9,000, and the cost for the mesh network has not been published yet.

The Dragonfish Nest, a drone-in-a-box system for Autel’s Dragonfish UAS. Credit: Brett Davis

Dragonfish and EVO NEST

Autel also debuted its Dragonfish NEST and EVO NEST. The Dragonfish Nest, the drone-in-a box system, is the world’s first automated support system for electric vertical takeoff and landing drones, Autel said. With a range of up to 75 miles between units, the Dragonfish Nest combines the high performance of the existing Dragonfish aircraft with autonomous takeoff, landing, charging, and flight missions. The Dragonfish Nest is perfect for long-range corridor inspections and large area coverage, Autel said.

The EVO NEST is a base for automatic take-off, landing, charging, and mission planning for EVO series drones. It is designed for all-weather operation and can be transported in a standard pickup truck.

The EVO NEST and the Dragonfish NEST are powered by the SkyCommand Center software. Autel also releasing a range of accessories, including the Dragonfish Repeater and Autel Smart Antenna Transmission System, which allows operations up to 62 miles.

Monitoring and Protecting Ocean Ecosystems

A Hydrus vehicle explores a reef system.

Efforts are underway around the world to mitigate the effects of pollution on the marine environment, and to ensure balance is maintained in terms of wildlife and natural resources. Hydrus, by Australia’s Advanced Navigation, is a potent autonomous robot that can help in this and other subsea missions.

Humanity’s relationship with the ocean is profound and enduring. Our ancestors were born there, struggled to survive and crawled onto its shores. They stood up, walked, ran, and ultimately became the planet’s dominant species. Now we are among Earth’s greatest threats, and it falls upon us to better understand and protect its treasures, not least the seas and oceans.

Hydrus is one of the smallest and most affordable autonomous underwater vehicles on the market, while boasting the most advanced navigation and communication systems of any subsea vehicle. Its remarkable performance capabilities make it a powerful instrument for many necessary undersea operations.

Xavier Orr, Advanced Navigation’s CEO, cited some typical applications for the Hydrus system: “Harbor, port and river facilities, and all kinds of underwater infrastructure, such as pipes, cables, bridge footings, moorings, etcetera, all need to be surveyed and inspected. There are also more and more offshore wind turbines. We have vessel hull inspection, and we have aquaculture, where Hydrus is used to monitor offshore fish farms. We have an interesting mine clearing application, using AI to search for underwater mines. Of course, there are a number of other potential applications for users in the security and defense sectors. And we can also just follow divers and film their dives, for a variety of purposes.”

Another key application for Hydrus is marine conservation. The system is currently serving in a number of ongoing projects involving ocean conservation and monitoring. Peter Baker is senior product manager for Advanced Navigation’s Subsea Robotics and Positioning Technology. Speaking at AUVSI Xponential 2022 in Orlando, he said, “Hydrus does have a lot of its own built-in sensors. We’ve got a pressure sensor, conductivity sensor, from that you can determine things like the velocity of sound in water. But there is also provision for third-party sensors, for example, to gather data on ocean changes, sensors for things like pH, acidification, dissolved oxygen levels. We can detect the presence of methane, if you’re concerned about oil and gas operations and you want to know if there are any leaks. So, if you’re an oceanographer looking at an environmental survey, we can tell a lot about the properties of the water.”


Minderoo Foundation, headquartered in Perth, Australia, manages an impact fund that invests in businesses tackling long-standing social and environmental challenges. The foundation has collaborated with Advanced Navigation on a project to conduct coral surveys on Ningaloo Reef. This UNESCO World Heritage site is Australia’s largest fringing reef and one of the largest coral reefs on Earth. About 1,200 kilometers north of Perth, it is within easy access from the beach and is frequented by whale sharks, humpback whales and manta rays.

Michaela Dommisse is research and infrastructure manager at Flourishing Oceans, responsible for science and development at Minderoo Foundation’s marine research facilities. “We’ve added special samplers to the Hydrus to collect samples for eDNA on Ningaloo Reef,” she said, “and we’ve also explored using it in the deep sea because of its autonomous nature. This is part of a strategic investment in Advanced Navigation targeting the Hydrus as part of its mission to engage the best science and latest technologies in support of ocean and reef conservation.”

Coral reefs are among the most valuable ecosystems on Earth, supporting a greater diversity of species per unit area than any other marine environment, including thousands of species of fish, nearly a thousand species of hard corals and many hundreds of other living organisms, not to mention innumerable species yet to be discovered. Many drugs have been developed or are being developed from species that live in these ecosystems, including possible cures for cancer, viruses, arthritis and bacterial infections. Healthy coral reefs also support commercial and subsistence fisheries, along with jobs and businesses in the tourism and recreation sectors.

“Having a technology like Hydrus is one way of supporting our marine researchers and scientists, including those who are working on our coral reefs,” Dommisse said. “This system provides an automated, unmanned method to collect ocean data such as video imagery. This can replace human divers on SCUBA. As such, much more of the ocean can be surveyed, because the Hydrus is not constrained in space and time like a human. It also means collecting data is a lot safer, because humans aren’t involved.”

Dommisse said while there are many new autonomous units currently being trialed around the world, the Hydrus appealed to Minderoo because of its small size and ease of use from a small boat. “It has very high navigation ability, has a plan to dock and send data from underwater and uses a casing that’s not as affected by pressure and temperature as other systems,” she said.


Advanced Navigation has also been helping researchers develop a specialized machine vision application for reef conservation work on the Great Barrier Reef. Hydrus has been used there in efforts to suppress primary outbreaks of the crown of thorns starfish, a venomous, coral-eating predator that occurs naturally on the Great Barrier Reef. It is the world’s second largest starfish, reaching up to 1 meter in diameter and preying on nearly all corals, eating its way through 10 square meters of these organisms in a year.

During an outbreak, when 15 or more starfish are found in a one hectare area, the efficient and meticulous hunters can strip a reef of 90% of its living coral tissue, denuding vast tracts, leaving them barren and incapable of sustaining the multitude of other species that make their living there.

“We have used machine vision with Hydrus in the Great Barrier Reef to identify crown of thorns starfish, and tag or record their locations,” Baker said. “Researchers use the data to track where the starfish are and their numbers. From this, they can take appropriate action to mitigate the adverse effects of the starfish on the reef.” Once the starfish are identified, trained divers can take a variety of actions, one of which involves injecting the voracious creatures with bile salt, a substance made in the liver of oxen, or vinegar, which kills the starfish but doesn’t harm the surrounding ecosystem.

Hydrus’ small size and thruster configuration allow it to move around complex reef structures in ways no other vehicle can. It can also remain in a stable position in one spot, even when the surrounding current is significant. Its unique maneuverability, combined with ultra-high-definition image capture, makes it ideal for AI analysis and photogrammetry. By removing the need for divers and being deployed and recovered by a single person, Hydrus cuts operating costs, allowing monitoring surveys to be performed at higher frequencies, which means greater resolution for complex datasets.

“Video and other data are logged on board the Hydrus, and you retrieve and post-process it after mission completion,” Baker said. During the mission itself, Hydrus software analyzes video footage in real time. At 60 frames per second, the imaging system captures fast movements and is capable of enhanced machine vision, including onboard AI classification and analysis, and can provide real-time decision making and reactivity, enabling immediate action to be taken. Hydrus can also create 3D RGB point clouds by combining imagery with its sonar and navigation data.

“Once these types of projects can be unlocked, we could see a revolution in data collection, like we have seen with drones in the air,” Dommisse said. “The amount of information we could collect on our ocean health will grow exponentially if we had small armies of the Hydrus out collecting in habitats where we can’t easily send humans, such as the deep sea, and over time scales that limit human data collection. Machines never sleep.”

Chart courtesy of NOAA.


“Hydrus was born out of working with customers in the ROV [remotely operated vehicle] and AUV [autonomous underwater vehicle] markets,” Advanced Navigation’s Orr said. “We did a lot of integrations in ROVs and AUVs with our INS [inertial navigation system] and sonar technologies, and that gave us the important insights that have led us to where we are today with Hydrus.”

Through its early partnerships, Advanced Navigation was able to understand the challenges facing the kinds of underwater robotic systems they were seeing on the market at that time. “Smaller systems tended to lack sonar, navigation and visual processing power,” Orr said. “But the larger systems that did have these capabilities used many independent modules that made them huge and difficult to deploy.”

Advanced Navigation set out to create an AUV that had all the capabilities of the enormous systems, packed into a small unit that could be deployed by anybody. “We wanted to make the system so simple to use that anybody could operate it without training,” Orr said. “This is what we were seeing in the aerial drone space, and we knew this was the way to open up underwater data to everybody. Most of the jobs we’re talking about are currently done by large ROVs that are very expensive,” Orr said, “and this creates a financial barrier that tends to limit the amount of data that is actually collected.”

Hydrus is wholly developed and manufactured in house by Advanced Navigation, even down to the motors. “We’re using our own Advanced Navigation INS and sonar systems, which we build in Sydney,” Orr said. “The robot itself is put together in Perth, in Western Australia. Apart from that, our biggest suppliers are Sony for the camera system and Xilinx for the FPGA [field programmable gate array]/CPU that powers everything.”

The Hydrus’ sonar and navigation capabilities really set it apart from anything else on the market. These systems allow Hydrus to reliably navigate underwater, avoid obstacles and operate fully autonomously. “Normally, the sonar and navigation capabilities found in Hydrus would only be available in very large ROVs or AUVs,” Orr said. “By integrating them into a much smaller AUV, at a significantly reduced price point, we can offer tetherless AUV operations for any kind of surveying task.”

Hydrus has a very advanced vision system, and it certainly produces stunning imagery, even in challenging, low-light and turbid conditions. With its combination of 4K camera, dynamic lighting and AI image processing, the vehicle delivers high-quality georeferenced footage.


Hydrus’ highly effective navigations system employs ultra-short baseline (USBL) positioning, which determines distances and bearings toward tracking targets “We’re using USBL, which is like underwater GPS,” Baker said. “So instead of using radio waves we’re using sound waves, acoustics. It’s sonar-based positioning. That gives you your absolute coordinate system, latitudes and longitudes.

“Our system goes over the side of the boat, it sends out an acoustic ping, the robot hears it and sends a position back, and the transducer on the side of the boat can then determine the range and the bearing of the object that it’s talking to. It’s called ultra-short baseline because the transceiver baseline is very small, it’s all in one housing. So that will give you the position, and then we use an acoustic modem and we transfer that data down to the robot, using the sound waves, and now the robot has the equivalent of a GPS position.”

For relative position, Hydrus again turns to acoustics. “We have something called a Doppler velocity log [DVL],” Baker said. “So, we’re sending acoustic waves out all around the vehicle, and we’re measuring the Doppler shift on the return echo, and from those different Doppler shifts you can calculate a vector that it’s transiting on. So, it’s not a vision-based system; underwater you’ve got [low] lighting, you’ve got turbidity and a lot of particle matter in the water, and that makes a purely visual system difficult to rely on.”


Orr said Advanced Navigation is continuing its efforts to improve the Hydrus system: “Right now, our robot has a range of 9 kilometers and can operate at up to 3,000 meters depth. There will be larger, longer range Hydrus variants coming out soon. We are working on systems that could range up to 300 kilometers at depths of 6,000 meters.”

Advanced Navigation is putting Hydrus into operation not just in its native Australia but around the world, including within the framework of a number of marine conservation projects off the coast of Florida.

The current market for underwater autonomous systems stands at $1.5 billion, Orr said, while underwater survey is worth $3.1 billion. “These are rapidly growing markets that are pushed forward with revolutionary technology like Hydrus, and we are looking at a growth rate of 23.1% yearly over the next five years. We are incredibly excited to bring the disruptive technology of Hydrus to market. It makes collecting subsea data far more accessible, which in turn can have enormous positive effects in a wide range of different applications.”

Photo courtesy of Advanced Navigation.