Unleash live and Elon Musk’s Starlink: Enabling Remote Drone Flights
Unleash live Starlink

Jud McCranie, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Unleash live teams with Musk’s Starlink to enable remote drone flights

By Jim Magill

Unleash live, an Australia-based creator of video data analytics platforms, has teamed up with Elon Musk’s SpaceX Starlink to connect with and navigate drones in real-time via a satellite hookup.

By accessing Starlink’s network of low-earth-orbiting communications satellites, an Unleash live team in the company’s headquarters in Sydney recently was able to control the operation of a drone flying at a remote site on Australia’s east coast about 200 km (124 miles) away. Using the low-latency connection and Unleash live’s Autofly software, the team successfully tested the drone’s ability to implement two real-time artificial intelligence apps: people counting and tracking, and power line fault detection.

Following three months of tests Unleash live released a beta version of the software package to its clients.

The partnership with Musk’s Starlink will greatly expand the ability of drone operators to conduct inspections of energy infrastructure assets, such as electric transmission lines, oil and gas pipelines and windfarms, in remote locations, where 4G and 5G connectivity is unavailable, Unleash live CEO and Co-founder Hanno Blankenstein said in an interview.

“There are two things that this enables: One is to get the data off the drone in high quality and at high speed to an office location or remote expert,” he said.

“The second element that we offer is the ability to interact with the drone in the field,” Hanno said. “We can navigate the drone to better inspect and provide better operational clarity while the drone is in the air.”

With launches conducted by its sister company, SpaceX, Starlink is building a constellation of satellites orbiting above the earth to provide Internet connectivity around the globe. As of August, the company had placed about 1,600 satellites into orbit, with plans to operate a total of 42,000.

“There’s a live map on the Internet where you can see satellite coverage across the world.  Roughly 30% to 40% of the world is covered with high-bandwidth, low-latency broadband,” Blankenstein said. Musk’s company plans to extend that coverage to between 99% and 100% of the globe within the next year.

The use of the satellite network to enable drones to transmit video data in almost real time will become a game-changer for energy company in the inspection and maintenance of far-flung assets, Blankenstein said. The Starlink network provides coverage across the North Sea, where both Ireland and Scotland have large wind farm assets, as well as across the Gulf of Mexico with its thousands of oil- and gas-producing platforms.

“Imagine you have an energy operation in Texas that doesn’t have terrestrial broadband coverage. You can stream the data from that remote location to your headquarters in Houston with millisecond latency,” Blankenstein said.

Unleash live has designated three levels of control for operators with remote access to the drone provided by the Starlink connection. “One is to have zero control. The pilot in the field does everything by themselves. The second level is camera control. The pilot in the field is still in command, but the gimbal control is handed over to the remote laptop in the office,” he said. “You essentially are the photographer.”

In the third level of access the remote pilot is able to have both camera and navigation control of the drone. In order to obtain this level of control the remote drone operators will need to obtain certification to fly beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) from the aviation authorities in their respective country. Unleash live has contracted independent consultancies to work with the Civil Aviation Standards Authority in Australia, as well as with the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration to get BVLOS certification to allow remote operations on a case-by-case basis, Blankenstein said.

Working with partners

Unleash live operates primarily in Australia and the United States, with smaller operations in Europe, the United Kingdom and Asia. In addition to its agreement with Starlink, the company works in close partnership with an international assortment of drone manufacturers, information technology companies and telecom businesses to provide its services to its clients, Blankenstein said.

Two drone manufacturers, DJI and Skydio, provide the UAV platforms for Unleash live’s operations. The company deploys DJI’s Mavic 2 Enterprise Advanced line of drones at several utility client sites, where the UAV’s collect thermal and high-resolution images that are streamed back into Unleash live headquarters. The video-streaming company also uses DJI Matrice 300 RTK drones to conduct inspections of wind turbines and large industrial conveyor belts.

“The second company we work closely with is Skydio, for high-resolution and automated video and image streaming,” Blankenstein said.

Besides its use of Starlink’s satellite network, Unleashed live also partners with terrestrial-based telecom operators, such as Verizon’s Skyward, to provide high-bandwidth and highly secured enterprise 5-G networks to deliver data to Unleash live’s clients. Outside the U.S. the company works with international telecom providers, including Deutsche Telekom AG in Europe, Vodaphone in the UK and Optus in Asia. “Those strong partnerships allow our clients to have the choice of secure, enterprise-grade networks for their data,” he said.

Last month, Amazon Web Services named Unleash live as an AWS energy competency partner. The designation indicates that Amazon recognizes the video data’s company’s ability “to enable energy producers worldwide to build and operate assets efficiently and safely, while working to transition to a lower-carbon world,” according to an Amazon statement.

Read more deep dives from Jim Magill: the no-exposed-propellers Dronut, flying cars, drone mapping software, and crop spraying drones.

Jim Magill is a Houston-based writer with almost a quarter-century of experience covering technical and economic developments in the oil and gas industry. After retiring in December 2019 as a senior editor with S&P Global Platts, Jim began writing about emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence, robots and drones, and the ways in which they’re contributing to our society. In addition to DroneLife, Jim is a contributor to Forbes.com and his work has appeared in the Houston Chronicle, U.S. News & World Report, and Unmanned Systems, a publication of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.