Taking Flight with the Dronut X1 Powered by Snapdragon

Tuesday 4/5/22 08:24am
Posted By Dev Singh
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While working in the oil and gas industry, mechanical engineer Omar Eleryan noticed that most of the visual equipment inspections performed by his colleagues required them to enter confined and often hazardous environments like pressure vessels. With his passion for flight and space, Omar asked, “Why not use a drone to do this work and keep the people safe?”

The answer to this question was not clear-cut. Because traditional drones have exposed propellers, they are difficult to use in confined spaces. These spaces often lack access to GPS and have low-light conditions as well. But with those challenges came opportunity. In 2017, Omar together with his co-founder Simon Czarnota founded Cleo Robotics (Cleo), a Boston-based company specializing in unconventional aerial robotics with cutting-edge sensing and intelligence.

Fast forward about three and a half years, and the answer to that original question literally flew into view. The Cleo Dronut X1 is the company’s bi-rotor, ducted-fan drone, powered by their patented thrust vectoring technology designed specifically for confined, GPS-denied environments.

We recently caught up with Omar to learn more about this cutting-edge drone.

A Small Drone with Big Capabilities
Weighing in under 15.5oz (440g) and measuring only 6.5” x 4”, the Dronut X1 is the world’s first bi-rotor ducted-fan drone, with partially-autonomous flight made possible by thrust vectoring technology (here is a list of Dronut X1 specifications). The Dronut X1’s enclosed propeller design makes it safer for use in confined spaces and around people. This design provides a high degree of collision tolerance, as demonstrated in Cleo’s YouTube video and shown below.

The Dronut X1’s enclosed propellers let it safely operate around people and even land in someone’s hand.

The Dronut X1 provides live-streaming, high-definition video, and collects LiDAR data in ultra-confined spaces and challenging environments. Operators control the device using a hand-held transmitter that displays the camera stream. Control of the drone is further assisted by its semi-autonomous functionality.

Data from the Dronut’s onboard LiDAR sensor.

Data collected by the Dronut X1 remains on the device until the Dronut X1 returns to the operator. An app can then be connected to the drone to access the data, a process designed to avoid privacy issues related to transmitting data to the cloud.

Dronut’s ground controller.

Omar says the Dronut X1 doesn’t replace traditional quadcopters, which remain suitable for use away from people and high in the sky. Rather, it fulfills the company’s vision of drones that work alongside and closer to people and objects. For example, the Dronut X1 can inspect a crane in a production facility without barricading the area off for safety, because it can safely bump into objects and remain flying. Other use cases could include security, space, government (e.g., defense), and law enforcement.

Development Process
Omar says the project started with off-the-shelf components and took about three and a half years to optimize the drone’s flying characteristics. From there, Cleo focused on achieving semi-autonomous flight and data capture. For these features, they turned to Qualcomm Advantage Network (QAN) member ModalAI, which provides the VOXL system-on-model (SOM) and ongoing support.

The VOXL SOM features our Snapdragon 821 Mobile Platform, which powers on-device intelligence at the edge for GPS-denied, AI-enabled, autonomous flight. It includes computer vision and stereo image sensors for obstacle avoidance, as well as LTE and Wi-Fi connectivity. Omar says the Snapdragon 821’s capabilities accelerated their go-to-market strategy because they could quickly get up and running with the platform and its various tools and SDKs. He says the Snapdragon 821 is powerful yet uses low power, important characteristics for drones that would normally be mutually exclusive.

Taking Flight and Myth Busting
Although ducted-fan aerial vehicle technology has been around research and development labs for over 70 years, Omar says there was a general myth that ducted fan drones could never achieve controlled flight due to instability issues. In developing the Dronut X1, Cleo busted that myth and now has several patents related to the technology. Incorporating the technology into a compact, light, and powerful drone can be attributed to the Snapdragon 821 small form factor and high compute performance.

Looking to the future, Omar expects the technology to become ever smaller, with additional payload capacities and expanded use in more open environments (e.g., production plants). The company is also looking at adding even more sensing capabilities and capturing new kinds of data. He says that new capabilities could include data capture for digital twins, fully-autonomous flight, and more scalability such as handling larger payloads.

Whatever the future holds, Cleo has demonstrated that their ideas can take flight, and we are proud to be a part of their journey!

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Qualcomm Advantage Network is a program of Qualcomm Technologies, Inc. and/or its subsidiaries. Snapdragon is a product of Qualcomm Technologies, Inc. and/or its subsidiaries.