First-ever Lankan drone takes flight | Daily News

First-ever Lankan drone takes flight

Over the past decade, the development of drones has been on the rise worldwide. Hailed as the technology of the future, drones, or UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles), are being used for a wide array of purposes — military operations, delivery of goods, surveillance of lands below. Rather than waiting for this technology to arrive in Sri Lanka, and at a marked up price, a group of students of the University of Moratuwa’s Drone Development Program have created their own drones that are “100% locally designed, manufactured, and driven in Sri Lanka.”

Prof. Rohan Munasinghe 

At the first-ever drone symposium in Sri Lanka, held at SLIDA in late August, the details of this venture were expounded upon. The symposium was hosted jointly by the University’s Department of Electronic and Telecommunication Engineering and Future Drones (PVT) Ltd, which is the first spin-off company to result from the University’s own startup incubator. It will be responsible for further production and distribution of the drones. On display at the event were three of the company’s drone models.

Speaking at the symposium, Professor Rohan Munasinghe of the Department of Electronic and Telecommunication Engineering, who is called the “backbone” of UAV development in the entire country, spoke about the progression of the development of local drone technology.

He called its advent within the country “disruptive,” and said that, contrary to popular belief, such technology “is coming our way and, in a way, is already here.”

“We as the scientific and engineering community of this country have to welcome this technology, and use it to make our lives easier, to make the things that we do on a daily basis, in technical fields and in engineering fields more efficient, more accurate,” Munasinghe said.

History of local drone development

Using a slideshow presentation, Munasinghe went through a brief history of Sri Lankan drone technology, proclaiming that though it has come a long way, it can go further.

The first attempt at bringing drone technology to Sri Lanka was in 2004 or 2005, said Munasinghe. But the developments were unsuccessful, due to a variety of factors including inadequate performance of the drone’s electronic components, lack of programming support, and inaccessibility of electronic and communication devices, sensors, and actuators. By 2007, the first drone at Moratuwa was built, but despite testing it didn’t take off the ground.

The year 2011 marked the first successful quadrotor (four-rotored) drone project; this one took off the ground with some basic controls—the beginning of a new era in drone innovation in Sri Lanka. The next big progression was the incorporation of “autopilot” setting, giving the drone a brain of sorts rather than forcing it to rely solely on human control at every step. Deployed on a drone plane flight here for the first time in 2012, the autopilot development was a crucial one that marked the Moratuwa drones’ entry into a far more sophisticated class of UAVs. But as Munasinghe explained, not everyone understood the significance of this flight.

“At that time when we were doing this, a lot of people sent us appreciations. But sometimes people asked us, ‘Why do you want to do this? It’s a $30 thing on ebay.’ But they were just looking at the physical plane, the rigifoam piece. They didn’t know what was going on inside. So we did not respond to any of these people, other than to tell them to sit down and wait. Because if you have the autopilot technology down, you can put it on any drone.”

In the years since, this autopilot technology has been used on almost all of the University of Moratuwa’s drones, which have been increasingly progressing in their levels of sophistication and in their capabilities. The success of the drone technology led to the creation of Future Drones (PVT) Ltd. out of the University’s very own start-up incubator, or project accelerator, called “Vibhava.” The company is now working to mass produce, market, and distribute the drones with multiple different organizations and corporations who will use such technology for an array of purposes.

Drones lead the way

Megapolis and Western Development Minister Champika Ranawaka, an engineer by training himself, was the symposium’s Chief Guest. Ranawaka said that the developments in drone technology represent highly encouraging efforts by the engineering and technology community of the country “to get onto the bandwagon of high-tech innovation,” which the government believes is the way forward toward achieving various economic development goals.

“This represents the adaption of Sri Lanka, at least for the first time at the University of Moratuwa, of a new breed of enterprises that have been tried, tested, and proven in a technologically advanced nation as a vital element of the technological development ecosystem,” Ranawake said. “It is also significant that this innovative step has been taken in an exciting area of technology: drones.”

He emphasized that these drones will help the country not just militarily, but also in the future for non-military applications such as disaster management. Had this advanced technology been in wider use in the past, he explained, tragic outcomes could have been lessened or avoided.

“When the Meethotamulla disaster occurred, Dr. Manju Gunawardana used the same technology to map out the entire Meethotamulla garbage dump. If we could have done this earlier, I think we would have been able to save many lives.”

What comes next

Ongoing drone projects currently in development include ones to enhance large scale mapping of the country and its regions, a precision agriculture drone to help rural farmers in the country, and even a dengue prevention drone that will be able to fly above elevated, hard-to-access areas and determine whether still water exists there and can act as a breeding ground for mosquito larvae. Future drone projects include Ceybeetle, in collaboration with Dialog, a drone that would be able to monitor telephone towers; Ceyhex, a drone that would deliver blood samples to hospitals, since the aerial route from the National Blood Bank to the hospitals is much faster than the ground route; a Telepresence Drone for disaster management, that would be able to both aid in search-and-rescue efforts as well as deliver necessary goods such as clean water; and a surveillance drone for security purposes.

“A lot of people say that this type of development mainly happens in developed countries, and not in countries like ours,” said a student at the University of Moratuwa and member of the Drone Development Program. “But I’m really proud to say as a Sri Lankan, that we are taking on the technology of drones and building things that can compete with the entire world.”

The drone developed by the students


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drone development should used for Agriculture purpose


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