All About Flex: More on UAVs and Flexible Circuits


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The use of drones or unmanned aircraft vehicles (UAVs) is growing at a nearly exponential rate. This includes drones used by the government, private companies and hobbyists. If you have $100, you can find a long list of drones for purchase.

With this technology rapidly advancing in the marketplace, and their usage potentially interfering with aircraft, a set of long-awaited FAA rules came into effect in August of 2016. These rules clarified a lot of the ambiguity and uncertainty relating to the use of drones. For the most part, companies using drones for commercial purposes praised the ruling which allows businesses to move ahead with commercial applications without fear a future FAA ruling would undercut their plans. The FAA has stated the rulings result in a much more streamlined licensing process. The FAA ruling, combined with a steady march of technology advancements, has allowed the commercial use of drones to skyrocket. Some experts are predicting the hobbyist fleet will more than triple in size from 1.1 million UAVs to 3.55 million, and the number of commercial vehicles will grow tenfold to 442,000 by 2021[1].

Flexible circuits have proven to be an ideal interconnect solution in a wide range of unmanned aircraft systems. High performance materials have been tested and accepted for the stringent requirements needed to survive aerospace and military testing. A drone has servo motors, cameras, sensors and other equipment functions controlled by a central computer system. Wiring is needed to electronically interconnect these distributed mechanisms. In some cases, the electrical interconnection is required to span significant distances, as much as 25 ft. Conventional wiring may be used but has disadvantages of being time-consuming for assembly, relatively heavy, and limited in types of terminations used.  

Flexible circuits are often adopted in these rigorous applications as they can be custom cut into virtually any shape substituting for a wire bundle and offer the added advantage of weight savings. A significant amount of hand assembly labor can also be eliminated when replacing wiring with flex circuits. For high speed/frequency electronic controls, flexible circuits are often designed with controlled impedance. In short, the utility offered by flexible circuitry in drones mimics the advantages that make it popular in other electronic applications: light weight, thin, highly reliable, flexible during use, and high-density interconnection with circuitry electrically connecting among multiple conductive layers as part of a complete interconnect packaging solution.

Meanwhile the number of applications for drones continues to increase. Several of the current and emerging applications for UAV’s are detailed below.

Natural Disasters
In the aftermath of recent severe weather, drones are being used extensively.

  • Oil and gas companies are using drones to assess facility damage, checking for leaks and other structural breaches where it is not feasible or safe to bring in human inspection
  • Railroads are using drones to inspect bridges and general railway conditions
  • The Department of Transportation uses drones to assess road damage caused by weather extremes
  • Insurance companies use drones to assess claim damage

Medical Supply Delivery
Drones are used in Africa for quickly delivering medical supplies to remote areas[2]. This use of drone technology will soon be used in the United States to deliver medicine to some of the remote islands off the East Coast.

Law Enforcement
In 2016, at least 167 state and local law enforcement agencies acquired drones. More agencies attained drones in 2016 than in the previous three years combined[3]. Local police departments are using drones to search for fugitives, track down stolen merchandize, and enter buildings as initial responders in drug enforcement.

Firefighting
Drones are used to fight forest and prairie fires. A common practice for combatting fires is to create controlled burns in strategic locations to “cut off” fuel sources. Drones can be safer and more effective than helicopters for this hazardous duty[4].

Aircraft Inspection
Airbus uses drones for some of the inspection required on its large aircraft. The drone maneuvers around the aircraft and takes high resolution pictures of strategic maintenance areas. This technique is expected to reduce inspection time from hours to several minutes[5].

Marine Life Research
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is using drones to help track and research marine life in the Pacific Ocean. This tool has proven especially helpful in understanding the migration patterns of the humpbacked whale[6].

References

  1. There are over 770,000 registered drone owners in the US, Engadget.
  2. East Africa is leading the world in drone delivery, CNN Tech.
  3. Police departments are using drones to find and chase down suspects, recode.net.
  4. Aerial ‘fire drone’ passes Homestead test, University of Nebraska.
  5. Airbus is Using Drones to Inspect Airplanes, Fortune.
  6. Drones Provide New Tool for Marine Mammal Research, NOAA Fisheries Service.

Other Resources:

Best uses of drones: How 24 companies are using drones, Techworld.
10 New Ways to Use Drones, Smithsonian Magazine.

Dave Becker is vice president of sales and marketing at All Flex Flexible Circuits LLC.

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