(19)
(11)EP 3 663 199 A1

(12)EUROPEAN PATENT APPLICATION
published in accordance with Art. 153(4) EPC

(43)Date of publication:
10.06.2020 Bulletin 2020/24

(21)Application number: 17919781.9

(22)Date of filing:  01.08.2017
(51)Int. Cl.: 
B64C 39/02  (2006.01)
B64D 47/02  (2006.01)
B64C 13/20  (2006.01)
B64G 1/10  (2006.01)
(86)International application number:
PCT/JP2017/027897
(87)International publication number:
WO 2019/026179 (07.02.2019 Gazette  2019/06)
(84)Designated Contracting States:
AL AT BE BG CH CY CZ DE DK EE ES FI FR GB GR HR HU IE IS IT LI LT LU LV MC MK MT NL NO PL PT RO RS SE SI SK SM TR
Designated Extension States:
BA ME
Designated Validation States:
MA MD

(71)Applicant: Sky Perfect JSAT Corporation
Tokyo 107-0052 (JP)

(72)Inventors:
  • TAKAMORI, Tetsumi
    Tokyo 107-0052 (JP)
  • SUZUKI, Jun
    Tokyo 107-0052 (JP)

(74)Representative: Wright, Howard Hugh Burnby 
Withers & Rogers LLP 4 More London Riverside
London SE1 2AU
London SE1 2AU (GB)

  


(54)FLIGHT INFORMATION COLLECTION SYSTEM, WIRELESS COMMUNICATION DEVICE, RELAY, FLIGHT INFORMATION COLLECTION METHOD


(57) A wireless communication device mounted on a drone transmits information relating to the drone, and a relay flying at a first altitude between an altitude the drone is capable of flying at and an altitude of a communication satellite receives the information relating to the drone transmitted from the wireless communication device. The relay sends the information relating to the drone to a ground station by satellite communications using the communication satellite, and the ground station collects the information relating to the drone from the relay by satellite communications. Flight information relating to drones can thus be collected from a wide area including dead zones of mobile communication networks with low risk of line disconnection.




Description

Technical Field



[0001] The present invention relates to a technique for collecting flight information relating to a drone.

Background Art



[0002] Drones (unmanned aircrafts) are expected to have potential for practical use in various fields including, among others, goods distribution, infrastructure inspection, and disaster response. For safe and efficient operation of drones, it would be imperative to establish a system whereby the flight situations of drones are determined correctly in real-time and this information is made useful for flight management and other purposes.

Citation List


Patent Literature



[0003] [PTL 1] Japanese Patent Application Publication No. 2015-188150

Summary of Invention


Technical Problem



[0004] Systems that collect flight information relating to drones with the use of a mobile communication network such as LTE (Long Term Evolution) have hitherto been considered. With a method that utilizes a mobile communication network, however, when a large number of drones gather in a small area, errors can occur in communications due to congestion. Drone usage in a disaster area involves high risk because the line could go down due to destruction and electricity outage at a base station resulting from the disaster. If the drone enters a dead zone of the mobile communication network (e.g., at sea, in mountainous or remote areas, isolated islands, and so on), its flight situations are no longer available, and its safe operation cannot be guaranteed.

[0005] PTL 1 (Japanese Patent Application Publication No. 2015-188150) discloses an idea for extending the operation area of an unmanned aircraft by collecting data captured by the unmanned aircraft in the air and its position information with the use of satellite communications. Applying this idea as it is to operation management of drones (in particular, small drones) involves several problems. Firstly, satellite communication devices for performing satellite communications are expensive. High device introduction cost will limit users and may inhibit wider use of the flight information collection system. The second problem is the weight of satellite communication devices. Common satellite communication devices, even small ones, have a weight of the order of kilograms and can hardly be mounted on small drones. The third problem is the power consumption of satellite communication devices. Consuming power of the limited battery of the drone can be a hindrance to continuous flight and not desirable.

[0006] The present invention was made in view of the circumstances described above and it is an object of the invention to provide a technique for collecting flight information relating to a drone in a wide area including dead zones of mobile communication networks with low risk of line disconnection.

[0007] In realizing a system that collects flight information relating to a drone with the use of satellite communications, it is another object of the present invention to provide a technique for allowing easy mounting of the system to the drone.

Solution to Problem



[0008] To achieve the above objects, the present invention adopts a configuration wherein acquisition of information from a drone and forwarding of the information to a ground station by satellite communications are achieved by a relay flying between the drone and a communication satellite.

[0009] More specifically, the present invention provides a system for collecting flight information relating to a drone, the system including: a wireless communication device mounted on the drone; a relay flying at a first altitude between an altitude the drone is capable of flying at and an altitude of a communication satellite; and a ground station performing satellite communications with the communication satellite. The wireless communication device transmits information relating to the drone. The relay includes a receiver receiving information relating to the drone transmitted from the wireless communication device, and a satellite communication device sending the information relating to the drone received by the receiver to the ground station by satellite communications using the communication satellite. The ground station collects information relating to the drone from the relay by satellite communications.

[0010] According to this system, the risk of line disconnection can be reduced significantly as compared to a mobile communication network such as LTE since the system uses satellite communications, and yet the flight information relating to drones can be collected from a very wide area. The wireless communication device mounted on the drone only need specifications that allow for wireless communications with the relay, and therefore its size, weight, power consumption, and cost can be reduced significantly as compared to a satellite communication device. Therefore, the wireless communication device can be readily mounted on the drone.

[0011] The relay may be an unmanned aerial vehicle. This is because unmanned aerial vehicles are more easily operated as compared to manned aircrafts, since they are capable of continuous flight as far as conditions allow. The relay may preferably fly in circles in a predetermined area. The relay may preferably include a solar panel that generates energy for the flight and communications. The first altitude may be at least 20 km high and not more than 25 km high.

[0012] The wireless communication device may preferably include a power supply independent of that of the drone. By having an independent power supply, no connection with the drone's power supply is necessary. Thus attachment of the wireless communication device to the drone is made easy. Since the operation of the wireless communication device does not consume the battery of the drone, the flight performance (such as flight distance) of the drone may not be adversely affected. Moreover, even in the event of a drone failure or dead battery, the information transmission by the wireless communication device can be carried on.

[0013] The information relating to the drone transmitted from the wireless communication device may preferably include at least information relating to a position and an altitude of the drone, and time information. The flight conditions of the drone can be determined if information relating to its position (e.g., latitude and longitude), altitude, and time is available. The wireless communication device may preferably include a memory that accumulates the information relating to the drone. This way, the wireless communication device can also function as a flight recorder.

[0014] The wireless communication device may preferably include a GPS unit for measuring a position and an altitude of the drone. The drone itself often contains a GPS unit and an alternative configuration in which the position information is acquired from the drone would also be possible. In that case, however, it is necessary to connect the wireless communication device with the control unit of the drone. With a GPS unit independent of the drone provided to the wireless communication device as in the present invention, the wireless communication device can be readily attached to the drone. Even in the event of a drone failure, the positioning by the wireless communication device can be carried on.

[0015] The "wireless communication device", "relay", and "ground station" that are parts of the flight information collection system described above can be understood as individual inventions. The operation of the flight information collection system described above can be understood as an invention regarding a "method of collecting flight information".

Advantageous Effects of Invention



[0016] According to the present invention, a system can be realized, in which, with the use of satellite communications, flight information relating to drones in a wide area including dead zones of mobile communication networks can be collected with low risk of line disconnection. The cost, weight, size, and power consumption of the communication device mounted on individual drones can be reduced significantly, so that the device can be mounted to the drone easily.

Brief Description of Drawings



[0017] 

[Fig. 1]
Fig. 1 is a diagram showing an overall picture of a system for collecting flight information relating to drones.

[Fig. 2]
Fig. 2 is a schematic block diagram illustrating the configuration of a low-power communication unit.

[Fig. 3]
Fig. 3 is a schematic block diagram illustrating the configuration of a communication unit mounted on an unmanned aerial vehicle.


Description of Embodiments



[0018] One example of a preferred embodiment for carrying out the present invention will be described below with reference to the drawings. It will be understood that the configuration and operation of the system and device described in the following embodiment are merely examples and are not intended to limit the scope of the present invention.

(System Configuration)



[0019] Fig. 1 shows an overall picture of a system for collecting flight information relating to drones according to one embodiment of the present invention. This flight information collection system 1 is a system that collects flight information (such as latitudes, longitudes, altitudes, speeds, density situations, and so on) of drones present in a monitored area in real-time, and uses the information for flight management of the drones, or provides services to drone operators or third parties.

[0020] The flight information collection system 1 generally includes a low-power communication unit 10 mounted on a drone 2, an unmanned aerial vehicle 11 or a relay that relays communications between the drone 2 and a communication satellite 3, and a control center 12 or a ground station that communicates with the unmanned aerial vehicle 11 by satellite communications. While Fig. 1 shows three drones 2 (low-power communication units 10) and one relay (unmanned aerial vehicle 11), the flight information collection system 1 may include two or more relays, or one relay may communicate with several tens to several hundred drones 2.

[0021] The drone 2 is an unmanned flying object that can fly on remote control or on autopilot and corresponds, for example, to a multicopter (rotary-wing aircraft), radio control aircraft, crop dusting helicopter, and so on. Typically, the drone 2 is expected to be a multicopter type, but can come in all sizes ranging from about ten centimeters to several meters depending on the purpose of use (recreational use, cargo delivery, aerial photography, disaster relief operation and so on). In Japan, the Civil Aeronautics Act basically prohibits flying drones 2 in airspace at least 150 m high from the ground or the sea to avoid collisions with manned aircrafts.

[0022] The low-power communication unit 10 is a small, lightweight, and low power wireless communication device. In this embodiment the unit is expected to be about 5 cm × 5 cm × 1.5 cm in size with a weight of no more than 200 g. The low-power communication unit 10 may be initially mounted on the drone 2, or can be retrofitted to the drone 2. When retrofitted, the low-power communication unit 10 is bonded to the body of the drone 2, for example, with a double-sided tape or hook-and-loop fastener.

[0023] Fig. 2 is a schematic block diagram illustrating the configuration of the low-power communication unit 10. As major hardware components, the low-power communication unit 10 includes a CPU (control circuit) 101, a storage memory card 102, a transceiver 103, a GPS (Global Positioning System) unit 104, a power supply 105, and a battery 106. The low-power communication unit 10 also includes a data I/O for communications with an external unit (e.g., control unit of the drone 2 itself).

[0024] The CPU 101 is a processor that controls various parts of the low-power communication unit 10, performs various calculations, data processing, and reading/writing of data to and from the storage memory card 102. The storage memory card 102 is a non-volatile memory medium and used for accumulation of flight information, for example. The storage memory card 102 contains a unique individual identification symbol stored therein for identifying the low-power communication unit 10. The transceiver 103 is a specified low-power wireless communication module for wireless communications with the unmanned aerial vehicle 11. The frequency and power of the wireless communications can be designed as required in accordance with the device configuration, operation, and applicable laws and regulations. For example, a frequency in a range from 920 MHz band to GHz band with power of from about 0.01 W to 1 W can be used for the wireless communications. The GPS unit 104 is a circuit that receives signals from a GPS satellite and outputs position information such as latitude, longitude and altitude. The power supply 105 is a circuit that supplies the power of the battery 106 to the CPU 101, storage memory card 102, transceiver 103, and GPS unit 104. The battery 106 is either a primary battery or a secondary battery, which has a sufficient capacity for allowing the low-power communication unit 10 to operate at least for several days. A lithium ion battery and the like, for example, is preferable.

[0025] One of the characteristic features of the low-power communication unit 10 of this embodiment is that it has a processor, a power supply, and a position sensor independently of the drone 2. This allows the low-power communication unit 10 to be readily attached to the drone 2 without modifying the drone. Since the processing associated with the collection of flight information (such as positioning and transmission of information) does not put a load on the control unit on the drone 2 side, or consume the power of the drone 2 battery, the flight performance of the drone 2 (such as flight distance and speed) cannot be adversely affected. Even if the drone 2 is disabled due to a failure or dead battery, the low-power communication unit 10 keeps transmitting the independently acquired position information, so that search and recovery of the drone 2 will be easier. Another advantage is that the range of damage can be predicted. With the CPU 101 accumulating flight information to the storage memory card 102, the memory card can even serve as a flight recorder.

[0026] The unmanned aerial vehicle 11 is a flying object that relays communications between the drone 2 and the communication satellite 3. This embodiment uses a solar plane whose flight is powered by solar energy. Utilizing solar energy enables a long term continuous flight as well as a significant reduction of operation cost. The unmanned aerial vehicle 11 is programmed to fly in circles in a predetermined area. As it goes around in the same area, the communication quality can be made stable. The unmanned aerial vehicle 11 can be made to fly in a circular orbit with a radius of about 1 km, for example. A preferable flight altitude is within the stratosphere, in particular in the range of from 20 km to 25 km. This is because winds are relatively low speed and stable in this altitude range, so that it is easy for the unmanned aerial vehicle 11 to fly stably.

[0027] Fig. 3 is a schematic block diagram illustrating the configuration of a communication unit 110 mounted on the unmanned aerial vehicle 11. This communication unit 110 includes a CPU (control circuit) 111, a storage memory card 112, a transceiver 113, and a satellite communication device 114. The unmanned aerial vehicle 11 includes a solar panel 115 that generates energy for powering the flight and communications, and a battery 116. The communication unit 110 is powered by this battery 116.

[0028] The CPU 111 is a processor that controls various parts of the communication unit 110, performs various calculations, data processing, and reading/writing of data to and from the storage memory card 112. The storage memory card 112 is a non-volatile memory medium and used for accumulation of flight information, for example. The transceiver 113 is a communication module for receiving information relating to the drone 2 transmitted from the low-power communication unit 10 of the drone 2. The satellite communication device 114 is a device for performing satellite communications with the use of the communication satellite 3.

[0029] The control center 12 includes an antenna 120 for the satellite communications and an information processing device 121. The information processing device 121 can be configured by a general-purpose computer that includes a CPU, a memory, a storage device, a display device, a network interface, and so on. The features of the information processing device 121 include, for example, collecting position information relating to the drone 2, determining the flight situations, and managing the flight, of the drone 2 flying within the area based on the collected position information, and providing the collected position information, either processed or unprocessed, to the operator 4 of the drone 2 or third parties via Internet. These features are realized by the CPU executing a program stored in the storage device and loaded to the memory. The information processing device 121 may be configured by one computer, or a plurality of computers.

(System operation)



[0030] The method of collecting flight information relating to drones by the flight information collection system 1 will be described with reference to Fig. 1.

[0031] To access the flight information collection system 1, an operator 4 of a drone 2 registers information relating to the applicable vehicle to a control center 12. For example, the operator 4 accesses the information processing device 121 of the control center 12 via Internet from a mobile terminal (such as a mobile computer, tablet terminal, smartphone, and so on) to register as a user, as well as registers an individual identification symbol of the low-power communication unit 10 mounted on the drone 2. Thereupon the service provided by the flight information collection system 1 becomes available to the operator 4.

[0032] When the operator 4 turns on the low-power communication unit 10 and starts flying the drone 2, the low-power communication unit 10 carries out positioning by GPS at a predetermined time interval (of, for example, once every several ten milliseconds to several ten seconds), transmits this information, as well as records the information to the storage memory card 102. The information transmitted from the low-power communication unit 10 is also referred to as telemetry information. The telemetry information may preferably include at least information relating to latitude, longitude, altitude, positioning time, and individual identification symbol. The telemetry information may further include information relating to speed (temporal differentiation of position) and acceleration (temporal differentiation of speed).

[0033] The unmanned aerial vehicle 11 receives the telemetry information transmitted from the drone 2 within the monitored area (communicable area) of its own, and forwards the information to the control center 12 via satellite communications. The unmanned aerial vehicle 11 may forward the telemetry information serially every time it receives the information, or forward the telemetry information relating to a plurality of drones 2 collectively.

[0034] The information processing device 121 of the control center 12 calculates the position, speed, flying direction and so on of the drone 2 based on the received telemetry information, and accumulates the flight information in correspondence with the individual identification symbol in a database. The information processing device 121 can use this information for various purposes such as for determining the flight conditions of the drone 2 and for managing its flight. The information processing device 121 may for example generate a map in real-time that indicates the flight information relating to all the drones 2 present within the monitored area, and make it available for the public via a website. The information processing device 121 may also provide the operator 4 of the drone 2 with the service of distributing the flight information relating to registered vehicle (individual identification symbol).

(Advantages of the system)



[0035] According to the flight information collection system 1 described above, the risk of line disconnection can be reduced significantly as compared to a mobile communication network such as LTE since the system uses satellite communications, and yet the flight information relating to drones 2 in a wide area (including regions where the mobile communication network is not available) can be collected. The low-power communication unit 10 mounted on the drone 2 only need specifications that allow for wireless communications with the unmanned aerial vehicle 11, and therefore its size, weight, power consumption, and cost can be reduced significantly as compared to a common satellite communication device. Moreover, the low-power communication unit has an independent power supply so that the drone 2 need not be modified when attaching the unit to the drone. The low-power communication unit 10 can therefore be introduced and mounted easily. This is a great advantage in spreading the services of this system 1. In the event of a disaster, for example, a large number of drones could be flown in or around the disaster site. In such a case, flight management of the drones in or around the disaster site can be readily achieved simply by distributing the low-power communication units 10 to drone operators and have them attach the units to the drones.

(Variation Example)



[0036] The configuration of the embodiment described above was shown only as one specific example of the present invention. The flight information collection system of the present invention can adopt various other configurations than the embodiment described above.

[0037] For example, in the method of the embodiment described above, the information relating to drones 2 is collected to the control center 12 via the unmanned aerial vehicle 11 and communication satellite 3. Conversely, signals transmitted from the control center 12 may be sent to the drones 2 via the communication satellite 3 and unmanned aerial vehicle 11. The latter system can be used to enable remote control of the drone 2, in which the operator 4 accesses the control center 12 via Internet and inputs control commands to the drone 2.

[0038] While the embodiment described above is directed to unmanned drones 2, the system can also be used for determining the operating situations of manned aircrafts, or unmanned ground vehicles or unmanned marine vessels. The system can also be applied to determination of situations of not just devices (machines) but any moving bodies. For example, the system can be deployed in investigation of wildlife behaviors or assessment of human behaviors.

[0039] It would also be preferable to collect other information than positions from the drone 2. For example, information (such as image, temperature, illuminance, atmospheric pressure, precipitation, wind speed, noise, and so on) acquired by sensors mounted on the low-power communication unit 10 or the drone 2 may be advantageously collected.

[0040] While the embodiment described above uses an unmanned aerial vehicle as the relay, a manned airplane can also be used. Alternatively, other flying objects such as an airship, balloon, and helicopter may also be used as the relay. While the flight altitude of the relay is specified to the stratosphere (in particular, 20 km to 25 km) in the embodiment described above, the flight altitude of the relay is not limited to this range. The relay can fly at any height at least between a height which a drone can fly at and the height of the communication satellite, such as for example anywhere in a range of about several hundred meters to several kilometers.

Reference Signs List



[0041] 
1
Flight information collection system
2
Drone
3
Communication satellite
4
Drone operator
10
Low-power communication unit
11
Unmanned aerial vehicle
12
Control center
120
Antenna for satellite communications
121
Information processing device



Claims

1. A system for collecting flight information relating to a drone, the system comprising:

a wireless communication device mounted on the drone;

a relay flying at a first altitude between an altitude the drone is capable of flying at and an altitude of a communication satellite; and

a ground station performing satellite communications with the communication satellite, wherein

the wireless communication device transmits information relating to the drone,

the relay includes a receiver receiving information relating to the drone transmitted from the wireless communication device, and a satellite communication device sending the information relating to the drone received by the receiver to the ground station by satellite communications using the communication satellite, and

the ground station collects information relating to the drone from the relay by satellite communications.


 
2. The system for collecting flight information according to claim 1, wherein the relay is an unmanned aerial vehicle.
 
3. The system for collecting flight information according to claim 1 or 2, wherein the relay flies in circles in a predetermined area.
 
4. The system for collecting flight information according to any one of claims 1 to 3, wherein the relay includes a solar panel generating energy for flight and communications.
 
5. The system for collecting flight information according to any one of claims 1 to 4, wherein the first altitude is at least 20 km high and not more than 25 km high.
 
6. The system for collecting flight information according to any one of claims 1 to 5, wherein the wireless communication device includes a power supply independent of that of the drone.
 
7. The system for collecting flight information according to any one of claims 1 to 6, wherein the information relating to the drone transmitted from the wireless communication device at least includes information relating to a position and an altitude of the drone, and time information.
 
8. The system for collecting flight information according to any one of claims 1 to 7, wherein the wireless communication device includes a GPS unit for measuring the position and the altitude of the drone.
 
9.  The system for collecting flight information according to any one of claims 1 to 8, wherein the wireless communication device includes a memory accumulating information relating to the drone.
 
10. A wireless communication device, mounted on a drone,
the wireless communication device transmitting information relating to the drone to a relay flying at a first altitude between an altitude the drone is capable of flying at and an altitude of a communication satellite.
 
11. A relay, flying at a first altitude between an altitude a drone is capable of flying at and an altitude of a communication satellite,
the relay comprising:

a receiver receiving information relating to the drone transmitted from a wireless communication device mounted on the drone; and

a satellite communication device sending the information relating to the drone received by the receiver to a ground station by satellite communications using the communication satellite.


 
12. A method of collecting flight information relating to a drone,
the method comprising:

causing a wireless communication device mounted on the drone to transmit information relating to the drone;

causing a relay flying at a first altitude between an altitude the drone is capable of flying at and an altitude of a communication satellite to receive information relating to the drone transmitted from the wireless communication device;

causing the relay to send the information relating to the drone to a ground station by satellite communications using the communication satellite; and

causing the ground station to collect the information relating to the drone by satellite communications.


 




Drawing



















REFERENCES CITED IN THE DESCRIPTION



This list of references cited by the applicant is for the reader's convenience only. It does not form part of the European patent document. Even though great care has been taken in compiling the references, errors or omissions cannot be excluded and the EPO disclaims all liability in this regard.

Patent documents cited in the description