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The DJI Dock is moving into the automated drone hangar market

More and more companies have been developing mobile hangars and docking stations as the DJI Dock to enable autonomous BVLOS drone operations in remote and harsh environments.
DJI Dock

For the industry, it’s a clear signal that a portable drone infrastructure is needed to carry out current use cases such as inspection, surveillance and monitoring. In almost all cases, companies and cities are choosing drones over their human counterparts due to the often risky and dangerous environments in which these tasks need to be carried out.

A simple example is the inspection of power lines or television towers, where there is often a risk of a fatal fall. The same can be said for search and rescue missions, where smoke, fire and even flooding can endanger the lives of those on the ground. Portable drone hangars can be deployed and operated in extreme conditions without risk to human life, while often completing the task more quickly and efficiently due to their aerial capabilities.

As for the hangars, the concept isn’t new. The aviation industry has already seen similar infrastructure, with examples such as airports or heliports where larger manned aircraft can land. A portable drone hangar isn’t a new concept — it just moves some elements around in the equation. These include the pilot, who would normally be responsible for take-off, landing and emergency situations, passing the responsibility to previously uncharted technology. This is why we can expect regulations to take some time to catch up.DJI isn’t the first to offer this solution either. Companies like Meteomatics, a leading weather drone operator, offer the Meteobase, a remote drone station.

DJI DockExabotix hangarDrone hangar DOMUMSkyport DP5 drone box hangarHive docking stationAeriePort drone nesting stationDBX G7 drone in a box systemSkydio Dock Percepto Base
Airconditioned⛔* *HVAC temperature regulationN/A
Camera on dock
Charging station⛔* *battery replacement
Real-time weather monitoring
Remote control
Customised hangars
Allows for multiple drone typesN/A
WeatherproofN/A✅* *Hurricane proof
Emergency power supply
Precision landingN/A
Detect and avoid system

Of course, companies like Matternet have created a drone dock for their personal operations, which put them outside the realm of simple sales. 

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All these hangars have three things in common: (1) they protect the drone from harsh environments, (2) they are designed to be transported to remote locations, and (3) they guide the drone to a safe landing site.

Depending on the company, these drone stations may be compatible with multiple types of drones. Or, they could also require specific drones to be used. For example, the DJI Dock only supports DJI M30 drones that have been modified to fit into the station. One of these modifications includes a charging port on the drone’s leg. For those who aren’t DJI fans, we’ll also address some of the more specific concerns for the drone hangar market as a whole, which could be interesting if you’re looking to unlock autonomous BVLOS operations in the future.

Drone hangars are the key to unlocking full-time autonomous BVLOS operations

Drone technology is currently at a stage where it’s quite sensitive. Sensitive to weather. Sensitive to battery life. Sensitive to overheating. These are all issues that need to be addressed by a drone pilot in the field, either by changing the battery, charging the drone or even checking the weather conditions.

While drone hangars could be the key to solving these problems, the state of the technology is still in its infancy. To be precise, drone technology (as a whole) is at Technology Readiness Level 2, with the highest being Level 9. The system was originally developed by NASA and later adopted by various industries, including the drone sector. It provides a ranking of the current state of the technological advancements in a given area. In practice, this means that the use of existing drone docking systems will change dramatically as new technological advances enable more complex configurations, such as fully remote stations that don’t require any power source, or stations that can house, recharge and service multiple types of drones.

The DJI Dock has built-in features such as automatic charging, air conditioning, a weather instrument and a weather-protected environment, including an internal enclosure to keep the controls safe and secure. As long as the DJI Dock is connected to a power source, it can be taken anywhere for autonomous operations. The most common problems with drones are solved by the Dock itself.

The DJI Dock is also currently limited to the specific dock versions of the M30 series, meaning that larger delivery drones such as the Flycart 30 can’t be used with it. One of the main reasons for this is the size of the dock and the charging port located on the arms. However, some drone docking solutions offer cross-compatibility. For example, SkyCharge can accommodate Parrot and DJI drones. Parrot has also partnered with HeroTech8, Mapture and Hoverseen to offer a similar alternative to the DJI Dock.

Most drone docks, hangars and stations look almost identical with three small variations: 

  1. Top-opening dock: Like the DJI Dock, a top-opening dock is a small hangar with a landing pad and a small split roof canopy that automatically opens or closes when the drone is not in use. 
  2. Side-opening dock: Like the Skydio dock, an arm or arms ‘catch’ the drone and bring it into the station or carry it out before a flight. 
  3. Conveyor dock: Like the Hive docking station, this design uses a conveyor belt that acts as both a landing pad and a method of bringing the drone into the drone station. Sometimes, this part of the dock remains outside, giving it a bulkier appearance, but is capable of handling larger drones.

Which regulations apply to drone dock and station systems?

Autonomous BVLOS flights will almost always require some form of flight authorisation from the relevant civil aviation authorities. For the DJI Dock’s M30 T, most operations will be autonomous and will therefore not involve the presence of a pilot, which means that the operator will need to obtain an operating permit for the specific category (according to the current JARUS SORA framework used in Europe and other countries that have adopted the SORA). This can be a real challenge when using the DJI Dock.

Due to the high level of automation, you’ll need to be able to demonstrate to the relevant authorities that the DJI Dock can reliably and automatically take the appropriate actions in emergency situations. This can be difficult to demonstrate and may require a pilot or other person to be present to ensure that nothing goes wrong, or to take responsibility if a situation does arise. With enough accumulated flight hours performing the required operation, it may be possible to obtain certification for fully autonomous operations, with all human-specific functions performed remotely.

As more drone operators look to use these drone hangars and docking stations for their operations, BVLOS operations will be a focus for aviation authorities in the coming years. It will likely become a collective responsibility of the drone industry to prove that these solutions are safe and pose no additional aviation risks without pilot involvement. This will include documentation of any evasive manoeuvres that may be necessary in the event of an emergency.

Once again, it’s best to think of the DJI Dock as a type of aviation infrastructure that will likely have to comply with regulations similar to those for airports or heliports in the future. Regulators have already started discussing what these regulations might look like and their potential impact on the drone industry, even though the technology is still relatively new. 

drone hangar

Industries using autonomous drone hangars like the DJI Dock

There are currently only a few use cases that benefit from the use of drone hangars, due to high regulatory requirements and the need for a continuous power source. The one that most people are familiar with is the inspection and monitoring of critical infrastructure. Take industrial fans in a factory. They’re pretty hard to reach and difficult to repair when they break down due to how inaccessible they are.

Inspections of industrial fans and other difficult-to-access assets can be scheduled autonomously using a drone docking station paired with an inspection drone. Rather than the traditional method of equipping each asset with sensors to be monitored by predictive maintenance software, this approach is proving to be far more cost-effective. Equipped with a comparable level of technology, the drone provides the versatility to monitor a number of assets, streamlining the inspection process and optimising enterprise maintenance strategies across assets.

Drone-assisted surveying is another practical application already in use. This involves the use of drones for a variety of monitoring tasks, such as agricultural monitoring, the tracking of mining assets or improving security measures. These drones can be programmed to carry out routine, automated missions to assess the condition of a particular area — whether it’s soil, crops, vehicles or potential intruders. With the right technology, they can also monitor weather conditions to improve forecast accuracy. This is similar to what we’ve seen already with the Meteodrones.

Regardless of industry or location, most current global regulations require drones to fly within a pre-defined area before take-off (as a route or in an area). After purchasing the DJI Dock, you can define this area using the geofence feature during the route planning tool of the flight software. This process creates a restricted area in which the drone can operate, ensuring it does not leave the specified boundaries. 

How to install and deploy the DJI Dock

Having helped numerous drone operators obtain approvals Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) operations using the DJI Dock, we’ve noticed that most people are concerned about getting the dock set up and operational before committing to a purchase. We weren’t able to find this information online, so we’ve included it here for you. 

Thankfully, installation is surprisingly straightforward. First, connect the DJI Dock to a power source and activate the pre-installed DJI software. This will automatically connect to the dock’s wind/weather sensors and HD video without the requirement for further setup. If you choose to install alternative software, the controller will guide you through the installation process.

From there, just follow the instructions from the control centre (you’ll need WiFi access) and you’re ready for your first mission. Just as a reminder: the DJI Dock is also only compatible with M30 DJI Dock drones. The charging ports for these drones have been redesigned and are now located on the legs of the drone. This allows the Dock to charge the drone when it’s not in use.

When the drone goes out on a mission and lands, the RTK (real time kinematic) antenna, which acts as a positioning system for high-precision location tracking, will guide it to the centre. Of course, not all landings will be perfect. That’s why the arms on the landing pad will guide the drone to the middle before the side latches start to close. If a propeller moves during this process, don’t worry. When the canopy starts to close, it will simply fold into place.

The entire dock (including the charging cable) is waterproof, as you can see when you open the small door on the side where the switches and controls are located. The rain sensor at the top is also quite sensitive. This means you can remotely refuse missions in rainy conditions.

automated drone

The development of drone hangars and pods in the future

To move drone hangars from concept to reality, the industry needs to actively embrace existing solutions to gain experience and evidence of current technological readiness to support more flexible regulations. Fortunately, smart cities might just become innovators in this area. Many rely on drones to inspect critical infrastructure, and they’re also concerned about the feasibility of establishing permanent vertiports in densely populated urban areas. This makes drone hangars a practical solution to the problem. They act as a portable ‘drone-in-a-box’ system that can be easily moved around the city to perform missions where they are needed.

In the future, it is likely that drone hangars will be able to expand from housing a single drone to a swarm. This would increase operational capabilities exponentially. This may also be a new way of offering drone light shows in cities, as multiple drone hangars can be transported and deployed without the current level of intensive set-up and planning that many light show operators face.

Moreover, drones will be able to perform tasks that currently struggle with increasing labour shortages, which are only expected to worsen over time as many populations begin to age. This includes estimates that the world’s population is predicted to begin declining in 2086, forcing many governments to start developing technology like drone docking solutions to fill the gaps. This includes inspecting vast amounts of critical infrastructure that would otherwise go unnoticed.

Want to learn more about the current state of the drone industry? Check out our other articles, like how the City of Fribourg has been carrying out public-interest drone missions since 2020