I know very little about drones, but I’m trying to learn if collecting river samples is something that could be done autonomously using commercial drones?
Autonomous operation isn't a technical problem. For example, DJI's drones are capable of flying themselves back to the launch point if the signal from the remote control fails.
The problem is legality.
Most drones are required to be flown within the operator's line of sight. The reason for this isn't because the operator has to be actively controlling the drone -- a fully-autonomous drone is perfectly legal -- but because the operator is responsible for collision avoidance.
If you've got an operator watching things, ready to take over if a problem arises, a self-piloting drone is perfectly legal. If, on the other hand, you want something that's completely unattended, you'll need to work with your local regulatory agency to get permission, and that's going to be a difficult thing to do.
Correct answer by Mark on August 19, 2021
I'm not sure about legality, but I think Arducopter could be used for the task required.
It has full GPS waypoint mission capability and many mission tasks. I believe one that would be applicable is the package place command: https://ardupilot.org/copter/docs/mission-command-list.html#package-place
This allows it to descend to drop package. It could be combined with a servo command: https://ardupilot.org/copter/docs/mission-command-list.html#do-set-servo
These are all documented in the arducopter docs: https://ardupilot.org/copter/index.html
Based on your previous comments it seems like it would work for the task at hand.
Answered by Luca Scheuer on August 19, 2021
Absolutely this is possible - in the UK, Imperial College London have built an aircraft to do exactly this, which they say
"dives like a gannet and launches like a flying fish."
The launch is needed to break surface tension with a small drone, which otherwise makes the take-off difficult.
You could also use a multirotor or helicopter design, and hang a Nansen/Niskin bottle under the aircraft, dip it to the needed depth and close it (e.g. release a messenger weight.) If you know the length of the string and drone altitude you would know the sampling depth. Depending on what you are sampling for, you may need to include sensors to make some in-situ measurements (e.g. temperature.)
This could be executed automatically with most current autopilots - just set the Latitude, Longitude and Altitude needed for the dip. Regulations will vary by jurisdiction and, again, depending on your exact requirements. In the UK for example, doing this under visual line of sight (VLOS) rules should require no further paperwork but for Extended or Beyond VLOS, this would require an Operating Safety Case approved by the CAA. Essentially you just have to think about what could go wrong, and explain how you will keep the risk as low as possible - possible safety mitigations may include:
These are non-exhaustive examples - but the CAA are usually quite helpful with their feedback when making such applications.
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