Introducing the Firefly: Harness the next generation of drone motion tracking

Drone usage has broken into mainstream media. While perhaps more familiar to the robotic engineering world, drones are becoming even more complex and will be a welcome helping hand for many industries.

As their capabilities develop, the need to track the movements of drones also increases. That’s why we are pleased to launch Firefly – the cutting-edge marker kit designed for advanced drone motion tracking.

Introducing the Firefly Active Marker Kit

When testing drones, to calculate exactly where they are moving to and from, and whether they are doing their job correctly, motion capture (mocap) tracking technology is needed. 

This is where the Firefly kit comes in. It is a complete active marker tracking set for use by data scientists, private researchers or anybody carrying out investigative work with drones. Firefly markers are essentially powerful wide angle Near-Infra-Red (NIR) emitters that can be attached to a moving object and tracked by motion capture cameras. The data collected – usually 6 Degree of Freedom (6DOF) position and rotation or paths tracked – can be streamed in real time or recorded and analyzed afterwards. 

Most notably, these Firefly drone mocap markers are extremely small and lightweight, which are a serious advantage for researchers, welcomed by engineering teams. Because there is no need for the tracking cameras to have powerful ring lights or radio synchronization, Motion Analysis can offer all the performance and precision of traditional mocap but at the remarkably good value price of our BasCam range, specifically the recently launched Icefall and Lhotse cameras.

Advantages of the Firefly

There are other active marker systems available but most are designed for human movement. Firefly’s specific use for robotic and drone motion tracking benefits from the kit’s maximum weight equaling the minimum mass of other kits on the market. 

Some others utilize hefty USB cables to run between each marker. Often engineers will aim to make the markers appear brighter or use complex synchronization electronics. Although that is not necessarily the limiting factor for the distance the drone can be from the markers. Similarly, attempts to make battery life as prolonged as possible seem to go against the practical usages of mocap – a human subject would struggle to run around for research purposes for many hours!

Firefly is instead more realistic in this regard, including a suitable power source. The battery itself can be removed and a very low current feed taken from the drone’s battery. Also the on/off switch is optional, to further reduce the weight. The LED mounts are around 5 to 6 millimeters across. Wires can be cut to length. Ultimately, the Firefly kit is designed to be flexible with the engineer in mind, who can configure their kit optimally for their application. 

Our current Cortex software, when used with any of our rigid marker sets, allows for full 6DOF single camera tracking. This is beneficial to the Firefly as, even if only one camera can see a drone, the software will continue to fully track its movement.

The maximum weight of the full kit, including battery and switch, is a super-light 45g and includes the following:

What it means for drone users

Much of the time, drones are radio controlled by a smartphone or remote control. But drones are intended to be autonomous vehicles, able to use GPS, cameras and sensors to guide their way. They can smartly map their own routes, avoid surfaces or obstacles, and identify their targets. 

A drone can be ground-based to leave no area untouchable for research purposes, although most commonplace drones are airborne, used to film live events for instance. For this sort of vital work, the smaller the mass of the kit, the easier it is for the drone to fly. 

Users are increasingly needing drone motion tracking systems such as the Firefly. Active drone mocap markers can identify whether these autonomous machines are going in the right direction, or carrying out their job properly. Even if they are operating in underground tunnels or obscured by walls, with a sufficient number of tracking cameras markers can prove their movements to a high level of precision. 

The unexpected applications of drone tracking

Although drones are mainly used by private research companies, the use of drone mocap tracking is spreading further to advance many different specialities.

It is particularly useful for carrying out health and safety checks. We teamed up with the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland to use an aerial drone and 3D motion tracking to investigate how gas leaks can be identified in a wind tunnel facility. Drone motion tracking is essential to identify gas dispersion through 3D gas source localization. This is currently used extensively by energy companies to inspect hard-to-reach equipment too. 

While disaster relief was commonly carried out by animals to identify bodies in danger following catastrophic events such as earthquakes, similar drone motion tracking methods can be utilized to pose less of a threat to humans and animals alike. 

The Firefly kit is a huge step in the capabilities of drone motion tracking, and we remain committed to leading ongoing technological innovation in this space.

For more information about our pricing packages, please visit our website.