Any seasoned drone pilot can tell you flying is like a sugar high- it’s exhilarating at first and you can’t get enough of it, but eventually, there will be a crash.
Fortunately, the first set of aerial training wheels for drones is about to hit the market: Panoptes’ eBumper uses four sensors (on the front, top, left and right of the drone) to detect its surroundings and reduce the likelihood of a collision with walls, trees and people.
As is the case with most subtle safety features, you can only really tell the eBumper is there if you are deliberately trying to crash your drone. So, in order to demonstrate how the eBumper works, take a look at a DJI Phantom being flown straight at a wall:
Even in this case, it can be tricky to identify. Did you notice the quick pitch backwards when the drone approached the wall?
That’s the e-Bumper.
And what appears in this video as a little jump is actually a huge leap in drone technology.
How it Works
It’s well documented that automated collision avoidance is one of the last major technological obstacles facing UAV technology. The Panoptes team found an elegant solution to this problem in a naturally occurring phenomenon that happens all over the animal kingdom: echolocation.
“We took a lot of research from biology and found the most effective and efficient way to build this [eBumper] was to copy what bugs and bats do,” Panotpes’ Commercialization lead Terrence McKenna told DroneLife during our recent visit to their office in Boston. “They actually have blurry, almost pixelated vision but excellent navigation capabilities.”
Similarly, a drone using a simple camera to ‘see’ its environment is an imperfect solution. “A vision sensor can’t see glass,” McKenna said, “but echolocation can.”
So the eBumper is outfitted with four sensors that can paint a digital picture which the drone then uses to perceive its environment.
The sensors are elegantly worked into the 3D printed body of the eBumper which, in its current state, is compatible with DJI’s line of Phantom 2 and Phantom 2 Vision UAVs. Users simply replace the stock outer shell of their Phantom with their new eBumper.
Flying With an Invisible Hand
To be clear, the e-Bumper is not an end-all-be-all sense and avoid solution. “It’s not complete obstacle avoidance,” Panoptes’ Operations Research Lead Fabrice Kunzi said, “we like to think of it more as ‘operator augmentation.'”
There are still blind spots between sensors and behind the drone.
In other words, you can’t fly a Phantom full speed at a wall and expect the eBumper to prevent a crash. But, if you are flying appropriately, the eBumper provides an extra level of safety. Even when you are navigating through non-solid objects like trees and bushes and even in geometrically uneven environments such as hallway corners.
Precision Mode is intended for slow flights in tight quarters. The detection radius of the sensors is 4.5 feet (meaning if you fly within 4.5 feet of a wall, the drone automatically corrects its course) and the drone takes the detected obstacle into account when receiving subsequent control inputs from the pilot. Precision Mode also enables auto-takeoff and hover with the simple flick of a switch.
Performance Mode widens the detection radius to 6 feet and is therefore designed for operations in more open spaces and at higher speeds.
Operations is a key term here because the Panoptes team sees the eBumper as more than just training wheels for aerial photographers- it’s an extra tool that can enable your drone to complete tasks.
“It kind of makes your Phantom the Roomba of the air,” Kunzi said. “Imagine if you had an RFID scanner on your drone, you could have it take off in a store or warehouse and it would go aisle by aisle and detect all the RFIDs on products and you would have a complete inventory in minutes.”
Part of a Larger Whole
While the eBumper is an amazing piece of technology that could make a huge splash among Phantom pilots, it’s only the first step in Panoptes’ grand vision… the Iron Man 1 to Panoptes’ Avengers, if you will.
Panoptes’ core vision is to enable UAVs to complete missions, start to finish, completely autonomously. Kunzi explained an example scenario in which a company would need to inspect a cell tower: all a user would have to do is input GPS coordinates and the drone would go out to that location and, using sensors like the eBumper, it would ‘see’ the environment and create an abstracted map of its surroundings when it arrived. It would then take a digital picture of the tower and begin an inspection of it, top to bottom, providing a live video stream back to its home base.
So how do you get your hands on one?
Panoptes began shipping pre-orders in September and hopes to begin taking new orders by the end of the year. The eBumper will run you about $500 and you can be notified when the next wave becomes available by signing up here.
Alan is serial entrepreneur, active angel investor, and a drone enthusiast. He co-founded DRONELIFE.com to address the emerging commercial market for drones and drone technology. Prior to DRONELIFE.com, Alan co-founded Where.com, ThinkingScreen Media, and Nurse.com. Recently, Alan has co-founded Crowditz.com, a leader in Equity Crowdfunding Data, Analytics, and Insights. Alan can be reached at alan(at)dronelife.com