As the FAA scrambles to hold UAV operators responsible for their flights before the holiday buying season is officially upon us, researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich are doing their best to remove the need for such operators all together.
The system, built on a small AscTec Firefly hexacopter, uses a combination of sensors and a stereoscopic camera to calculate velocity, orientation, and gravity. It then compares these calculations with images from the camera and creates a 3D map of its environment, all on board.
The drone requires an operator to conduct its first flight in a new environment, so it can gather all the necessary metrics and build the 3D map, but then the operator can step away and the drone is able to navigate its way back to its point of origin.
All subsequent flights, to any location in the environment, can be done autonomously.
“This is the first time we can show full mapping, relocalization—finding the drone on the map—and planning on board,” researcher Michael Burri told the MIT Technology Review.
The obvious application for a drone like this, explained Burri, is inspection.
Oil rigs, power lines, and cell towers all need to be inspected regularly and the labor and time savings a drone could provide in these situations (to say nothing of how much safer it is to send a drone rather than a person into these situations) are fairly obvious.
The one pain point of the Institute’s UAV is the fact that adding the sensors and camera significantly increased the weight of the drone which cut the flight time of the drone nearly in half (from 15 minutes to 7).
Burri is not so concerned about this issue and believes newer drones on the market could carry the same payload and still fly for about 20 minutes.
The other solution to this problem is one of the biggest hurdles yet facing the drone industry: batteries.
The average commercial drone only gets 20-30 minutes of flight time anyway so a more powerful battery would be a welcome advance to the entire industry.
While some other bright minds try to come up with that solution, Burri and his team are on to equipping their platform with a sense and avoid system so that the UAV could evade object that don’t appear on its mapp i.e. moving objects and/or people.
The best part of this announcement is, while the FAA tries to figure out how to keep pilots more responsible, technology is doing away with them all together.
Check out Burri’s drone in action in the clip below:
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