The Chinese drone-maker DJI has an answer to concerns that amateur pilots will crash their aircraft into things. Its newest drone, the Phantom 4, uses multiple cameras and software to sense and avoid obstacles automatically. The autonomous features show DJI is already commercializing technology that only recently was being tested in university research labs.
The Phantom 4 quadcopter uses two forward-facing optical sensors to scan the landscape as it flies. When in autonomous mode, the drone automatically flies around obstacles. If the aircraft comes across something it can’t reasonably avoid, it will stop and hover until receiving further instructions. With a mobile app, users can tap on a destination and the drone will choose the best route to get there.
Once drones fly themselves, pilots can focus on controlling the camera without worrying about navigation. Frank Wang, the chief executive of DJI, described the autonomous features as a way to have the drone “collaborate creatively” with the person on the ground.
Semi-autonomous drones could help appease U.S. regulators and politicians. Lawmakers have called on drone-makers to create technology that would make it impossible for the devices to operate in restricted areas. DJI is pushing back against the idea.
DJI’s obstacle-sensing system closely resembles one laid out last year by robotics researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in a series of papers and videos (one is embedded below). Using commercially available hardware, the MIT team outfitted a fixed-wing drone with a two-camera system that flew around tree branches and other obstacles at speeds of about 30 miles per hour. The Phantom 4 can avoid obstacles while flying at 22 miles per hour when it is in autonomous mode, DJI says.
Obstacle avoidance is a particular problem for drone developers. Keeping weight down and extending battery life is crucial for these birds, but scanning a three-dimensional environment requires lots of computing power. So the MIT drones didn't capture 3D images continuously. Instead they looked for obstacles a certain distance away and then remembered where they were as the drone flew toward them. The technology is good enough to prevent drones from running into trees and buildings; they can't react to another flying object traveling at high speeds.
Andy Barry, the lead author of the paper describing this research, later left to join Boston Dynamics, the robotics company whose demo videos have become must-watch material for tech geeks.
Consumer drone companies have been flirting with adding autonomous features for some time. At this year’s CES, EHang caused a bit of a stir by showing off an autonomous drone big enough to carry a human passenger (though it's hard to imagine such an aircraft passing regulatory muster any time soon). A Parrot drone can track the location of a phone and follow it along as it moves, presumably in its owner's hand. DJI also had so-called follow-me modes in older drones, and has updated the feature for the Phantom 4. (A DJI spokesman says anyone being followed by a drone against his will could likely lose it by walking closely to a group of people for awhile, then having everyone break off in different directions.)
The Phantom 4 is a striking reminder of how far consumer drones have come. DJI's latest bird can't circle the skies for hours like military drones do; it can stay aloft for about half an hour on a fully charged battery. But for $1,400, you can get a self-flying aircraft—just months after the concept was hatched in a research lab.