Crash-Proofing Drones: The Tech Race Is On

Getting unmanned vehicles to dodge obstacles is a challenge

Courtesy Amazon

Drone enthusiasts believe the day will come when thousands of the flying machines will transport packages, search for missing persons, fight fires, even deliver pizza. Yet to harness the full potential of drones, humans have to figure out how to get them to fly on autopilot without crashing into things—and each other.

That may not be a big issue in places like Alaska’s Chukchi Sea, where the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration is allowing a Boeing drone to survey ice formations for oil producer ConocoPhillips. It does matter in urban areas crowded with people, buildings, trees, planes, and soon, other drones.

Engineers at companies big and small are rushing to pack suitcase-size aircraft with the sophisticated navigational systems found on commercial jets. Most are still pretty rudimentary and not available for sale. “The technology isn’t there yet, but it’s something the industry needs badly,” says Jesse Kallman, head of global business development for San Francisco-based Airware, a drone-equipment maker backed by Google Ventures. A breakthrough could swell the drone market well beyond the $11.6 billion the Teal Group, a defense and aerospace research firm, forecasts for 2023.

John Parker, a former private aviation investigator who now runs a company called Integrated Robotics Imaging Systems, has licensed a radar unit that weighs 12 ounces and is trying to make it lighter still. He plans to have a system priced between $7,000 and $10,000 ready for sale in 18 months. Sagetech, based in Hood River, Ore., has been working to miniaturize the transponders used to signal a plane’s location to air traffic controllers and to other aircraft. It’s succeeded in shrinking the 3-pound device down to 3.5 ounces and will tackle a collision-avoidance transponder next. 3D Robotics is trying to endow drones with sight, by equipping them with optical flow sensors similar to those used on some computer mice. The technology is cheap and getting more sophisticated but, like the human eye, doesn’t work well in the dark or thick fog.

Bats can fly blind by bouncing sound waves off objects around them, so why not drones? Aurora Flight Sciences, in Manassas, Va., is testing echo-location sensors on its flying robots. “We’re trying to get the richest environment-perception capability possible, given the size, weight, and power constraints that we have,” says Terrence McKenna, who runs the division developing the systems.

Regardless of which technologies prevail in the marketplace, one thing is clear: The engineers are running ahead of the regulators. The FAA is poised to issue preliminary rules by yearend allowing commercial drones weighing 55 pounds or less to fly below 400 feet without a special permit—as long as they’re within sight of a licensed operator.

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