Sense and Avoid Technology

As reported in a previous blog post, earlier this year the World Economic Forum issued its list of the top 10 emerging technologies of 2015. The World Economic Forum is the international institution committed to improving our planet through public-private cooperation.

Number 8, “Sense and Avoid” drones, is the next stage in UAV development that will transform drones from remotely flying aircraft (aircraft with human pilots on the ground) to machines that fly themselves. This opens them up to a much wider range of applications.

This means drones must be able to sense and respond to their local environment, altering their height and flying trajectory in order to avoid colliding with other objects in their path.

This collision avoidance and the loss of positive control, two of the FAA’s major safety concerns, will keep drone delivery services from deploying in the very near future. However, sense and avoid technology is beginning to evolve.

The technology is already being deployed on larger and much smaller military drones. Drone manufacturer General Atomics Aeronautical Systems recently reported it has flight-tested an early version of a sense–and-avoid radar mounted on its 10,000-pound military drone.

However, sense and avoid technology for drones weighing less than 55 pounds is not common and is keeping drones from being safely allowed to fly outside the line of sight of the operator.

NASA, along with a private drone manufacturing company, is developing an Internet-based system that will give drone operators information on oncoming obstacles such as bad weather and physical obstructions, based on the filed flight plan. Eventually, more sophisticated feedback systems will be developed that could actively manage the airspace by, for example, sending requests for groups of drones to spread out to avoid oncoming traffic.

Researchers at the University of Denver’s Unmanned Systems Research Institute have developed a phased-array radar system that only weighs 12 ounces. The radar-based system has advantages over transponder or camera systems because it works in poor visibility – at night or in bad weather. That technology is currently in the testing phase.

According to the Washington Post, another drone start-up now has a prototype of an obstacle-avoidance system that relies on computer vision. This technology is scheduled to launch within the next 12 months.

The goal for now is to supply smaller drones with functional artificial situational awareness, which will help address safety concerns from the FAA and take the drone sector to a whole new level (pun intended!).