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Flying blind: Can we now add autonomy to drones?

21 Mar 2016  | Junko Yoshida

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More technology advances needed

Consumer drones are in their infancy if measured by what they can do.

Asked about three big things that must happen for drones to advance in the market, McNamara listed "automatic limits, 360-degree viewing capability and longer lasting battery."

First, "every drone needs to have automatic limits (the drone should not be allowed to fly near airports, or above a certain height)," McNamara said. "This is not the case today."

Second, "Drones need to become more fool-proof," he said. "What DJI is doing is great, but it only works in one direction." Drones only have a front-view. He explained, "When they fly backwards, for example, they could easily back into objects such as trees."

Third, obviously, "Battery technology is still the biggest limiting factor for many drones," said McNamara. "The best drones can only do 20 minutes in real world conditions, and pilots still make errors by allowing a drone to go too far for the battery to get it back home again." He added, "Fuel cells may become the way forward, but lithium ion technology is only increasing incrementally."

What else do drones need to get smarter and fly autonomously?

In McNamara's opinion, "DMV for drones" is the first thing. He said that certain machines need to be certified as airworthy. Also lacking is "'rules of the road' or 'traffic control' for drones that runs automatically," he noted. "Amazon Prime Air and Google X are both pushing hard for a system or platform that will regulate all the drones in the sky, automatically."

McNamara hopes to see transponders for drones. "Each drone should be legally required to have a transponder that can be managed by a controller higher up the food chain," he said. The transponder "can require a drone to move out of the way or evade another bigger aircraft."

Autonomous cars vs. autonomous drones

Designing autonomous cars is hard enough. But adding autonomy to drones can be even harder.

For one thing, drones have much smaller power budget and they fly in a much tougher thermal environment, explained Movidius CEO.

Developing a drone with an ultra-low-power vision processor that can withstand any weather, temperature condition is the first order of business. "And it needs to be low cost," he added.

Finally, considering a typical drone's payload and flight time, "miniaturization [of technology] is much needed," McNamara added.


Figure 5: Myriad 2 Parallel Processing: Optimised dataflow is a key to achieve very low power performance. (Source: Movidius)

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