Published by Forbes
Authored by David Hambling
Last week Exyn Technologies released a video showing what they claim is the first ever drone flight controlled by a dog. The video features Kody, whose drone operating role is not too challenging, just a matter of tapping a touchscreen, which he does like a pro. Kody then lies down and relaxes while the ExynAero drone flies off to carry out the mission on its own. It’s a cute video, but behind it is a serious message about the rapid evolution of drone autonomy.
Most drones, including the big MQ-9 Reapers and MQ-4 Global Hawks operated by the U.S. military, are actually piloted aircraft rather than autonomous; the pilot controlling them just happens to be sitting in a control room on the ground. More sophisticated drones, like some of the newer DJI models, can fly a pre-programmed route, taking off and landing automatically and hitting specified GPS waypoints along the way, and even avoiding obstacles with built-in sonar.
The new ExynAero takes autonomy up not just by one notch but several, because it is designed to operate in challenging environments like inside mines, where there is no map and no GPS to find the way back, and no communication with the operator. The drone has a smart control system, known as ExynAI , described as the first ever ‘industrial-grade autonomy,’ a series of behavioral building blocks which can be shuffled around and daisy-chained together.
“Commanding the platform is done using a graphical touch interface that allows the user to specify high-level behaviors, e.g. ‘explore over there,’ which are then decomposed into tasks,” Dr. Jason Derenick, Chief Technology Officer at Exyn, told me.
For example, a standard ‘scoutonomy’ task consists of taking off, flying to the space to be explored, exploring it and retuning. More complex behaviors are possible. In particular, the drone can respond to what it finds.
“At the heart of ExynAI is a real-time simultaneous localization and mapping or SLAM pipeline that allows the robot to accurately estimate its position and orientation in its environment while generating real-time maps of its surroundings,” says Derenick.
SLAM is a well-established method in robotics which uses video or other input to build a map of its environment, but for a drone to do it in real time in a cluttered environment is a real achievement. ExynAero carries a LIDAR system which produces survey-grade maps with an accuracy of better than 10 cm, as well as collecting 4K video.
ExynAI can also carry out multi-robot collaborative missions with several drones flying through the same airspace without the risk of collision.
The dog-driven demonstration highlights how drone autonomy has matured in the past few years. From being a laboratory toy, autonomous drones are now sufficiently flexible and reliable for industrial and commercial use, where they can operate in spaces to difficult or too dangerous for humans to access.
It is no surprise to lean that Philadelphia-based Exyn is spin-off from the University of Pennsylvania’s world-renowned GRASP Laboratory, which has produced some of the most impressive videos of drone development, including this one of ‘precise aggressive maneuvers’ in 2012 and another of a swarm of quadcopters flying in formation in 2012. Eight years on, light shows with swarms of drones seem to be as common as fireworks. Most recently, the Guinness Book of Records announced that a Chinese display has broken the record for the larges number of drones in the air simultaneously with a display of 3,051 drones in Zhuhai.
The time span between this demonstration and autonomous drones becoming equally unremarkable is likely to be much shorter. They will probably start with surveying mines and industrial infrastructure like bridges, cooling towers and electricity pylons, but drones may also take over things like stocktaking in warehouses and overseeing construction and other outdoors work in real time. There are obvious applications in agriculture and forestry management, as well as urban settings where they can do everything from mapping potholes to monitoring air quality. Security and military applications are also inevitable, with an ongoing push by the Pentagon to introduce autonomy into its existing small drones.
Now the technology is here, autonomous drones are likely to catch on fast — with or without dogs to operate them.