Consumer drones have come a long way in just a few years, evolving from complex hobbyist models to consumer-ready quadcopters with increasingly smart cameras and controls. But they are still unable to autonomously avoid obstacles — an ability that would completely change the flying experience and make drone-based services much, much safer.
AscTec, which makes professional-level drones, will begin shipping its “Firefly” drone with obstacle-detecting sensors later this year. It incorporate’s Intel’s RealSense 3D cameras, which Wired reported are smaller and lighter than other options.
Five years ago, it would have been impossible to build a setup like AscTec’s. Moderately sized drones are limited in their lifting power, and as much weight as possible needs to go to a drone’s battery and camera (or small parcel). There is also some serious artificial intelligence involved in drawing actionable intelligence from a sensing system. A drone not only needs to sense a wall, but also immediately respond to avoid it.
The FAA is still mulling what exactly drone regulations will look like in the U.S. But eventually collision-avoiding drones will play a strong role. No one wants the tacocopter delivery drone to spill its precious cargo, let alone crash into a person’s head.
This post was updated on January 10 to state that Intel, not IBM, makes the RealSense camera.