Amazon’s drone dream sparks race for better sensor

by Thomas Black

Bloomberg

In the quest to build drones that can enable companies such as Amazon to make door-to-door deliveries, engineers are racing to overcome a fundamental challenge: helping unmanned, suitcase-sized aircraft see where they’re going.

The answer is developing sensors that are smart enough to keep the drones from smacking into buildings, people and anything else that would impede travel — yet small and light enough that the machines can stay aloft.

Startups around the United States, eager for a slice of a market projected by Teal Group to more than double to $11.6 billion by 2023, are responding. Aurora Flight Sciences Corp. is testing echo location, a method that mimics how bats navigate in the dark, while engineers at 3D Robotics Inc. are turning to optic flow sensors, which detect objects by examining video pixels.

” ‘Sense-and-avoid’ is one of the biggest opportunities in the industry,” said Jesse Kallman, chief of global business development for Airware, a drone-equipment maker backed by Google Ventures. “The technology is not there yet, but it’s something the industry needs badly.”

Size is the key to success: The smaller the better. Sagetech Corp. has reduced transponders, which send and receive signals on aircraft location, to the approximate dimensions of credit cards. In Alaska, a serial entrepreneur has licensed a miniature radar system, the technology considered most difficult to shrink because of the need for an antenna and a receiver.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos pushed the concept of home-delivery drones to the forefront in a Dec. 1 interview on CBS’ “60 Minutes,” saying Amazon plans to use small, helicopter-like aircraft to deliver packages as heavy as 2.3 kg within a 16-km radius.

U.S. airspace regulations for drones are just starting to take shape. There are still “serious unanswered questions” about the safety and reliability of unmanned aircraft, a National Academy of Sciences panel said yesterday. A report from the 17-member group cited “many substantial barriers” to integrating unmanned aircraft into U.S. airspace, including technology, a regulatory system unprepared to oversee them and privacy questions.

Preliminary rules due by year-end from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration may let drones weighing 25 kg or less fly below 122 meters and within sight of a licensed operator.

The first commercial applications probably will be tasks such as surveying crops, filming movies and inspecting bridges and flare stacks that are difficult and dangerous to reach. In public safety, small aerial robots will help police diagram auto accidents and firefighters highlight hot spots during a blaze.

Harnessing the full potential of drones, such as Bezos’ vision of robot aircraft lugging Amazon purchases, will require the ability to fly on autopilot and beyond the line of sight. There will be too many of them for remote pilots to control directly and for authorities to monitor.

The challenge doesn’t stop there: Sensors still need refinement so low-flying drones dodge the trees, streetlights and humans that aren’t in the path of conventional planes.

Optical flow sensors, which let a computer mouse function without a trackball, are being adapted for collision avoidance. While that equipment is cheap and getting more sophisticated, it doesn’t work well in the dark or thick fog.

Terrence McKenna at Aurora is working on a fog solution. His team has equipped drones with echo-location sensors to keep the machines from bumping into a concrete pillar, for example, while inspecting a bridge — in combination with other types of sensors.

“We’re trying to get the richest environment perception capability possible given the size, weight and power constraints that we have,” McKenna said. “We’ve crossed over into the area that now we’re able to do something with this as opposed to 10 years ago.”

Lucas Van Oostrum, CEO of Aerialtronics, a Dutch company that has sold 250 drones to mostly European customers, including the London police, expects sensors to shrink to the size of coins. He envisions a system in which airborne vehicles fly autonomously within rules similar to street traffic.

The hardware solutions are within reach, and research into driverless cars will help advance sensor technology, Van Oostrum said. The software that follows will let the industry take off.

“We’re moving from hardware to software again like with the mobile phones,” Van Oostrum said. “First you could text and then it moved on to applications, and that’s where we see this going as well.”