It may not be as glamorous as building vehicles that go faster, fly higher or shoot more beautiful images, but making drones less likely to crash into walls and people's faces is pretty critical to advancing the technology all the same. One company working on this problem is the team at Panoptes, which has just launched a Kickstarter campaign for eBumper4, an obstacle avoidance system that can be slapped on two of the more popular consumer drones to stop them running into things.
From hardware titans all the way down to spritely startups like Panoptes, robotics researchers are making waves in the field of obstacle avoidance. During its keynote at CES 2015, Intel demonstrated its RealSense technology, which when integrated with drones made them capable of autonomously navigating an obstacle course, but this isn't expected to be available until later this year. Drone-makers Airdog and Zano also claim to have prototypes that incorporate obstacle avoidance technology, but not market-ready products yet.
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Panoptes' solution relies on four sonar sensors aimed to the front, to the top, left and right. These are housed in a plastic attachable kit that can be retrofitted to the top of DJI's Phantom 2 and 3DRobotics' Iris+ quadcopters in an installation process that is claimed to take between 10 and 20 minutes.
Once activated, the sensors then constantly monitor the drone's surroundings. When the system detects that the drone is approaching an obstacle and in danger of colliding with it, it takes over control and bounces it back to safety. If there happens to be objects on both sides of the drone, its self-centering feature sees the system position the drone midway between those obstacles.
Once the drone has been steered safely away danger, the pilot assumes control as before. The size of this invisible protective bubble varies between two modes: 4.5 ft (137 cm) in precision mode, which is for confined spaces and 10 ft (305 cm) in performance mode, which is intended for faster, freer movement in open areas. Panoptes says that there will also a user interface for users to customize the minimum distances between each individual sensor and surrounding objects.
eBumper4 also features an auto-takeoff function that sees the drone take off automatically to an elevation of around 6 ft (1.8 m) with a single press of a button, which could be great news for the ceiling plaster in your living room.
The system is currently operable at low-speeds only (up to a fast walking pace), but the team is set on developing software to make eBumper4 more advanced. Future upgrades could include a "tractor beam" feature enabling the drone to smoothly approach a object for a zoom effect on video, the ability to hold a certain position in relation to an object and to follow way-points while avoiding obstacles.
This kind of solution could certainly provide a nice safeguard for when the drone is flown at a considerable distance from the pilot, making it difficult to judge exactly how close it is to objects in its path. More generally, it could be a relatively simplistic way of helping shaky and erratic drone pilots straighten up and fly right and help protect their investment.
The team says support for more drones is a possibility and is currently investigating how the technology could be integrated with different models in a cost-effective way.
eBumper4 will add 82 g (2.9 oz) to the weight of your aircraft, and reduce its flight time by two or three minutes. But if these compromises are worth the added peace of mind, then an early pledge of US$359 over at Panoptes' Kickstarter page will have one of the systems sent your way in July, if all goes to plan.
You can check out the team's pitch video below.