senseFly's eXom drone uses visual and ultrasonic sensors for precision flight
Swiss company senseFly is best known for its fixed-wing industrial drones, such as the eBee and swinglet CAM. Parrot, on the other hand, has made its name with its consumer quadcopters. So, now that Parrot has owned senseFly for a couple of years, what's the result? The new senseFly eXom quadcopter, which uses multiple visual and ultrasonic sensors to avoid obstacles and maintain precise autonomous flight.
Parrot's existing AR.Drone already utilizes one of each type of sensor, both located on the underside of the aircraft. The ultrasonic sensor is used to maintain altitude, by emitting sound waves and then measuring how long they take to be reflected back up from the ground. The visual sensor – the drone's secondary camera – maintains X/Y (lateral) positioning by identifying details on the ground, then keeping the quadcopter centered relative to them.
The eXom utilizes the same principle, although it has five of each type of sensor. These are situated on its left and right sides, underside, rear end, and forward/upward facing camera head. As a result, it can sense the proximity of objects around it in a full 360 degrees.
Its camera head rotates to provide a 270-degree field of view, and along with its two sensors is also equipped with both an HD video/still camera and a thermal-imaging camera. The latter suggests that the eXom is aimed largely at industrial use, along with the fact that the company suggests it could be used for tasks such as inspecting the underside of bridges.
There are multiple methods of controlling the drone, all of which involve the use of a wirelessly-linked mobile device.
In Interactive ScreenFly mode, the user clicks or taps an object of interest on the real-time video feed on their device's screen, and the eXom will automatically fly over to that object with its camera head pointed at it. In Autonomous mode, on the other hand, the user defines an area that they want to have mapped, on their device's screen. The drone will then create its own flight plan, take off, fly over the area while acquiring the images, then land itself.
Of course, it's also possible to simply pilot the eXom manually, while still using its proximity warning system to avoid crashing it into things.
Full specs, availability and pricing have yet to be announced.
Source: senseFly via IEEE Spectrum
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Regarding drones generally, it concerns me that there appears to be no fixed collision avoidance rules for these vehicles as a whole. Considering that many of these devices will be operating in airspace frequented by birds, it strikes me as desirable that their collision avoidance behaviour be studied and that behaviour be built into drones so that not only are collisions with birds avoided, but also collisions with other drones also avoided. We need to avoid the situation where a drone detects an imminent collision with a bird or another drone and avoids it by flying straight into where its senses/sensors tells it to fly into also.