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20 Nov 2017

Drone autonomy: Marketing buzzword or reality?

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If you are in the UAV world you see the word “autonomous” used to describe how many unmanned aircraft function. It is used to describe an aircraft or other unmanned device that can follow a pre-programmed mission to accomplish a task. Let’s take a quick look at what autonomy is

Autonomy: freedom from external control or influence; independence

Have you ever heard of Skynet? A fictional system where machines were able to make machines and no longer saw the need for the human race. The result being The Terminator and the eventual extinction of the human race (save us John Connor!)

So now let’s look at where we are in relation to our eventual demise. Are systems stepping through a list of commands autonomous? Are they free from external influence? Are the aircraft really flying without any external input?

Digging deeper into the fundamental definition of autonomy from the other side: to be autonomous a system must be free of control, free of influence, this means systems making their own decisions. UAVs currently don’t have a mind of their own. They can be programmed at a fairly basic level. SAE recently defined 6 levels of autonomy in driverless cars.

  • Level 0 is human controlled
  • Level 1 is machine controlled steering
  • Level 2 has the driver without their hands on the controls but still making the critical safety decisions and able to intervene.
  • Level 3 the vehicle has control for safety critical functions but has a driver ready to intervene
  • Level 4 the vehicle performs all safety-critical functions in most driving scenarios
  • Level 5 the vehicle systems are able to perform all traditionally human controlled functions with the same or better performance than it’s human “counterpart?”

If we were to define drone / UAV autonomy on a similar scale it would position most generally available systems at level 1 autonomy. Today’s aircraft have at the very most the ability takeoff, to steer from point to point, sense an object and route around it, trigger a payload, and land; all based on what you have programmed it to do.

The future of UAV / drone autonomy is where the real meat of autonomy waits. Picture an agricultural system that will use it’s own weather observations and situational knowledge to decide when to fly out to a farmer’s field. This system spots an area in the crop that is not as healthy. It then flies down closer to the stressed vegetation and analyzes it. Seeing that the plants are suffering from low nitrogen levels it makes the decision on it’s own to spray it with a precise sprinkling of it’s favorite fertilizer beverage.

So, no. Your DJI Phantom 4 is an incredible wonder of engineering and can safely do what YOU tell it to, but it cannot think. It cannot safely replace the functions of the pilot. It cannot program itself. It cannot decide whether or not it is safe to fly (although it is getting close to that point).

We are going to see a much higher level of autonomy in the near future. Higher levels of autonomy are waiting for us, the humans, to create better sensors and better decision making algorithms that can understand more complex and unpredictable scenarios.

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