The idea of skies filled with autonomous flying robots that change the way people interact with the world has grown in popularity amongst futurists and entrepreneurs alike. Largely absent from the public conversation is a discussion about the inherent shortcomings in unmanned aerial systems: namely that without a human pilot aerial vehicles are flying blind.
Autonomous drones can fly extremely well, but they lack perception having zero awareness of other aircraft operating in their immediate vicinity. This makes the idea of dozens (hundreds, or even thousands) of commercial drones navigating the same airspace while avoiding obstacles like planes and power lines unfeasible. Factor in that the majority of aircrafts in the sky these days are manned and it becomes not only unrealistic but also potentially dangerous.
But, this could be the year that all that change thanks to two decidedly unsexy technologies that are quietly undergoing mini-revolutions of their own. Neither is brand new, but both are falling precipitously in cost and size. These new breeds of radar and electronic systems could transform both the aviation industry and open the door to a genuine commercial drone revolution.
The first technology, automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast (or ADS-B), is something most people only hear about after, say, an airliner vanishes like Malaysia Airlines 370 did last year.
ADS-B is a pricey, and often heavy, on-board aircraft tracking technology that not only determines an aircraft’s own position in space via satellites, but also periodically broadcasts its position and direction. Each broadcast can be picked up not only by air traffic controller towers, but also critically by other aircraft in the area. The automated nature of ADS-B lends itself particularly well to robotic drones since computers are well-suited for the multitasking needed to track multiple aircraft at one time.
Transportation authorities are slowly but surely moving toward making ADS-B an industry standard for all manned commercial aviation. Currently, ADS-B isn't required on all aircraft. The still-missing Malaysia Airlines jet was not equipped with the technology, while GermanWings flight 9525 was
In the U.S. plans are in place to add the technology to all flights as part of the FAA’s NextGen strategy to upgrade national airspace due to the enhanced safety it imparts.
Small and inexpensive ADS-B units don’t just have major implications for general aviation but for unmanned navigation and guidance as well. If ADS-B components can be made small, lightweight and—most importantly—inexpensive, they could become industry standard for commercial drones as well.
Enter Google (goog), which recently announced that its engineers have set out to develop small, lightweight ADS-B units that cost less than $2,000. “We think that—and we are going to do this—we will head-down the trajectory of putting into the marketplace really, really low-cost ADS-B solutions,” Dave Vos, the director of Google’s Project Wing, said during the International Civil Aviation Organization in March. Project Wing is Google’s latest initiative aimed at developing viable commercial delivery drones.
Lightweight, sub-$2,000 ADS-B units would create situational awareness for drones allowing them to fly in shared airspace with both unmanned aviation and manned aviation as well as existing air traffic control systems.
Similarly, a company out of Bellevue, Wa. called Echodyne is developing a way to incorporate the same kind of sophisticated scanning beam radar used by fighter jets—to scan and track objects—into the average quadrotor. The company has found a way to replace the typically bulky apparatus that directs radio waves—a mechanism known as a phase shifter—and replace it with a novel new device made from highly-tuned synthetic materials known as metamaterials.
Echodyne has already been able to demonstrate a small electronically scanning radar on a quadrotor drone, one capable of tracking an individual on the ground or avoiding obstacles during flight, but is still prototyping.
Echodyne’s CTO Tom Driscoll says he is confident that he and his team can get the size down to roughly that of an iPhone6 Plus and the weight down to less than one pound—plenty small for most commercially available drones on the market today. Moreover, the cost will be such that commercial drones could come standard with sophisticated scanning array radar. “Our canned answer is that Echodyne will be providing radar solutions in the thousands and tens of thousands of dollars,” Driscoll tells Fortune. “But we can feasibly see a sub-$1,000 system.”
A 360-degree spatial awareness at that price point could—either alongside ADS-B or independent of it—provide the “sense-and-avoid” capability that drones today sorely lack.