Developing a sense-and-avoid system for any unmanned aircraft is a challenging task, but it’s even more difficult to build one for small vehicles that can’t hold heavy sensor payloads.
Panoptes UAV, a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based start-up, has created a system that uses echolocation to help small quadcopters avoid collisions. The product, the eBumper, contains acoustic sensors that work outdoors, indoors and in all weather conditions, said Terrence McKenna, chief executive officer.
Currently, the system is only available for the DJI Phantom, he said. The eBumper is sold as a hard shell with integrated sensors that replaces the top half of the Phantom’s airframe and can easily be plugged into its electronics.
The company plans to manufacture shells for other UAS, McKenna said. The avionics systems are vehicle-agnostic.
“Any kind of quadrotor that’s out there, you can just plug it into the autopilot, and it will work out of the box,” he said.
Acoustic sensors are a good fit for small UAVs because they are inexpensive and work in most environments, McKenna said. Panoptes views the eBumper as a “foundational technology” that will allow an aircraft to sense an obstacle within 10 feet. The company is working on other sense-and-avoid technologies, such as microradar, that will have a longer range.
As the Federal Aviation Administration considers rules to incorporate UAVs in the civilian airspace, safety remains the number one concern, said Jim Williams, manager of its UAS integration office. During a speech in May, Williams played footage of an incident in Virginia where an operator lost control of a drone used to film a bull run. The system toppled into the crowd, injuring several spectators.
McKenna said the eBumper could improve the safety of small quadcopters, which in turn would help enable commercial and civil use.
“We’re working very hard to fill that [need] because there are a lot of people flying UAVs around trying to do commercial applications, but they’re not done very safely and very robustly,” he said.
The eBumper goes on sale this summer. Customers can preorder it online.
Credit: DJI Phantom with eBumper (Panoptes UAV photo)