also require new battery recharging
systems—on the ground and in flight.
Experts believe truly independent
UAVs will take to the skies within the
next few years, as further advances
in computing hardware and software
take place. Yet, in some cases, keeping humans in the flight loop may be
desirable. This would likely include
dangerous situations such as transporting a bomb, sending a drone into
an unknown space such as a subterranean environment, or managing
swarms of drones in highly cluttered
Then there’s the need to create fail-safe systems to prevent UAV crashes.
One solution, Amoroso says, is installing anomaly detection systems that
alert a human to intervene when the
drone can’t navigate or operate normally. Another approach would be to
place emergency beacons in commercial drones; if the UAV bumps into an
object, it generates an alert or notification. Still another remedy, Curtis
says, is programming malfunctioning drones to head to a safe space or
simply to land until they can receive
further instructions. Regardless of
the specific approach, Carnegie Mellon’s Michael says that any procedure
leading to a human taking control of
the system must be very well thought
out. “Relying on a human to suddenly make an instantaneous decision
could lead to potentially unsafe results,” he cautions.
Yet the field is advancing, and even
taking new directions. At the Univer-
sity of California Riverside, research-
ers have experimented with combined
cellular signals and Wi-Fi to augment
or replace satellite signals. At the Mas-
sachusetts Institute of Technology’s
Computer Science and Artificial Intel-
ligence Laboratory, researchers are us-
ing virtual reality to train drones, and
are build more robust algorithms by
running virtual drones through simu-
lations. Another team at the univer-
sity has produced a mapping system
called NanoMap that uses a depth-
sensing system to stitch together on-
going measurements of the drone’s
immediate surroundings. This allows
a single UAV—and theoretically a team
of drones—to not only adapt motion
and movement within a current field of
view, but also anticipate how tormove
in the hidden fields of view that it has
Meanwhile, the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency
(DARPA) is working on UAVs that
require no GPS, but fly at speeds up
to 45 mph ( 72 kph). The devices will
use sophisticated onboard mapping
technology to remember places and
things they have encountered. According to DARPA, the system could
be used on the battlefield, and to rescue victims of natural disasters.
Into the Air
Researchers continue to explore ways
to take autonomous drones to a higher level. This undoubtedly will revolve
around better and more responsive
cameras, faster and better image processing, and ongoing improvements in
AI. For instance, Scaramuzza is focused
on developing event-driven cameras
with bio-inspired vision sensors that
see only the motion in a scene. These
smart pixels would reduce the processing load on the drone and allow it to focus on only the most important motion
and activity. It would deliver high dynamic range at low power, even in low
light conditions, while greatly reducing motion blur and latency. “I foresee
that drones will become smarter and
smarter and more and more situationally aware,” he says.
Blending and optimizing existing
technologies—and using increased
processing power, better batteries,
and improved algorithms, will result
in additional gains, Michael argues.
Part of the solution might also include
mesh communication networks that
use the collective intelligence of the
group to teach and update individuals.
This might best be described as real-
time and collaborative machine learn-
ing. “The more the drones fly, the more
experience they acquire. The more ex-
perience they acquire, the more they
become high-performance machines.
This makes them better equipped to
navigate and mitigate challenging
conditions,” he says.
“We’re moving toward a level of sophistication where onboard sensing
systems and machine learning will create an environment that make it possible to step beyond basic navigation
and create machines that use deliberate
and intelligent decision-making. These
systems—including groups of drones—
will improve and get smarter over time,”
Michael says. “We’re approaching an
inflection point where drones will move
past the novelty stage and become another capable system that can be used
for a wide variety of purposes.”
Kamat, S.U., and Rasane, K.
A Survey on Autonomous Navigation
Techniques, 2018 2nd International
Conference on Advances in
Electronics, Computers and
Simon, N., and Songmahadthai, D.
Multi-drone Control System,
School of Innovation Design and
Engineering, Jan. 16, 2019.
Mozaffari, M., Saad, W.,
Bennis, M., and Debbah, M.
Communications and Control for Wireless
Drone-Based Antenna Array, IEEE
Transactions on Communications, Vol.
67, Issue 1, Sept. 20, 2018, pp. 820–834.
Kim, J., Seokhwa, K., Jaehoon, J., Hyoungshick,
K., Jung-Soo, P., and Taeho, K.
CBDN: Cloud-Based Drone Navigation
for Efficient Battery Charging in Drone
Networks, IEEE Transactions on Intelligent
Transportation Systems, Dec. 12, 2018, pp.
Samuel Greengard is an author and journalist based in
West Linn, OR, USA.
© 2019 ACM 0001-0782/19/11 $15.00
DARPA is working
on UAVS that will
places and things