All posts in “autonomous drones”

Humanity confuses its loyalties and builds a shrine for that drowned security robot

Hey, fellow humans, I thought we were all on the same page here?

When news broke that a security robot mall-copping its way through the Washington Harbour gave up and drowned itself, we all rightly celebrated the admittedly small victory for mankind. Because, ya know, if drones are going to take our jobs they should at least be miserably toiling their mechanical lives away. 

So why am I now finding out that you went and built this thing a shrine

To make matters worse, you named the bot Steve? Steve?!

Where to start. 

First of all, this thing is not Steve. It’s a Knightscope-brand K5, a robot equipped with “advanced anomaly detection,” “forensic capabilities,” and something called “autonomous presence.” “Gun detection” is listed as “coming soon.”

And you don’t want to make it or its ilk angry: Last summer a fellow Knightscope bot reportedly knocked a toddler to the ground before running him over.

Now, I know what you’re thinking — maybe the toddler had it coming. But it doesn’t really matter either way. Because, in its most basic sense, the K5 exists for the sole purpose of narcing out delinquent teens and chasing away any homeless person unlucky enough to try and panhandle a buck or two in the vicinity of the Washington Harbour shopping mall. 

The K5 livestreams 360-degree video to mall cops too lazy for Segways, and records everything in its presence for your all-but-certain eventual prosecution in the upcoming robot tribunals. 

And you made it a shrine? 

I hate to break it to you, but anthropomorphizing the thing isn’t going to help you in court. 

Knightscope, meanwhile, is working to turn the inability of its “autonomous robot” to avoid a set of stairs into a PR boon. “I heard humans can take a dip in the water in this heat, but robots cannot,” the company tweeted alongside a drawing of a K5 sporting American flag swim trunks. “I am sorry.”

No, K5, you’re not sorry. 

And humanity shouldn’t be sorry, either. Instead of building this thing a shrine, maybe our fellow flesh-bags of the Washington Harbour mall could try a different approach — like helping Steve’s eventual replacement find a watery grave with a not-so-gentle shove. 

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Dubai’s self-flying taxis are primed for takeoff later this year

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The “Future City” is about to add another space-age service you won’t find anywhere else in the world: autonomous passenger drones. 

Dubai’s much-hyped autonomous aerial taxi (AAT) service, which made waves back in February when it was announced as part of its World Government Summit, is finally, officially on track. The city’s Roads and Transport Authority (RTA) just announced a new testing schedule for the program and signed a new a new deal with German aviation company Volocopter, which will provide the aircraft for the program.

The autonomous drone taxis will fly passengers on predetermined routes throughout the city, serving as more of a sky shuttle service than a true go-anywhere taxi. The test period will start sometime during the fourth quarter of this year, and the RTA expects to continue on a trial basis for about five years until the proper legislation is in place for a bigger expansion.

The first version of the air taxi project used the Ehang 184, a 500-pound, single-seat passenger drone. The Dubai RTA didn’t say why it was now switching to Volocopter aircraft but touted the company’s reputation for safety. The craft that will be used in the trials, the Volocopter 2X, is a two-seater, which could give it the edge over the smaller single-passenger Ehang.  

The crafts are fully electric, with 18 rotors and nine independent battery systems that can pick up the slack to keep the craft in the air if anything fails mid-flight. Volocopter claims the quick-charge battery can be fully juiced in as little as 40 minutes for a max flight time of about 30 minutes. That’s at the standard cruising speed of 50 km/h (around 30 mph) and a top speed of 100 km/h (about 62 mph).

A rendering of one of the autonomous air taxis in flight.

A rendering of one of the autonomous air taxis in flight.

Image: volocopter

The project was originally slated to begin next month, but the RTA pushed the trial period to the fourth quarter of the year to make sure the system is truly ready before the crafts take to the air. The RTA said it’s working closely with the Dubai Civil Aviation Authority to iron out legislative and operational guidelines, along with more exact standards for potential taxi service operators to have all the pieces in place before the “commercial and official operation” of the AATs.

This is just the start for flying taxis, with companies like Airbus rolling out their own projects — but Dubai is ahead of the curve. The city is lined up as one of the first two targets for Uber’s flying car initiative, with plans to have a working prototype and possibly even passenger flights as part of Dubai’s Expo 2020 event. 

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Airobotics scores authorization to fly autonomous drones in Israel


A startup based in Petah Tikva, Israel, Airobotics, has scored the right to fly drones autonomously for business purposes in Israel. The Civil Aviation Authority of Israel (CAAI) was the first in the world to authorize commercial, fully unmanned drone flights in their nation’s airspace.

Airobotics’ drones are marketed for use in site surveying, security and other industrial applications. Allowing these drones to fly sans operator means that companies can run inspections for miles along power lines, train tracks or acres of farmland, for example, without humans positioned along the route or token interruptions for point-checks.

The startup’s self-flying, quadcopter drones launch and land from a base station where they can swap out spent batteries for newly charged ones. Running for 30 minutes at a time, Airobotics drones can launch and precisely land themselves. Proprietary software and on-board sensors enable them to navigate, avoid obstacles and complete planned missions without the intervention of a human operator.

So-called “beyond visual line of sight” capabilities are not unique to Airobotics’ drones. Parrot company SenseFly SA in Switzerland, aerospace giants Boeing via their Insitu Inc. subsidiary, and Heliscope in partnership with Scoptio in Denmark are among companies already safety-testing these systems. In the U.S., the state of North Dakota has given Harris Corporation permission to develop and test its BVLOS systems.

However, Airobotics is the first to successfully commercialize truly autonomous drones in the private sector. Its drones can also land within a tight space, which is more unique among drone manufacturers and operators.

The company raised $28.5 million in venture funding last year from investors including BlueRun Ventures, and ex-Googlers including Noam Bardin, the former chief executive of Waze, and Richard Wooldridge, formerly the chief operating officer for Google’s Advanced Technology and Projects.

At this rate, it seems self-flying drones will be circulating in the skies long before self-driving cars are commonplace on our roads.

Featured Image: Airobotics

Exyn unveils AI to help drones fly autonomously, even indoors or off the grid


A startup called Exyn Technologies Inc. today revealed AI software that enables drones to fly autonomously, even in dark, obstacle-filled environments or beyond the reaches of GPS. A spin out of the University of Pennsylvania’s GRASP Labs, Exyn uses sensor fusion to give drones situational awareness much like a human’s.

In a demo video shared by the company with TechCrunch, a drone using Exyn’s AI can be seen waking up and taking in its surroundings. It then navigates from a launch point in a populated office to the nearest identified exit without human intervention. The route is not pre-programmed, and pilots did not manipulate controls to influence the path that the drone takes. They simply tell it to find and go to the nearest door.

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According to Exyn founder Vijay Kumar, a veteran roboticist and dean of Penn’s School of Engineering, “Artificial intelligence that lets drones understand their environment is an order of magnitude more complex than for self-driving cars or ground based robots.”

That’s because the world that drones inhabit is inherently 3-D. They have to do more than obey traffic laws, avoid pedestrians and trees. They must maneuver over and around obstacles in un-mapped skies where internet connectivity is not consistently available. Additionally, Kumar said, “With drones you actually have to lift and fly with your payload and sensors. Cars roll along on wheels and can carry large batteries. But drones must preserve all the power they can for flight.”

The AI that Exyn is adapting from Kumar’s original research will work with any type of unmanned aerial vehicle, from popular DJI models to more niche research and industrial UAVs. Exyn Chief Engineer Jason Derenick, described how the technology basically works: “We fuse multiple sensors from different parts of the spectrum to let a drone build a 3-D map in real time. We only give the drone a relative goal and start location. But it takes off, updates its map, and then goes through a process of planning and re-planning until it achieves that goal.”

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Keeping the technology self-contained on the drone, means Exyn-powered UAVS don’t rely on outside infrastructure, or human pilots to complete a mission. Going forward, the company can integrate data from cloud-based sources.

Exyn, which is backed by IP Group, faces competition from other startups like Iris Automation or Area 17 in Silicon Valley, as well as companies building drones with proprietary autonomous-flight software, like Skydio or Israel-based Airobotics.

The startup’s CEO and Chairman Nader Elm is hoping Exyn’s AI will yield new uses for drones, and put drones in places where it’s not safe or easy for humans to work.

For example, the CEO said, the company’s technology could allow drones to count inventory in warehouses filled with towering pallets and robots moving across the ground; or to work in dark mine shafts and unfinished buildings that require frequent inspections for safety and to measure worker productivity.

Looking forward, Exyn CEO said, “We’ll continue advancing the technology to first of all make it more robust and hardened for commercial use while adding features and functionality. Ultimately we want to move from one drone to multiple, collaborating drone who can work on a common mission. We have focused on obstacle avoidance, but we’re also thinking about how drones can interact with various things in their environment.”

Featured Image: Exyn Technologies