THAT drone buzzing round your head might be smarter than you think. Small drones with neural hardware resembling brains will soon share airspace with other aircraft, seeing and avoiding potential hazards autonomously. The ability will help drones take on a host of new roles.
Big firms like Amazon, DHL and Google are developing their own drone fleets for rapid delivery of consumer goods, fast food and pharmaceuticals. However, current rules restrict drones to flying within visual range of a human operator because of the risk of collision. Drones need an automatic “sense-and-avoid” capacity before they will be able to make deliveries on their own.
Computers capable of recognising objects in video and responding in real time are too big and too power-hungry for small drones. That means drones have to rely on short-range sensors like radar, which may not give enough warning to avoid a collision.
The key may be to mimic how animal brains work; our brains are poor at number-crunching but can process complex sensory input faster than digital systems.
Bio Inspired Technologies of Boise, Idaho, is doing just that. It is building a sense-and-avoid system using a memristor, a resistor with a memory. Like the synapse in a biological brain, the memristor changes when impulses pass through it. Crucially, it is able to remember the impulse after it has stopped.
This capability forms the basis of a learning system that mimics neurons and the connections between them. A chip-sized neural system linked to the drone’s existing camera can be trained to recognise aircraft and other hazards at long range. Bio Inspired’s drone should be ready for its first flight later this year.