By Thomas Black
In the quest to build drones that can help companies like Amazon.com Inc. make door-to-door deliveries, engineers are racing to overcome a fundamental challenge: helping unmanned, suitcase-sized aircraft see where they’re going.
The answer is developing sensors that are smart enough to keep the drones from smacking into buildings, people and anything else that would impede travel — yet small and light enough that the machines can stay aloft.
Startups around the U.S., eager for a slice of a market projected by Teal Group to more than double to $11.6 billion by 2023, are responding. Aurora Flight Sciences Corp. is testing echo location, a method that mimics how bats navigate in the dark, while engineers at 3D Robotics Inc.are turning to optic flow sensors, which detect objects by examining video pixels.
“Sense and avoid is one of the biggest opportunities in the industry,” said Jesse Kallman, chief of global business development for San Francisco-based Airware, a drone-equipment maker backed by Google Ventures. “The technology is not there yet, but it’s something the industry needs badly.”
Size is the key to success and the smaller the better. Sagetech Corp. has reduced transponders, which send and receive signals on aircraft location, to the approximate dimensions of credit cards. In Alaska, a serial entrepreneur has licensed a miniature radar system, the technology considered most difficult to shrink because of the need for an antenna and a receiver.