A Chinese company that specializes in making consumer drones decided that leaving avoiding collision while flying a drone to the pilot is not good enough; instead, they decided to make use of the same concepts that lie behind autonomous cars in order to build a self-driving drone. To elaborate, the self-driving drone that comes from DJI makes use of multiple cameras and software in order to map its environment and realize when there is an obstacle it needs to avoid ahead.
The technology the autonomous drone uses has made an unfeasibly fast trip from the research phase and into practical use. It’s only been weeks since the software passed its final testing phase in various university research labs and was sent out for future use. It would seem that the future is already here, even if it’s a little expensive.
The host drone of the technology is called DJI Phantom 4. The Phantom 4 uses two forward-facing optical sensors that handle the environmental mapping and let it know when there’s an obstacle it needs to avoid, along with the calculations that tell it exactly how far it needs to go in order to be safe. If said calculations cannot figure out how to help the Phantom 4 how to get around, the drone will enter a standby state where it simply hovers and awaits further instructions.
While that is one of the few times when you will need to manually control the drone, the Phantom 4 knows how to handle itself and only leaving you to enjoy the view it offers you through the camera; the latter you need to control manually. Any kind of control done to the Phantom 4 happens through a mobile app that allows you to simply select a destination for the drone and sit back and relax while the drone picks out the best and fastest route and begins its trek.
The way the drone is capable of learning what to avoid, how and when without burning through power too fast – even if already has a measly battery life of only half an hour – is not by constantly mapping the environment, in real time, just the way an autonomous car would.
Instead, the drone takes periodic photos of its surroundings, maps the obstacles from far away and remembers where they are and how long it needs to avoid it. Because of that, the Phantom 4 will be great it avoiding large, static objects such as trees or buildings, but it won’t be capable of handling itself against fast moving objects such as birds or cars.
But in comparison to its less smart brothers, the Phantom 4 is a lot more expensive. If you want an autonomous, self-driving drone of your own, you better be prepared to whip out $1,400 for it.