This week DJI announced that starting in January 2020, all of the company’s new drones weighing over 250 grams will come with AirSense – a tool enabled by an ADS-B receiver – as standard.
In practice, that means that DJI pilots will be alerted to nearby manned aircraft, well ahead of time and long before they could hope to spot or hear a plane or helicopter coming.
It’s a big step and a positive commitment from DJI. The company has taken several steps to ensure safety is a priority in the drone business.
Here are a few technologies developed by manufacturers that are making the skies safer as drone technology aims for mass adoption.
As mentioned above, AirSense is one of the solutions DJI has brought to market to prevent drones and manned aircraft from coming into contact.
There have been endless stories of ‘near-misses’ across the media. Whether they are all reliable is another matter. What we know for sure is that the concern is very real and the consequences could be severe indeed.
Currently, AirSense is limited to a number of DJI’s enterprise drones, including the Mavic 2 Enterprise. The latest announcement from DJI will set a new standard by putting professional-grade aviation safety technology in drones available to everyone.
AirSense can detect airplanes and helicopters while they are still miles away. The system displays their locations on the screen of the pilot’s remote controller.
In theory, this should give drone pilots plenty of time to land their drone or adjust their position to avoid an encounter with any incoming aircraft.
It’s not only manned aircraft that drones could potentially crash into. Most pilots will, at one point or another, have watched in horror as a slight mistake sent their drone plowing into tree/building/insert noun here.
Fortunately, that kind of scenario is becoming increasingly rare thanks to obstacle avoidance technology.
Pioneered by the likes of DJI and Yuneec and since taken to new heights by Skydio, the ability to sense and avoid obstacles is vital – whether you are an enthusiast flying in the park or an industrial inspection crew carrying out maintenance.
This technology is rooted in computer vision. And we are already seeing serious advances in that department, beyond the simple ability to stop a drone short of an obstacle.
Skydio’s system can actively weave around obstacles and plot a path that takes them into account, for example.
More recently, researchers have been looking at ways to use Event Cameras to enable drones to avoid moving obstacles: dynamic obstacle avoidance. The team from Zurich, Switzerland, has developed a drone that uses a camera and an onboard Visual-Inertial Odometry system to see an incoming ball and dodge out of the way.
It’s the obvious next step from systems like those we have seen from DJI and Skydio – which are focused on avoiding collisions with static obstacles.
AirSense and obstacle avoidance are focused on avoiding manned aircraft and static obstacles respectively.
But what systems are in place to prevent drone pilots – accidentally or otherwise – flying where they shouldn’t?
The answer is geofencing, and most major manufacturers have it built into their drones.
Geofencing draws an invisible barrier around certain GPS coordinates, whether they refer to an airport, a prison or a sporting venue. Drones with geofencing enabled cannot fly there without gaining approval from local regulators and/or the manufacturer in question.
Geofencing is also used to enforce altitude limits, and can also be customized by the user and used as a training aid.
For example, if you’re taking a new Parrot drone out for a spin, you might want to set a custom geofence around you at an altitude of 100ft and a range of 200ft – just while you get used to the controls.
You can expand it as you grow more confident.
Return to home
One issue that plagued early adopters of drone technology was the dreaded flyaway: a loss of signal or battery would cause your drone to land in a far-flung location or simply disappear.
Now, the vast majority of drones on the market have a built-in return to home function. This usually activates at the touch of a button or in the case of a low battery warning.
Manufacturers know how infuriating it is to spend a small fortune on a drone only for it to fly away of its own accord. They also know how dangerous an out-of-control drone can be. For that reason, return to home has become a standard feature in the industry and no doubt saved many drone pilots from embarrassment.