Vision systems are making their way into all sorts of mobile and portable equipment these days. It’s a natural consequence of the reduction in cost and power draw as silicon technology continues its way down the geometry curve and algorithms begin to appear that take advantage of this newly available compute resource.
The autonomous car is the poster child for this process but it should be no surprise, given its similar need for autonomy as well as the strong focus on visuals, that the same thing is happening in the drone industry. The surprise is that it has taken this long to become significant and the fact that it is happening now has to be down to some major changes taking place in the industry.
After being the preserve of hobbyists and commerce – mainly survey and surveillance – for so many years, drones have finally broken out as a major consumer item over the last few years and as usual, the introduction of consumers to the mix has driven both sales volume and innovation. As we all know, consumers have unreasonable expectations of everything and there is nothing the semiconductor industry does better than making the unreasonable possible.
There have been radical improvements in algorithm design over the last few years. The standout examples of this are SLAM (simultaneous location and mapping) which enables short range 3D modelling of environments in real time and HOG (histogram of oriented gradients) for detection and tracking of non-rigid objects (read: people). The addition of these capabilities to the repertoire represents a major functional upgrade which is immediately useful to the user and drones from all the major OEMs are beginning to show up which base enhanced ‘follow me’ and other navigation features on them.
The prospect of new FAA rules permitting beyond line-of-sight operation and single operator control of multiple drones is another driving factor. Scheduled to arrive later this year, these are sure to carry increased safety requirements with them and are critical to the feasibility of services like Amazon’s drone delivery program. In fact, vision seems to be a major part of the Amazon system, as evidenced by the promo videos showing the drone using a target image to locate the landing zone.
Products on show at last week’s Interdrone 2016 conference highlighted this as a significant trend, and the presence of vision experts from three major semiconductor companies confirmed it. Representatives of Nvidia, Intel and Qualcomm were at pains to showcase their expertise in vision and to demonstrate their commitment to the drone industry, and all three companies are backing that up with investment.
Intel was showing the results of their collaboration with Yuneec in the form of their Typhoon H quadcopter which integrates an Intel Realsense R200 camera system to implement a 3D mapping system based on their ‘active stereo’ technology. They have also announced their intention to acquire Movidius, whose Myriad 2 VPU is integrated into DJI’s Phantom 4 drone.
While DJI was not exhibiting at the conference, they made their presence felt by jointly announcing with Epson that they will offer the Moverio AR glasses as an accessory from their store – another way that FAA rules are shaping this industry, with the current mandate that pilots keep visual contact with the drone.
For its part, Nvidia was represented in several products with the Tegra K1 being used, in the case of Parrott, to implement a GPU accelerated SLAM and in other cases as an object recognition engine. Qualcomm, of course is active in vision for the mobile handset market and has been using visual navigation of a drone as a technology demonstrator for several years.
As well as these high profile examples, there is a slew of less-known companies entering the fray, most of them aiming for sensor fusion with vision to achieve a level of responsiveness and robustness that has so far been lacking.
With all this investment and new, clearer, operator rules promised by the FAA, these are exciting times for the drone industry.
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