Army Researchers Develop Breakthrough Sensors For Small Drones

Imagine asmall aerial drone navigating a field with electrical power lines. How will it see them? More importantly how will it avoid this significant obstacle in its flight path?

At the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command’s Army Research Laboratory, researchers developed a novel sensor and software application to detect and avoid energized power lines in the vicinity of unmanned aerial system, or UAS. The goal is to provide autonomous systems sufficient time and distance to react, avoid wires and navigate follow-on maneuvers.

Army researcher David Hull developed the innovative approach using a unique configuration of field and 3-D sensors, in conjunction with low-power processing methods. This resulted in detecting power lines and informing the device’s autopilot to prevent collision with the wires.

This method allows UAS equipped with these to use smaller, lower power and lower cost sensors to detect the location and Poynting vector (i.e. the directional energy flux density) of nearby power lines. This allows the UAS to autonomously avoid or navigate alongside the detected power lines.

While existing wire-detection and wire-avoidance technologies that use radar and/or optical sensors have had commercial success, they are known to be expensive, bulky, and power-intensive with technical limitations. The detection algorithm developed at the lab will result in size, weight, power and cost reduction.

By combining both sensing modalities in one sensor, Army researchers estimated the direction of power flow, something no traditional sensor can do, Hull said.

The lab recently announced a patent license agreement with Manifold Robotics, a startup company based in New York, who will produce the new technology for drone-based commercial applications.

Engineers and drone experts at Manifold Robotics said they intend to create a drone-based system that will detect power lines at a distance and determine their precise location to enable safe navigation. They said this will overcome the factors that limit the efficacy of drones in the vicinity of power lines and unleash their full potential for autonomous power line inspection as well as other Beyond Visual Line of Sight operations.

From a military perspective, UASs are increasingly used by Soldiers for a variety of missions. In many cases, these drones must successfully operate in urban environments with a high number of power lines in and around the area.

The development goal is to see significant improvement in the safe usage of aerial drones in close proximity to power lines and power grids. Researchers said they believe the licensed Army technologies will enable commercial and military drones to detect power lines at a greater distance. Additionally, the technology is expected to accelerate the development of drone applications such as power line inspection systems and freight delivery drones.

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