In San Diego, defense startup Shield AI designs software that flies drones without any human intervention.
Brandon Tsing, co-founder of Shield AI, said its software, Hivemind, allows drones to “enter a building without GPS, without communications — these things are crowded by enemies — so they can scale the building before soldiers.” “.
“This is a huge added value,” he said, explaining that it will open up all kinds of new ways to use drones for law enforcement and emergency services, as well as the military. Eventually, he said, he could see his software powering all kinds of commercial drones, like those making deliveries, for example.
Shield AI is just one of dozens of companies working on ways to transform the way drones are used, turning them from point-and-shoot flight cameras to self-flying computers that can work in teams and transfer data directly to the cloud. .
While there have been huge leaps in drone designs and battery life, the real innovations come not in the hardware but in their computing capabilities.
Ongoing stats from ModalAI, a unit of chip maker Qualcomm that sells technology to drone companies, shows that about 65 U.S. start-ups are trying to equip drones with the latest software and artificial intelligence.
The drone market, valued at $13.4 billion last year, is on the verge of a revolution, said Lorenz Meyer, CEO of Auterion, an open source software platform for drones.
“It’s a bit like computing – it was very interesting in the ’70s, but they were in some buildings to process tax records,” he said. “But computers changed our lives as soon as they started talking to each other. The way we use drones will change drastically once they start connecting to the network.”
In June, the Federal Aviation Administration, citing an explosion in the use of registered industrial drones – from 12,000 in 2015 to nearly 500,000 by 2020 – said the industry “appears to be at an inflection point showing strong stages of growth”.
Meyer said he expects the drones will soon operate largely on their own, exiting a charging station to do routine jobs and inspections and upload related data to the Slack Channel like any other employee.
“They’re basically going to be like people and they’re going to be part of the conversation,” he said. “So you will have real-time footage from a drone in a conversation between construction workers. It will be like chatbots that start adding information in real time.”
Aerobotics, a South African drone startup with commercial operations headquartered in Los Angeles, is helping Florida citrus growers save their crops from disease.
Its drones fly a few feet from crops to collect microscopic images that can help farmers determine which ones are growing and which need help.
“We use computer vision algorithms to detect that fruit, and the size of that fruit,” said Stuart van der Veen, chief administrator of the platform. “Then, based on production and training data, we predict the size of those fruits that grow over a season, and we calibrate that with different combinations. Then we calculate the weight estimate in cartons or in kilograms.”
He added that by surveying large areas of crops, his drones can learn how to combat citrus greening, a disease, and share best practices. “I think the drones are going to save Florida’s citrus,” he said. “There is no other way to collect such data.”
With all the data collected by Aerobotics, I started writing insurance for farmers. “In Florida, we have algorithms for estimating the age of trees for tree insurance and algorithms for estimating yield for production insurances. [These are] humanly impossible tasks.
Another innovation is the emergence of “restricted drones” that fly hundreds of feet in the sky but remain connected to a power source for continuous flight.
Easy Aerial, based in Brooklyn, said its “drone in a box” can survey miles of forests, national borders or wildfire areas for more than 24 hours at a time. It can be operated automatically or remotely controlled, anywhere, and even take off or land on moving vehicles or ships, said Ivan Stamatovsky, chief technology officer.
“You can leave in the middle of the desert, press a button, and it will go up with a camera and work for a few hours, and then descend,” he said. “No one has to be there to run it.”
Among its customers are Travis Air Force Base and US Customs and Border Protection, which connects the drone to a giant battery placed in a truck so the plane can operate for up to 12 hours a day without a generator or external power source.
Easy Aerial has also made a restricted drone it calls the Raptor, which can hover indefinitely. It uses AI to scan from a distance, and when it detects a person, object or incident like a fire, it bothers itself and flies for further close examination.
The drones are moving rapidly along what he called an “autonomy arc,” said Mike Ross, chief product of Skydio, an American drone company valued at more than $1 billion.
He predicted that the next step would be for human operators to simultaneously command a fleet of drones. “So if I wanted to go out and build a 3D survey of a building, I could do it with a drone in 30 minutes, or I could do it with two drones in 15, or four drones in under 10 minutes.”
Adam Bree, CEO of Skydio, predicted that within two to four years, cities could be equipped with a fleet of drones at every fire station that can respond instantly to emergencies. Police forces are already building systems that automatically fly to areas where gunfire is heard and start taking pictures.
For Shield AI’s Tseng, the shift in focus from hardware to software is likely to give US companies an advantage over other countries, such as China, which have so far occupied the market in the drone industry.
“[We are at] The tip of the iceberg regarding the capabilities that will be unlocked by the software.”