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Autonomous drone maps 3D models of dense urban environments

Technology News |
By Rich Pell


The drone, which can travel deep to reveal tunnels, urban undergrounds, and natural cave networks, has been demonstrated to the U.S. Department of Defense, says Raytheon.

“Operators will have to do very little, because most of the reasoning is done on board with artificial intelligence,” says Mark Bigham, chief innovation officer at Raytheon’s Intelligence, Information and Services business. “They simply set the boundaries for the robot to explore and press ‘go.'”

While most drones use GPS to navigate, the MAD is able to approximate its position on the map while flying through GPS-denied environments such as fortified buildings and underground facilities. Using its own estimate, says the company, it can maneuver over the terrain without GPS, indoors and out.

The drone uses a variety of sensors to gather 300,000 data points per second, mapping as it moves along its pathway. The system uses lidar – which measures distance to a target by illuminating the target with infrared laser light and measuring the reflected light with a sensor – to navigate and build a 3-D map.

“The drone detects obstructions and obstacles like rubble and rebar, dangling wires, then methodically works around them,” says Bigham.

Raytheon installed its proprietary technology to georegister maps and objects where GPS is not available – a feature that can be critical to the success of certain missions, says the company.

“Forces and first responders are going to need to know where things are down to the centimeter,” says Bigham.

MAD, says the company, has achieved three “firsts”:

  • the first time an autonomous drone has gone from mapping the outside of a building to the inside;
  • the first floor-by-floor mapping of a multi-level building;
  • and the first time machine learning has been used to locate objects in a three-dimensional space, all in real time.

“Terrorists and guerillas have literally gone underground to hide from satellites, larger drones, and patrols,” says Bigham. “This system can help us identify the good guys and the bad guys so we can either rescue them or prevent our troops from being ambushed.”

The company says it is now creating a secure drone platform for U.S forces, and has manufactured two prototypes using 3D printing.

Claudeliah Roze, Raytheon’s principal investigator on the project says, “There are different payloads and sensors that can be mounted on this new, autonomous platform – acoustic, cameras, electro-optical/infrared and cyber, to name a few. We built our own prototypes because many of our customer’s missions involve national security.”

In addition to national security applications, says the company, the drone could have commercial applications, such as inspecting construction sites and cell towers, or searching for survivors and surveying damage immediately after disasters.

“In harsh and dangerous environments, this technology is ideal because you can quickly assess the damage without having to send people into harm”s way,” says Roze. “Think of Hurricane Harvey that hit Houston in 2017. A swarm of drones such as these could autonomously navigate an area of interest, capturing a detailed 3D map, and feed it in real time to an operator.”

While the project is still in its internal research and development phase, says the company, it hopes to have production-level platforms ready for evaluation by the DoD in 12 to 18 months.

Raytheon
Exyn Technologies

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