Commercial drones are starting to be used for tasks like inspecting oil rigs and crops. But they still require a highly skilled human pilot, and even those that are semi-autonomous usually use prebuilt maps or access the data over a wireless link.
Researchers from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich are making drones more independent. They have demonstrated a small drone that can build its own 3-D map of an unfamiliar environment with minimal help from a human operator, and then plan its own routes around a space and its obstacles autonomously.
“This is the first time we can show full mapping, relocalization—finding the drone on the map—and planning on board,” says researcher Michael Burri, who worked on the project. The combination of software and sensors could make it easier to deploy drones for tasks like inspecting an oil rig, he says. A company would need to do one manual flight to have a drone build its map. For subsequent inspections, the drone could do the job autonomously.