While there are many endless possibilities for commercial drones—from agricultural to public safety and utilities, to delivery services—there are an equal number of concerns. Even putting privacy aside, safety worries are enough to keep drones grounded until regulators can set firm guidelines. When unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are launched into the sky, what will stop them from crashing into people, things, or each other? The FAA should have some solutions, but in the meantime, Kansas University (KU) engineers are working to improve drone technology in order to avoid crashes.
A group of KU researchers developed collision avoidance technology that uses a miniature on-board radar system. Electrical engineering doctoral student Lei Shi first built a large-scale “proof of concept” radar system made of metal, circuit boards, and wires. He tested it on a manned airplane in a rural area, and demonstrated that the system successfully alerted the plane to avoid a radio tower. Next, Shi scaled down the radar enough to fit on a small drone, and now a small version of the radar has been successful in lab simulations. It is as small as a hand and will soon be tested on UAVs. Shi has filed a related patent and even started a business to commercialize the system.
Another KU team holds a patent for technology that will use sound to detect the presence of nearby vehicles. The aerospace engineering researchers have improved an on-board collision avoidance device called MicroFlown that was created five years ago by a Dutch company. The device uses sound to detect and identify other flying objects. However, the original device is easily shut down when it comes into contact with even small amounts of water. In order to make sound detection a viable solution for UAVs exposed to outside elements, the KU team’s modified collision avoidance device uses electricity to shake off water, mold or dust.
Both KU research groups have promising technology, but strict regulations restrict their ability to test their inventions. Shi’s tests required both FAA and FCC approval, and there is currently no radio frequency band set aside for this kind of research.