Exyn drones achieve underground autonomy milestone

Pennsylvania, US-based drones company Exyn Technologies has announced that it has achieved ‘the highest documented level of aerial autonomy’.

A self-sufficient UAV is a comlex engineering challenge

A self-sufficient UAV is a comlex engineering challenge

The company's drones have reached Level 4A autonomy, which means are now capable of free-flight exploration of complex spaces such as underground mines without using GPS, with complete determination of flight path. Users can simply draw a 3D volume of interest, and the drone will explore the 3D environment using onboard sensors.

The drones can travel at speeds of up to 2m/s, which Exyn stated is two times the previous standard, with higher quality data collection in larger volumes. In ideal conditions, the drones can cover 16 million cubic metres in a single flight.

Exyn's drones are completely self-reliant for open-ended exploration and do not require any human interaction during flight, unlike previous industry standards of aerial autonomy that use waypoints and multiple flights to obtain adequate intelligence. The company called this ‘a major step up' from the previous Level 3 standard, in which a human operator or driver is required to be present and available to take control of the system at any time.

Professor Camillo J Taylor at the University of Pennsylvania's computer and information science department said: "Exyn's latest technology demonstration pushes the boundary of what can be done with autonomous flying systems in situations where GPS is not available. Getting aerial systems to fly reliably in cluttered environments is extremely difficult and manual piloting in underground settings is often impossible.

"Having a solution that allows human operators to task these systems at a very high level without needing piloting expertise opens up a number of applications in autonomous inspection of mines and other critical infrastructure."

Nader Elm, CEO of Exyn Technologies, added: "The ability for UAVs to fly beyond the operator's visual line of sight has been a milestone in achieving true pilotless autonomy. Most players in this space have achieved Level 2 or perhaps Level 3 autonomy at best, which in the best cases necessitates persistent communications and a fallback-ready human operator to intervene or direct the system to complete the mission.

"Our systems are not only the most sophisticated available commercially worldwide, but the unique capabilities we possess are fundamentally necessary for safe and successful operation in the most challenging of environments. This has been the missing link to maximising the success of critical applications, such as industrial inspections, search and rescue missions and Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) for government operations."

Exyn noted that comparing autonomy standards up to Level 3 with Level 4A is like the difference between self-navigating a single, defined road versus uncharted terrain in unknown and unmapped territory. Unlike a car, however, a drone must be able to manoeuvre within three different axes and pack all its intelligence and sensors onto a fraction of the total body size with severe weight restrictions.

Jason Derenick, CTO at Exyn Technologies, explained: "People have been talking about Level 4 Autonomy in driverless cars for some time, but having that same degree of intelligence condensed onboard a self-sufficient UAV is an entirely different engineering challenge in and of itself.

"Achieving Level 5 is the holy grail of autonomous systems - this is when the drone can demonstrate 100% control in an unbounded environment without any input from a human operator whatsoever. While I don't believe we will witness this in my lifetime, I do believe we will push the limits of what's possible with advanced Level 4. We are already working on attaining Level 4B autonomy with swarms, or collaborative multi-robot systems."

To achieve Level 4B autonomy, the drones would need to be able to identify and reason about obstacles, as well as react differently to complications such as dust.

Exyn Technologies has successfully commercialised industrial-grade drone autonomy with major customers in the mining, construction and logistics industries, and plans to roll out Level 4 autonomous capabilities over the next few months.

In January this year, Exyn opened its first international office in Sudbury, Canada. Last month, the company signed a deal with Swedish mining engineering company Sandvik to integrate its data into OptiMine, Sandvik's analytics and process optimisation suite.

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