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Technology

A drone that learns


Smart drones that can learn and think like animals could herald the
start of delivery services and crop monitoring, says David Hambling

THAT drone buzzing round your This capability forms the basis an exact sense: I see another market. Sense-and-avoid will
head might be smarter than you of a learning system that mimics drone, says Terry Gafron, CEO of make it possible for fleets of
think. Small drones with neural neurons and the connections Bio Inspired. smalldrones to criss-cross cities
hardware resembling brains will between them. A chip-sized Equipped with this information, delivering packages. Like a bird
soon share airspace with other neural system linked to the the drone plots a new flight path orinsect, a neural-enabled drone
aircraft, seeing and avoiding drones existing camera can be to avoid a hazard, updating it in could fly to the trickiest landing
potential hazards autonomously. trained to recognise aircraft and real time as the threat moves. place even balconies.
The ability will help drones take other hazards at long range. Bio Nature seems to use this Being able to recognise objects
on a host of new roles. Inspireds drone should be ready approach very effectively, says autonomously will enable a range
Big firms like Amazon, DHL and for its first flight later this year. David Warne of Queensland of applications for small drones.
Google are developing their own The system can also recognise University of Technology in Some of these are in the area of
drone fleets for rapid delivery of objects like clouds, birds, Australia, who has worked with precision agriculture.
consumer goods, fast food and buildings and radio towers, and artificial neural networks that let The crop drone is on
pharmaceuticals. However, uses visual cues to estimate how drones recognise vegetation. everyones short list, says Gafron.
current rules restrict drones to far away the objects are. Like others in this area, much of Drones could survey a farm,
flying within visual range of a Objects like other aircraft can Bio Inspireds research has been recognise areas where crops
human operator because of the be catalogued in a vague sense, funded by the military. But it is arentthriving and move in for
risk of collision. Drones need an meaning I see an aircraft, or in likely that it will benefit the wider acloser view to establish whether
automatic sense-and-avoid the field needs water, fertiliser
capacity before they will be able orfungicide.
tomake deliveries on their own. In the industrial field, neural
Computers capable of drones could patrol pipelines
recognising objects in video and looking for leaks, or identify
responding in real time are too big electrical faults on power lines.
and too power-hungry for small Closer to home, smart drones
drones. That means drones have could clean windows, pick up
to rely on short-range sensors like litter, clear gutters or weed your
radar, which may not give enough garden, or send information to
warning to avoid a collision. your car about which parking
The key may be to mimic how spaces are open. It simply flies
animal brains work; our brains are around town monitoring parking
spaces, says Gafron.
Like a bird, a neural- Smart drones could eventrack
enabled drone could fly to animal populations, flying along
the trickiest landing place livestock boundaries to track
even balconies wolfpopulations for example.
Not only could the system fly
poor at number-crunching but autonomously, butit could
can process complex sensory conceivably tell the difference
input faster than digital systems. between a deer and a wolf from
Bio Inspired Technologies of the air, Gafron says.
Boise, Idaho, is doing just that. Memristor-inspired drones are
Itisbuilding a sense-and-avoid not the only approach. Last year,
system using a memristor, US agency DARPA unveiled the
aresistor with a memory. Like TrueNorth neural chip developed
thesynapse in a biological brain, in conjunction with IBM. This is
the memristor changes when asimulation of a neural network
67photo/Alamy

impulses pass through it. using digital hardware with


Crucially, it is able to remember enough neurons to match agile
the impulse after it has stopped. Needs more fertiliser flyers like bees. n

20 | NewScientist | 18 April 2015