So far, no one has solved a relatively simple-sounding problem: how to program a large drone to automatically spot and steer clear of an obstacle in its path.

Right now, drones used by the military still need a helping hand when something pops up in their path, but a startup called Sabrewing told IEEE Spectrum that it should have a prototype cargo drone ready for test flights sometime in 2020 — filling a key blind spot for an increasingly drone-dependent military.


Sabrewing's vertical-takeoff drone, named Rhaegal after a "Game of Thrones" dragon, combines video footage from a drone-mounted camera with LIDAR, radar, GPS navigation, and an infrared detector for nighttime flights, all to give a more comprehensive readout of a drone's surroundings than any existing system, IEEE Spectrum reports.

"Even the military does it only in a kind of rudimentary way, say with a camera system; our system has to provide a way for the aircraft to autonomously avoid obstacles," Sabrewing CEO Ed De Reyes told IEEE Spectrum. "Ours is the first that fuses sensors; the [Federal Aviation Administration] hasn't seen a solution like ours."

Helping Hand

While the military would certainly appreciate a truly autonomous, collision-avoiding drone, Rhaegal will still need human oversight from a remote pilot.

Sabrewing is currently conducting wind tunnel tests with a one-eighth-scale model — once the company is ready for true test flights, slated to occur over Alaskan islands next year, a remote pilot will still steer the drone but receive guidance from the obstacle-avoiding system.

READ MORE: Sabrewing Plans a Cargo Drone That Can Detect and Avoid Obstacles [IEEE Spectrum]

More on drones: Drone Racing: The Next Battleground for AI to Try to Dominate Humans

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