Intel’s Entrance Into UAS
For five straight summer nights above the Sydney, Australia, harbor, Intel Corp.’s recently created team of unmanned aircraft systems experts executed a drone-based light display from a platform of two barges lashed together in the harbor.
The performance featured 100 small drones synchronized through a central computer by several sensor experts and UAV pilot veterans and, of course, the two barges (one too small to launch and land that many drones). In the night sky above the harbor, the small drones, linked to orchestral music, moved through a complex, choreographed flight path that resembled a real-life, 3D point-cloud display. Lights mounted to the sUAV platforms blinked to create an aerial drone dance that earned a place in the Guinness Book of World Records, and was “iconic,” according to Anil Nanduri, general manager of UAS for Intel’s perceptual computing group.
The five-night performance was a follow-up to previous Drone 100 flights the same Intel team had performed near a Hamburg, Germany, airfield and outside of Palm Springs, California, earlier in the year. Intel’s drone team pursued and performed the flights for reasons both simple and complex. According to Nanduri, the team worked to perfect the flights just to see if they could pull it off. After acquiring German-based small UAV manufacturer Ascending Technologies earlier in the year, Nanduri’s team was, in the simplest of terms, curious about what they could accomplish. Ascending Technologies had previously run a similar drone display with a mere 30 small UAVs. But, Nanduri adds, the Intel team also wanted to begin showcasing to both the public and the UAS industry what the Intel name could mean to, or how it could positively change, the drone space. In combination with several other strategic forays into the UAS space this year, Nanduri believes that by doing what it does best—developing and proving new technology—the company built on microprocessors and computer chips can someday become synonymous within the consumer and commercial UAS world.
The Power of RealSense
At the 2016 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Brian Kraznich, Intel CEO, unveiled what could become Intel’s biggest near-term contribution to the UAS market. Mounted on a small quadcopter built by manufacturer Yuneec, an Intel-trademarked RealSense sensor package helped the small quad navigate through a series of obstacles while it followed a person riding a bike. The demonstration went off without incident, and illustrated the sensor technology’s ability to transform a common drone into one fully capable of flying autonomously with reliable obstacle avoidance and follow-me abilities.
Roughly six months after the CES unveiling, Yuneec has announced plans to offer a mutli-rotor package that comes standard with a RealSense module, which according to Yuneec, gives the drone advanced computer vision processing to dynamically alter its course as it encounters obstacles as small as tree branches. Intel also happens to have a video demonstration of an Ascending Technologies multirotor traversing through a forest swerving around trees at 12 miles per hour, avoiding every obstacle in its path.
Nanduri and his team can take credit for the RealSense tech’s function, even if they didn’t set-out to work on drones. Through his work on perceptual computing and miniaturized camera or computer hardware necessary for the lab top and tablet markets, Nanduri realized depth-perception-capturing-cameras—when combined with the right algorithms—could be suitable for anything in need of viewing or perceiving the world the way the human eye does with depth.
After beginning their work on drones, Nanduri says they realized “there was more opportunity to this then they had previously thought.”
The RealSense technology combines multiple sensors, hardware and software. One sensor utilizes refracted light measurements while another utilizes two cameras looking at the same object before measuring the distance between the same object viewed by each camera. The measurements, Nanduri says, can turn algorithms that help a drone mounted with RealSense to take action. “It’s not just about stopping, you need to continue doing your mission. You have a job on hand with a drone and you want to be able to continue to do it,” he says. “The system has to be intelligent enough to apply what it sees and find a course of action.”
The combination of Nanduri’s other research focus for intel, perceptive cameras, with Intel’s know-how at developing powerful microprocessors, puts Intel on what it believes is the leading edge of sense-and-avoid capabilities suited for small UAVs, he says.
Intel Integrates Into UAS
As Nanduri and his team continue to refine the RealSense technology (future iterations will process images faster at wider angles and greater distances), the business development and executive teams are also busy branching out. Through its work with Yuneec, Intel has a partner to service the consumer market. With its acquisition of Ascending Technologies, the company has an avenue into the commercial and research markets. And, through the work of CEO Kraznich, Intel has a major voice in the future regulatory and drone ecosystem landscape.
Both Nanduri and Kraznich participated in the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s MircoARC committee for UAS. Kraznich was also tasked to lead a relatively new FAA mission to better integrate small UAVs into the nation’s vision of the future. His presence will help to shape the FAA’s Drone Advisory Council.
“This is a very exciting space,” Nanduri says. “The pace of technology at which we can move and the regulations that affect that are important,” he adds, in talking about Intel’s place in future drone and policy regulation.
Intel is also working on elements of the drone industry that may not seem to match it’s core competencies of hardware and software. Through a partnership with AT&T, Intel is collaborating to test and define airborne LTE requirements for UAVs for a concept that would utilize LTE-based real-time video streams from UAVs that are connected to an Intel modem.
“I see this as a clear opportunity for the next generation of technology to be applied,” Nanduri says of Intel’s efforts to reach into the UAS world. “I believe a lot of pieces exist today, but they need to come together.”
Intel wants to be as big a part of it all as possible, he says. They want to bring the Drone 100 shows to stadiums, Kraznich says. They want to go from hundreds to thousands of drones flying in unison at once. They want to continue putting on impressive aerial displays set to music, but they also want to do more than make a visual splash or a drone YouTube video that goes viral.
To date, Intel’s interaction with government agencies and industry has been very positive, and in some cases, Nanduri says, heartwarming. It’s through that work where Intel’s place in the UAS ecosystem may be most apparent, the team believes. “It (industry interactions on Capitol Hill or through flight demonstrations at major events) showed we are bringing value and capabilities to move innovation faster,” he says. “From an Intel perspective, this is what we’ve always done, bring new technology to market.”