Zipline unveils aircraft detection system

San Francisco, US – One of the age-old criticisms for the integration of unmanned aerial systems into busy airspaces or over people and buildings has been that the drones cannot be trusted not to crash into other aircraft or into buildings.

It is a criticism that online retail giant Amazon has failed to shake off, leading to the shambles that has become its Amazon Prime Air drone delivery project. The last inch delivery methods for Amazon – which involved the drone having to physically land on the ground to deliver packages – have faced allegations that include noise pollution, invasion of privacy and the constant danger of the drone or its payload crashing into people and property.

But then, even companies like Zipline and Wing that have developed creative ways of getting their parcels to the ground without having to land the drone, have not been spared the backlash.

What this has done is further delay the induction of drone technology alongside other air space users, mainly above busy urban areas. For now, drone deliveries from your favourite eatery or retailer have to wait.

Except if you are resident in the city of Logan, just outside Brisbane in Australia; in which case all you need to worry about are nesting ravens. They can get really angry.

But now, drone logistics company Zipline thinks it has found a way to at least stay safely away from other aircraft and obstacles for its drones during flight missions.

The company has unveiled what it calls a system the Detection and Avoidance (DAA); an aircraft avoidance innovation that uses onboard acoustic-based technology to enable safe and autonomous flights in complex, and even uncontrolled airspaces.

Coming five years after the first ever Zip to take to the skies, the new system relies on a series of small, lightweight acoustic microphones and onboard processors to navigate the airspace while a drone is airborne and provide 360-degree awareness with a range up to 2,000 metres.

Two thousand metres.  That is a significant range to scout for the nearest airborne neighbour.

The acoustic detect-and-avoid system would give autonomous aircraft a spherical awareness zone with a radius up to two kilometers. Picture: Zipline

Using this onboard system, aircraft can autonomously monitor for other aircraft in real-time, and adapt to changes in their flight path, Zipline says.

“Our DAA system is the holy grail for drone technology,” said Keenan Wyrobek, co-founder and Chief Technology Officer of Zipline. “We’ve created a system that is agile enough to operate with the finest of margins, and can think for itself and adjust in real-time. DAA is the result of years of development and hundreds of thousands of flight hours. It’s an elegant answer to the challenges of flying beyond the visual line of sight in the United States not in 10 years–but today.”

The hardware has already been built into Zipline’s drones and is ready to be activated for use in regions where Zipline has operations – including in Rwanda, Ghana and Nigeria – upon regulatory approval.

Not that this will be the first time a drone company has installed aeroplane sensing technology on their babies though; since 2017, drone manufacturing giant DJI has been fitting its UAVs with AirSense; an alert system that uses ADS-B technology to give drone pilots enhanced situational awareness and alert them to nearby aircraft.

According to DJI, this feature gathers flight data sent automatically from nearby aircraft with Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) transmitters, analysing it to detect potential collision risks and alert users well in advance through the DJI mobile app.

ADS-B uses satellite and radio signals to identify aircraft locations and share that data in real time and has been widely used in aviation for years in the US, Canada, Australia, India, and Europe; and has become an increasingly important part of the aviation safety ecosystem.

“ADS-B technology has two key components,” DJI says. “The first is ADS-B Out, which can be installed in traditional aircraft to determine and broadcast flight information such as flight path, speed, and altitude. The second is ADS-B In, which receives information broadcast from ADS-B Out transmitters.

“DJI drones with AirSense only use ADS-B In, which means they are able to see nearby traditional aircraft without congesting the airwaves by adding additional transmissions.”

However, Zipline says existing detection and avoidance technologies like the DJI Airsense rely on bulky or ground-based systems for optical or electromagnetic awareness, which are not optimal for scaling small, long-range drone operations (DJI’s drones are almost always within the pilot’s visual line of sight while Zipline drones have a flight range of at least 80km. They need to go BVLOS).

The company says its acoustic-based system combines the lightweight, affordable hardware needed for autonomous drones with the precision mandated by regulators for complex airspace.

“We imagine a world where physical products are delivered as quickly and as easily as a text message,” said Keller Rinaudo, founder and CEO at Zipline. “DAA is the linchpin of scaling instant delivery in the United States and globally. We envision a future in which this system becomes the industry standard for all commercial autonomous aircraft to fly safely.”

The company has not revealed whether its technology will be available for use by other drone makers.

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