When it comes to the cool aerial maneuvers your drone can do all by itself, there is a bit of a debate: are those autonomous flights, or just self-flying / self-piloting actions? We’re going to be exploring this as an opinion piece today, hopefully we get all the technical details accurate.

The idea today is simple, the terms “autonomous” and “self-flying” (or “self-piloting”) have been interchangeable terms in the past, we think the industry is advancing. In short, we think autonomy is a bigger deal than we give it credit for, and self-piloting is almost a base-line feature.

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Jonathan Feist, Drone PilotJonathan Feist

Why trust Drone Rush?

I’ve been a fan of flight since a young age; while I’ve had few opportunities at the helm of manned aircraft, the hours on my fleet of drones continue to grow. I enjoy putting cameras into the sky, silky smooth aerial imagery makes me happy. My goal is to help all pilots enjoy flight legally and safely.

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The basics of autonomy

Our favorite drones began shipping with a few self-flying modes to enhance our flights. The most popular mode today is the Follow-me function. There are different ways to implement a following mode, but there are few ways to initiate it.

There are many self-piloted modes, but they all boil down to a few basic actions: Either the drone is following an object, or the drone is trying to navigate to a specified set of GPS coordinates. The drone may be flying itself, but if you have told it where to go, and you hit the start button to get that started, is it really automatous?

Related reading: Intel drone business

We would like to pose that true autonomous flight does not take place until the drone or flight system decides where and when to fly without direct human input.

We are not expecting full AI here, not yet at least, we fully appreciate a flight system that accepts scheduling, for example. We are going to fall back on farming and security a lot today, they’re easy examples to work with.

A farmer could program a drone to survey the fence line every day starting at 6am. I’d even go so far as to allow the drone to have its flight path programmed ahead of time, but that drone will need to operate entirely without pilot interaction to qualify as autonomous in my books.

Thing is, good autonomy would change the game. Instead of flying at 6am, what if the drone knew to fly when the sun came up. Don’t forget to add some intelligence to consider the time of day, ambient light, and the weather before take-off.

Now, what should the drone do mid-flight? Every drone I’ve flown has a very small set of parameters that trigger an automated RTH. Accident prevention is a nice touch, and one could argue is a scheduled autonomous flight.

In a security setting, we’ve seen some demo systems that can identify an intruder, launch a drone and get in place to capture some video of the trespasser.

Surveying a fence line sounds like a great use-case for autonomous flight, but is it? If a farmer has to retrieve the flight footage after the fact, and only then watch it to see what the fence looks like, they may have just gone out themselves instead. No question flying a drone for this task can be way more efficient than going for a walk, but if you have to watch the footage, why not manually pilot and watch it live in the first place? That’s beside our point a little, but, it’s always good to consider if you need autonomy.

Intel and their new Insight software is designed for this sort of workflow. The software is able to automatically view and compare images. If the fence is different than it was yesterday, the software can flag it for your attention.

AI on captured images after the flight is a great start, but what about having the drone identify the fault. The drone could email an image to the farmer instantly, leading to less time for those cows to get out.

NVIDIA and their Jetson super computer have been building navigation into drones, those same smarts could easily fuel the broken fence problem alert I speak of.

In conclusion of the definition, self-flying techniques of drones are merely a part of a true autonomous flight.

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I’m not a farmer, why should I care?

I am also not a farmer, don’t you worry. I am also not a heavy user of self-flying features on my drones. I’ve said this before, part of my passion to fly is that I like to be on the sticks of my drone. Follow me modes are fun and certainly have their place, but the only self-piloting feature I use with any frequency is hover.

If home security is not a drone necessity for you, and you plan to keep things legal by always flying line-of-sight, truth is, autonomy has little place for you.

Actually, as it sits, full autonomy is all but illegal in the United States.

As the laws begin to change, new drone uses will emerge. Right off the bat will be drone deliveries. You know full well that Amazon will be dropping packages on your doorstep in no time. You’ve also heard about the aerial taxi services that are possible.

Alyssa Newcomb/NBC News

These flights will need a very capable level of self-flying ability, then at some point the flights will get to a level I’d call autonomy. When you order a ride, the drone self-diagnoses that it is capable of performing the requested flight, then takes off and navigates all without human input, that’s autonomy. Then, the drone should decide the best route to get from start to finish on its own.

Long story short, farmers and similar type field/rail/power line inspection are going to be huge players in creating and testing the tech you and I can use at home later. This designation is usually reserved for the military, and don’t you worry, consumer and transportation drones that you and I will use will have military tech as well.

Related reading: DJI Quickshot ‘autonomous’ flight modes

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Special consideration: Hand gestures and voice control

DJI Spark hand gesture at launch event

Before we lay out our official opinion, we’d like to ask your thoughts, should we consider control methods such as hand gestures, facial recognition and voice control to be autonomous flight? Self-piloted? Let’s break it down. First, to use these fun features, your machine needs to be able to combine several of the above noted self-piloting techniques. Your drone at least needs to be able to hover in place or be able to follow you as you run in circles in that field.

Next, all of these fun gesture controls and such are actually manual controls. Voice controls are easy to explain, when you say “take a photo” the drone takes a photo – you are controlling the drone. it feels like magic, but in the case of the Yuneec Mantis Q, your connected mobile device is translating your voice into a signal that the remote controls fires up to the drone. As far as the drone is concerned, you hit the physical camera shutter button on the remote.

Perhaps we’ve said enough, we don’t consider hand gestures or voice input to be self-piloting, and we certainly don’t think it’s autonomy. However, you certainly use gestures to trigger self-piloted actions.

Clean up

I painted a lengthy picture of drones and the future of flight in our world, I feel like I didn’t really address the VS in the title of this article. Sit tight, let’s hit that again in brevity:

Self-flying, which I might call self-piloting, is the ability of a drone to perform aerial maneuvers without a human at the controls. Autonomy is when the drone decides to perform those self-flying actions without human input.

Final thought, sorry to say, when your drone goes wildly out of control and crashes into a tree, that is still not autonomy.

Frequently Asked Questions

What do you mean “autonomous drones” don’t really exist?

Mostly, we’re getting into the semantics of the definitions at this point. Autonomy implies the ability to make decisions as well as operate without oversight. When you push a button to tell a drone to fly in a circle, that is simply a self-piloted operation, the drone may have some autonomy over aspects of its route, if it has obstacle avoidance sensors, but will likely never, and probably should never, be 100% autonomous.

Is it legal to put your controller to the side while your drone is flying?

The FAA does not explicitly say that you have to have your hands on the controls of your drone at all times. It is legal to set your controller down while the machine is safely self-piloting. However, it is still your full responsibility to ensure safe operations. In many states, it is not legally required that you keep both of your hands on the steering wheel of your moving car, but it’s still your fault if your car travels unsafely – the same concept applies for your drone.

If my drone is flying safely by itself, can I fly a second drone?

No. The FAA makes it very clear, unless you have an approved waiver, there must be one pilot per drone in the sky. In a commercial operation, there will always be one Part 107 certified Pilot in Command for each drone in the sky as well – A PiC may not oversee multiple pilots simultaneously. (The fun light shows that Intel and UVify put on are waivered operations.)

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