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“…Building more autonomy into drone systems allows us to become a lot more operationally efficient. It reduces the cost tremendously, but also allows for scalability in these systems.”

[Excerpted from an interview between Christina Mulligan at Interdrone and Alexander Harmsen, CEO Iris Automation]

Q What is the importance of having drones equipped with autonomy and situational awareness?

A For the first time drones will be able to see the world. Anything that they could possibly hit, they can now finally see, whereas before they were just kind of blindly relying on the operator’s control or blindly relying on GPS waypoints.

What we are building here is computer vision technology, deep learning and artificial intelligence that goes into being able to see the environment in the same way that you or I would see an environment.

Q How will the industry utilize autonomous drones?

A The major use cases that we see for these drones are in these big natural resource sectors. There is about 2.5 million km of pipeline across North America, and a lot of it just isn’t being inspected because it is way too expensive. We could have drones doing that.

A lot of industrial work for search and rescue or for forestry inspection is very routine, and it is in the middle of nowhere. It is very expensive to get people to those locations. If we can do that with drones, that changes this whole entire industry.

Q If drones can operate themselves, does that potentially mean they will replace workers?

A I don’t think people necessarily lose their jobs because of this. If suddenly they can control a fleet of a hundred systems, this makes their work so much more effective; their own time goes so much further. It is a lot more about using their brains and really operating the entire fleet rather than doing the manual flights that autopilot could do that this point.

Q How far along are you in creating a 100% reliable system?

A It is a similar challenge with, say, the Google self-driving car or any other self-driving car technology. We will never get to 100% perfect rates. Even human pilots have a ton of issues. It is more about getting those reliability numbers up to a certain point.

Oh brave new world. One has to marvel at the vision of 100 drones automatically lifting off at dawn to go on their appointed rounds. There is no doubt that it is coming. The only question is how soon will business, IT, regulation and the law be ready to embrace it.
Clearly Iris Automation is on a roll. Founded in Vancouver BC they have opened an office in Mountain View, CA (about 5 minutes from Stanford, 10 from Sand Hill Road) and raised some early funding.


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