Autonomous drones and UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) are able to make intelligent decisions without input from a pilot or operator, learning from and adapting to the environment and not being confined to a particular prescriptive algorithm. All types of drones may be equipped with autonomy capabilities, including fixed-wing, multirotor and unmanned helicopter platforms.
Autonomous drones are being developed for a wide variety of applications, including package delivery, precision agriculture, inspection and monitoring, and mapping, in addition to military and defense missions such as surveillance and border patrol. They provide a number of advantages over remotely-controlled UAVs, including lower overheads due to reduction in required manpower, and streamlined operations.
Autonomous flight is particularly important for BVLOS (beyond visual line of sight) operations, where drones may travel vast distances outside of the direct visual range of a pilot or observer. In order for BVLOS flight to be safe and efficient, drones require robust autonomous capabilities, with technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), DAA (detect-and-avoid) and redundant communication links.
As the number of autonomous drones in use increases, U-space and UTM (unmanned traffic management) services may be increasingly required to co-ordinate all aircraft and their operations.
Drones and UAVs may use a number of technologies to facilitate autonomous flight, takeoff and landing. LiDAR sensors are commonly used to provide a high-resolution picture of the drone’s surroundings and to detect obstacles and hazards. GPS-denied navigation is essential for when satellite signals are not available, and this may be achieved by inertial navigation systems.
A number of frameworks are used to denote the level of autonomy possessed by an unmanned aircraft. One common scheme uses six levels from 0 to 5. Levels 1 and 2 require a human operator to be in control, with the system providing assistance with obstacle detection and warning. At levels 3 to 5, decreasing levels of monitoring are provided by the pilot, with level 5 drones able to fully operate without any expectation of human intervention.