Eyes in the Sky: Giving Drones the Ability to Avoid Collisions

by Brian Caulfield

Navigating busy traffic can be a challenge for even the best driver. Now imagine navigating skies packed with fast-moving planes, helicopters and drones that can move in any direction.

Pathfinder Systems has harnessed the NVIDIA Jetson TX2 module to meet this challenge, explained Sheila Jaszlics, president of the Colorado-based systems engineering firm, at the GPU Technology Conference this week in Silicon Valley.

By mounting a pair of Jetson TX2 modules on the wingtips of a small civilian test craft, Pathfinder could recognize other aircraft and guide pilots and unmanned aircraft away from them.

“Test flights were key to this whole development process,” said Jaszlics, whose company tested its system in the skies around Edwards Air Force Base, in California. “It has everything — parachutes, gliders, general aviation, commercial airline routes, all four of the military services.”

Pathfinder’s system detects other aircraft and helps avoid mid-air collisions. Image courtesy of Pathfinder Systems.

Pathfinder’s system included a pair of modules loaded with batteries, Wi-Fi, GPS modules and a Jetson TX2 mounted to the wings of the aircraft.

In the middle of the plane was another Jetson TX2-equipped module. Among the challenges Pathfinder tackled: modeling the position of the aircraft’s wings to ensure the cameras on them could get an accurate stereoscopic image. Once that was done, Pathfinder harnessed Jetson TX2 to identify other aircraft and model their speed and trajectory.

The system — which uses the DetectNet Deep Neural Network for Object Detection included as part of NVIDIA’s JetPack software — learned fast. Showing the system 500 examples of other aircraft was enough to get useable results, Jaszlics said. A thousand resulted in further bounding box refinements. “It works very well, it’s very good at spotting aircraft,” she said.

Pathfinder’s test system was able to plot the position of other aircraft using only the plane’s cameras — something they checked against GPS systems mounted on other test craft — and show a pilot where they could go, and where they couldn’t, to avoid a collision with nearby aircraft.

The next step for Pathfinder Systems, which is developing its system under contract with the U.S. Air Force, will be to develop a system that can be built right into aircraft — rather than mounted on the outside of the plane.

Such a thin, light system could give drones and other aircraft a 360-degree view of the environment around them — and guidance on how to avoid collisions with other craft in the vicinity — whether a pilot is on board or not.

Image credit: NASA