Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) are taking important steps towards becoming truly autonomous flying machines. Recently, investigators at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks have announced the development of a visual tracking system small and light enough to fit on such a vehicle.
Researchers led by Ashraf Qadir say that including the system in new UAV designs could enable these machines to monitor a moving vehicle or a building with relative ease. This opens up a wide array of potential applications for the aircraft.
For example, they could now be placed on station around important building, and they would be capable of recognizing any threats that might manifest themselves. Owners of private UAV could have their aircraft follow them around from a safe distance.
Until now, computers aboard UAV could not be used to detect objects on the ground particularly due to the massive amount of computations needed for a computer to identify something in a video feed. As such, most data were relayed to the ground, processed, and then re-uploaded to the aircraft.
But this process took a fair amount of time, and was also prone to influences and disruptions from specific weapons. Now, the unmanned aircraft will be able to carry out their own analyses, thanks to the work of Qadir and colleagues.
The new image-processing machine can fit on a small UAV, and is light enough to ensure that the aircraft maintains its usual range and flight capabilities. The instrument can follow its targets in real time, without ever having to relay data to a ground station for further analysis.
The UND team developed their new visual tracking system with financial aid from the US Department of Defense (DOD), which plans to use it for its own UAV. Having access to robotic aircraft that can fly autonomously for extended periods of time has been a long-standing objective at the DOD.
However, before the system is implemented, there are some significant privacy implications that need to be addressed, analysts say. With this technology employed on a multitude of vehicles that are available for purchase by the general public, stalking could become a problem.
Foreign espionage agencies could also gather intelligence a lot easier on American territory, by carrying out only minor modifications to standard UAV available on the shelf today.
In any case, the new technology is still a couple of years away from mass production, Technology Review