AI-Based Solution for Drones Tethered to Moving Vehicles

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The system is designed to detect hazards from a distance, allowing the aircraft to navigate safely at high speeds through complex environments.

KEF Robotics, a company based in Pittsburgh, is developing a solution to help drones tethered to moving vehicles avoid obstacles using artificial intelligence (AI) and machine-learning algorithms. Funded by the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD), KEF is working on a smart system to safely guide these drones. The company is utilizing the Falcon simulator from Duality AI to train its autonomy systems in simulated real-world scenarios.

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Under a program by the U.S. Army’s Next Generation Combat Vehicle Group, KEF is creating an affordable system that uses infrared and electro-optical cameras to detect obstacles like power lines. Fraser Kitchell, CEO of KEF Robotics, explained that the system is designed to detect hazards from a distance, allowing the aircraft to navigate safely at high speeds through complex environments.

KEF is using Duality’s simulators to create digital twins of real-world environments, which help in training the software to avoid obstacles. The system, comprising numerous cameras, builds a detailed map of the environment, and processing this data in real time is one of its major challenges.

Tethered drones offer several advantages over untethered UAVs, such as persistent operation powered by a ground vehicle and secure data links for data transmission. The Army’s vision is to equip each combat vehicle with its own “tiny air force” and to develop a low-cost navigation system that can be deployed on multiple vehicles. 

The Army has emphasized keeping the system’s cost low, prompting KEF to use high-resolution visual cameras instead of more expensive technologies like LiDAR or radar. Currently, KEF is competing with other companies to develop this system for the Army. The development is transitioning from laboratory testing to a prototype demonstration in an operational environment. 

While initially for military use, KEF aims to commercialize the system for broader applications. KEF’s goal is to create an effective system using affordable components, aligning with the Army’s budget-conscious approach.

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