‘The drone revolution is upon us’

Randal Beard, this year’s Karl G. Maeser Distinguished Faculty award recipient, says that self-flying cars are a near reality. (Lexie Flickinger)

Self-flying taxis are scheduled to begin service in Australia in 2021. Volvo, Vahana, Aurora Flight Sciences, and Uber each have self-flying prototypes.

Don’t believe it? Get this: many of the technological advances that have brought self-flying cars closer to reality have taken place here at BYU, where Randal Beard and his colleagues caught the wave at the right time.

“Alignment with the consumer market has been key,” Beard said, and is what allows essential technologies like GPS, gyroscopes and accelerometers, embedded computers and lithium polymer batteries to converge as unmanned vehicles.

Beard is this year’s recipient of the Karl G. Maeser Distinguished Faculty Award, the highest faculty honor bestowed by the university. He was chosen from over 1,600 faculty and staff and is only the 57th person to receive the distinction.

At BYU, Beard is one a leader in Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) research. With his help, in 2001, BYU was the first university to create a flying autopilot vehicle. Since then, the university has worked on technology to track moving objects from a moving camera, has taught drones to land autonomously on moving vehicles, and has enabled UAVs to autonomously follow a mountain biker while dodging trees.

“We are in the middle of a revolution of autonomous vehicles and intelligent machines,” Beard said. “The future in this area is exciting.”

That future may be just as the futuristic cartoon from the early 1960s cartoon The Jetsons predicted. With recent major advances in autonomous aircraft systems and self-driving cars, Beard says it makes sense that the two technologies will merge in the near future as self-flying cars.

But how near is that future? Stories in the media of automated, self-driving cars involved in accidents show emerging technologies that are already on the road. Beard predicts that by 2023, the world will see self-flying recreational vehicles, self-flying taxis, and limited Amazon drone delivery.

The concept of self-flying taxis, slated to lift off in just three years, is much like that of a bus service. “You will go to a terminal pad, get in the self-flying taxi, and use your smart phone to select which terminal pad you would like to go to, and then the self-flying taxi will take you there,” Beard said.

Ten years from now, “level 4 autonomy,” where an operator gives very high-level commands but the machine otherwise operates autonomously, will be a standard option on many cars, and self-flying cars will likely be commercially available outside of the United States.

Fifteen years from now, Beard predicted, many people will have transitioned away from personal car ownership as self-driving taxis become omnipresent.

Within 20 years — by 2038, Beard said — self-flying cars will be available to the masses, with self-flying taxis incorporated as part of the transportation infrastructure.

At this point, Beard said, the largest challenges are legal and ethical issues, not technical ones.

For example, imagine that an autonomous vehicle anticipates a crash and has only two options: swerve into a barrier to potentially kill the driver or careen into a group of pedestrians. Would a person buy a vehicle that is programmed to save the greatest number of lives, even if it was at their expense?

Another issue is managing air traffic. The current model of air traffic controllers sitting in airport towers won’t safely manage airspace with the addition of self-flying cars. Should these vehicles be allowed to fly any route, or should airspace be mapped with roadways?

These are the types of problems engineers and government officials have to work with, Beard said.

The public can get involved in the conversation too, he said, but it requires individuals to become informed consumers and come to better understand the technologies. To assist in the educational process, Beard recommended that consumers study the algorithms that enable self-flying and self-driving vehicles. Beard highlighted several of these algorithms as explained the basics of UAV engineering as part of his May 22 forum address, which can be revisited at BYUtv.org or speeches.byu.edu.

Much of the progress that has been made with UAVs at Brigham Young University has been divinely inspired, Beard explained.

“I have pleaded with heaven for help with technical problems related to unmanned autonomous robotics,” Beard said. “And there have been a few precious moments when light has poured into my mind with an idea that has enabled our research group to make progress.”


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