Drones are nothing new, most of us have even flown one ourselves, but autonomous (self-governing, independent) drones are a little fresher. You have seen them in movies, like the drones scanning the structures in Prometheus etc. Some drones are semi autonomous, meaning they are controlled by an operator but has certain features like “fly me home” if control is lost or something similiar.
But the real cool thing is fully autonomous drones, in military configurations they can be really scary, we all know that from Terminator. On a serious note though, just imagine what can be accomplished when dropping hundreds of drones from a jet fighter. Like they do in this demonstration. The small drones are coordinating their flight off each other for a choreographed pattern that’s nothing if not fascinating, and slightly unnerving.
In civilian applications too, drones can do the most impressing stuff on it’s own or clustered with other drones in a swarm. Construct buildings, search and rescue, goods delivery, inspection of power lines, you name it. Basic autonomy comes from proprioceptive sensors. Advanced autonomy calls for situational awareness, knowledge about the environment surrounding the aircraft from exterioceptive sensors: sensor fusion integrates information from multiple sensors.
Add to that – reactive autonomy, such as collective flight, real-time collision avoidance, wall following and corridor centring, relies on telecommunication and situational awareness provided by range sensors: optic flow, lidars (light radars), radars, sonars, etc.
Most range sensors analyze electromagnetic radiation, reflected off the environment and coming to the sensor. The cameras (for visual flow) act as simple receivers. Lidars, radars and sonars (with sound mechanical waves and mostly used for military applications) emit and receive waves, measuring the round-trip transit time. UAV cameras do not require emitting power, reducing total consumption. Reactive autonomy has in some forms already reached consumer markets: it may be widely available in less than a decade.
Take a look at these two amazing presentations done by Raffaello D’Andrea at TED, they are truly cool.