's Prime Air octocopter. Photo: Bloomberg

Thomas Black Dallas

In the quest to build drones that can help companies like make door-to-door deliveries, engineers are racing to overcome a fundamental challenge: helping unmanned, suitcase-sized aircraft see where they are going.

The answer is developing sensors smart enough to keep the drones from smacking into buildings, people and objects that would impede travel – yet small and light enough that the machines can stay aloft.

Start-ups around the US, eager for a slice of a market projected by Teal Group to double to $11.6 billion (R123bn) by 2023, are responding.

Aurora Flight Sciences is testing echo location, a method that mimics how bats navigate in the dark, while engineers at 3D Robotics are turning to optic flow sensors, which detect objects through video pixels.

“Sense and avoid is one of the biggest opportunities in the industry,” said Jesse Kallman, the chief of global business development for Airware, a drone-equipment maker backed by Google Ventures.

“The technology is not there yet, but it’s something the industry needs badly.”

Size is the key to success and the smaller the better.

Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos pushed the concept of home-delivery drones to the forefront in an interview in December last year, saying Amazon planned to use small, helicopter-like aircraft to deliver packages as heavy as 2.3kg within a 16km radius.

US airspace regulations for drones are just starting to take shape. There were still “serious unanswered questions” about the safety of unmanned aircraft, a National Academy of Sciences panel said last week.

The first commercial applications will be tasks such as surveying crops, filming movies and inspecting bridges and flare stacks that are difficult and dangerous to reach.

Amazon was flight-testing fifth- and sixth-generation drones for its Prime Air programme and was in the design phase for the next two versions, said Mary Osako, a spokeswoman for the Seattle-based company.

Lucas Van Oostrum, the head of Aerialtronics, a Dutch company that has sold 250 drones to mostly European customers, including the London police, expected sensors to shrink to the size of coins. – Bloomberg