Drone autonomy is getting more and more impressive, but we’re starting to get to the point where it’s getting significantly more difficult to improve on existing capabilities. Companies like Skydio are selling (for cheap!) commercial drones that have no problem dynamically path planning around obstacles at high speeds while tracking you, which is pretty amazing, and it can also autonomously create 3D maps of structures. In both of these cases, there’s a human indirectly in the loop, either saying “follow me” or “map this specific thing.” In other words, the level of autonomous flight is very high, but there’s still some reliance on a human for high-level planning. Which, for what Skydio is doing, is totally fine and the right way to do it.
Exyn, a drone company with roots in the GRASP Lab at the University of Pennsylvania, has been developing drones for inspections of large unstructured spaces like mines. This is an incredibly challenging environment, being GPS-denied, dark, dusty, and dangerous, to name just a few of the challenges. While Exyn’s lidar-equipped drones have been autonomous for a while now, they’re now able to operate without any high-level planning from a human at all. At this level of autonomy, which Exyn calls Level 4A, the operator simply defines a volume for the drone to map, and then from takeoff to landing, the drone will methodically explore the entire space and generate a high resolution map all by itself, even if it goes far beyond communications range to do so.