For more than 40 years, the General Robotics, Automation, Sensing and Perception (GRASP) Laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania has been pioneering the study and development of advanced robotic systems. The GRASP Lab offers a wide range of programs and has become known as a catalyst for drone technology. As the director of the GRASP Lab from 1998-2004, Nemirovsky Family Dean of Penn Engineering Dr. Vijay Kumar has been pivotal in the development of drone sensing technologies. Looking to take the work he and his students were doing and turn it into a business, Dr. Kumar met with London Business School graduate Nader Elm.
In 2014, Dr. Kumar and Nader founded Exyn Technologies to commercialize some of the research on drones and remote sensing being done at the GRASP Lab. Within a year, Dr. Kumar and Nader set up shop at Pennovation, a technology incubator in the Greater Philadelphia area. Dr. Kumar remained on the board of directors, acting as an advisor for Exyn, with Nader as CEO. By 2017, Exyn was awarded Penn’s Center for Innovation Startup of the Year after launching their first drone project. Exyn’s mission was to build a drone platform that could be autonomously used even in GPS denied environments.
Using drones for inspections, surveying, and mapping has become a major aspect of the drone industry. What makes drones so successful in these missions is that they can utilize GPS to complete operations seamlessly. By connecting to a wireless connection and following GPS coordinates, a drone can fully inspect, survey, or map an area in a matter of minutes that would have taken hours to complete manually. The data collected by the drone gives detailed information from advanced sensors. The drones can be sent into hard to reach or dangerous places so that data collection teams can get a complete mission picture.
However, there are often times when a drone would be the ideal tool to complete a mission, but because there is no GPS signal available, the drone can’t operate. An example would be in caves, tunnels, mines, or remote areas that have no internet connectivity. As Nader explains, “The best way to characterize this if we were blindfolded and were told not to remove the blindfold. In the absence of GPS, it has to perceive its environment by using different sensors and building maps of the environment and its relationship to that environment.” This is where Exyn excels, in the development of software that enables drones to autonomously fly in GPS denied environments.
After raising more than $16 million, Exyn unveiled the ExynAero in 2020, a drone made specifically (though not limited to) the mining industry. It is a drone system that is so easy to use that even Exyn’s CDO (Chief Dog Officer) Kody can fly the drone. With the press of a button, the drone is launched. Using onboard cameras, MiDAR technology, and sensors like accelerometers and gravitometers, the ExynAero navigates through an unknown environment safely and smoothly. As it flies, the drone gathers information on the surrounding environment and interprets this information. It then instantly converts the information into a 3D map to navigate without collisions. The drone is simultaneously collecting mission specific data that can be processed on site.
One of the key concepts behind the ExynAero is the ability to fly with autonomy. This is something that many drone manufacturers are striving to achieve as it would open up the pathways for drones to be flown BVLOS (Beyond Visual Line Of Sight). It is widely accepted that BVLOS is the next frontier when it comes to capable drone applications. In April of 2021, Exyn announced that they were the first drone company in the world to successfully reach Level 4A autonomy with ExynAero. This means that the drone can fly autonomously, BVLOS, in complex, cluttered, GPS denied environments to the highest degree of accuracy and safety.
“The ability for UAVs to fly beyond the operator’s visual line of sight has been a milestone in achieving true pilotless autonomy. Most players in this space have achieved Level 2 or perhaps Level 3 autonomy at best, which in the best cases necessitates persistent communications and a fallback-ready human operator to intervene or direct the system to complete the mission,” said Nader. “Our systems are not only the most sophisticated available commercially worldwide, but the unique capabilities we possess are fundamentally necessary for safe and successful operation in the most challenging of environments. This has been the missing link to maximizing the success of critical applications, such as industrial inspections, search and rescue missions and Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) for government operations.” Exyn has no plans to slow down the progression of its drone development. They have already begun working towards achieving Level 4B Autonomy which would allow a swarm of drones to be fully autonomous, opening up a whole new world of opportunities for the drone industry.