Sense and Avoid for Drones is No Easy Feat


But development is vibrant, and you’ll see it work first in prosumer drones


“Sense and avoid” for drones is a popular topic in the press right now, but the phrase can mean different things in different contexts and for different people. To clarify, there is a difference between solving the problem of “sense” and solving the problem of “avoid.”  Also, there is a difference between “airborne collision avoidance” (which is what most concerns the FAA) and “obstacle avoidance” (which is the problem that most manufacturers are trying to solve right now). With that in mind, this post looks at what a few manufacturers and software providers are doing to solve obstacle avoidance.


DJI – DJI was one of the first to release a drone that could sense and avoid obstacles. In June 2015, they announced Guidance, a combination of ultrasonic sensors and stereo cameras that allow the drone to detect objects up to 65 feet (20 meters) away and stay away from objects at a preconfigured distance. The kit was immediately available for the Matrice 100 drone development platform.  They subsequently incorporated that technology into their flagship Phantom 4 prosumer drone but not their new professional drone, the Matrice 600.  

The Phantom 4 has front obstacle sensors combined with advanced computer vision and processing that allow it to react to and avoid obstacles in its path. The secret sauce for the Phantom 4’s ability to sense and avoid obstacles in real time and hover in a fixed position without a GPS signal is a set of specialized software algorithms for spatial computing and 3D depth sensing. These algorithms are coupled with an onboard Movidius vision processing unit (VPU) that gives the Phantom 4 drone the ability to sense and avoid obstacles in real time. In the “TapFly Mode” of the flight control program, the Phantom 4 obstacle sensing systems are supposed to enable you to fly a path with the drone automatically moving around objects as it flies. But you can find several real-world tests like this one that show it’s not a perfect system.

Intel – Intel is all over sense and avoid, and they accomplish it with active sensors...

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  • Ordered the DJI Magic and this was one of the main selling points for me.
  • Could you advice me with software solution for live depth map generation from video stream coming from 2 cameras?

    I need a scripted solution to extract close, far layers from depth map to study topology of such layer, for use in another application, to extract moving, static objects from 3D video.

    Ultrasonic sensors work fine if clocked fast but don't generate depth map for me.

  • Hi Tom - This post only looks at what a few manufacturers and software providers are doing to solve obstacle avoidance, not airborne collision.  I have written quite a bit on ADS-B and its limitations. The latest piece is here:

  • Developer

    What about ADS-B?

  • Thanks Patrick.  I did not mention Skydio because they don't have a product in the market yet.

  • Nice, :-) .. pretty up to date, I would suggest that you look at SkyDio 

    They are well funded and the team is quite impressive, here his a demonstration of the prototype:

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