Amazon Prime Air opens Austrian outpost with focus on sense-and-avoid tech

As first reported by the Verge, Amazon today announced that it is opening a new development center for its Prime Air drone delivery program in Graz, Austria. This new team will focus on “sense-and-avoid” technologies for drones.

The team in Austria will augment Amazon’s existing Prime Air development locations in the U.K., North America and Israel.

Sense-and-avoid is maybe one of the most important safety features for drones. You don’t, after all, want your Amazon drone to crash into a tree — or even worse, your children — when it lands in your backyard.

“Like smart animals, the drones must know when they are getting into trouble, and avoid colliding with things, without a human intervening,” Amazon’s VP for Global Innovation Policy and Communications Paul Misener writes today. “They must be independently safe.”

This echoes what Amazon’s head of its drone program Gur Kimchi told me in a conversation earlier this year. In his view, drones have to be outfitted with non-collaborative sense-and-avoid technologies to be able to safely operate. “We expect that in order to maximize safety, the vehicles have to be independently safe,” he said. “The vehicle has to ensure its own safety and then talk to other vehicles.” When all else fails, the built-in sense-and-avoid technology in the drone should be able to at least safely land the vehicle (or, ideally, allow it to return home without crashing into anything).

The team in Austria will focus on using computer vision to build these technologies. Thanks to recent improvements in machine learning, computer vision is also making great strides. We don’t actually know what sensors the Amazon drones will use, but chances are they will use the cameras to at least augment the data they are getting from other sensors as well.

Amazon notes that the new team will also partner closely with the Technical University of Graz.