Exyn unveils AI to help drones fly autonomously, even indoors or off the grid

A startup called Exyn Technologies Inc. today revealed AI software that enables drones to fly autonomously, even in dark, obstacle-filled environments or beyond the reaches of GPS. A spin-out of the University of Pennsylvania’s GRASP Labs, Exyn uses sensor fusion to give drones situational awareness much like a human’s.

In a demo video shared by the company with TechCrunch, a drone using Exyn’s AI can be seen waking up and taking in its surroundings. It then navigates from a launch point in a populated office to the nearest identified exit without human intervention. The route is not pre-programmed, and pilots did not manipulate controls to influence the path that the drone takes. They simply tell it to find and go to the nearest door.

According to Exyn founder Vijay Kumar, a veteran roboticist and dean of Penn’s School of Engineering, “Artificial intelligence that lets drones understand their environment is an order of magnitude more complex than for self-driving cars or ground-based robots.”

That’s because the world that drones inhabit is inherently 3D. They have to do more than obey traffic laws and avoid pedestrians and trees. They must maneuver over and around obstacles in un-mapped skies where internet connectivity is not consistently available. Additionally, Kumar said, “With drones you actually have to lift and fly with your payload and sensors. Cars roll along on wheels and can carry large batteries. But drones must preserve all the power they can for flight.”

The AI that Exyn is adapting from Kumar’s original research will work with any type of unmanned aerial vehicle, from popular DJI models to more niche research and industrial UAVs. Exyn Chief Engineer Jason Derenick described how the technology basically works: “We fuse multiple sensors from different parts of the spectrum to let a drone build a 3D map in real time. We only give the drone a relative goal and start location. But it takes off, updates its map and then goes through a process of planning and re-planning until it achieves that goal.”

Keeping the technology self-contained on the drone means Exyn-powered UAVS don’t rely on outside infrastructure, or human pilots to complete a mission. Going forward, the company can integrate data from cloud-based sources.

Exyn, which is backed by IP Group, faces competition from other startups like Iris Automation or Area 17 in Silicon Valley, as well as companies building drones with proprietary autonomous-flight software, like Skydio in Menlo Park, or Israel-based Airobotics.

The startup’s CEO and chairman Nader Elm is hoping Exyn’s AI will yield new uses for drones, and put drones in places where it’s not safe or easy for humans to work.

For example, the CEO said, the company’s technology could allow drones to count inventory in warehouses filled with towering pallets and robots moving across the ground; or to work in dark mine shafts and unfinished buildings that require frequent inspections for safety and to measure worker productivity.

Looking forward, Exyn’s CEO said, “We’ll continue advancing the technology to first of all make it more robust and hardened for commercial use while adding features and functionality. Ultimately we want to move from one drone to multiple, collaborating drones that can work on a common mission. We have focused on obstacle avoidance, but we’re also thinking about how drones can interact with various things in their environment.”