‘The drone revolution is upon us’

Self-flying taxis are scheduled to begin service in Australia in 2021. Volvo, Vahana, Aurora Flight Sciences, and Uber each have self-flying prototypes.

Don’t believe it? Get this: many of the technological advances that have allowed self-flying cars to become a near reality have happened here at BYU, where Randal Beard and his colleagues caught the wave at the right time.

“Alignment with the consumer market has been key,” Beard said, and is what allows essential technologies like GPS, gyroscopes and accelerometers, embedded computers and lithium polymer batteries to converge as unmanned vehicles.

Beard is this year’s recipient of the Karl G. Maeser Distinguished Faculty Award, the highest faculty honor bestowed by the university. He was chosen from over 1600 faculty and staff and is only the 57th person to receive the distinction.

At BYU, Beard is one of the frontrunners in Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) research. With his help, in 2001, BYU was the first university to create a flying autopilot vehicle. Since then, the university has worked on technology to track moving objects from a moving camera, has taught drones to land autonomously on moving vehicles, and has enabled UAVs to autonomously follow a mountain biker while dodging trees.

“We are in the middle of a revolution of autonomous vehicles and intelligent machine,” Beard said. “The future in this area is exciting.”

That future may be just as the futuristic cartoon from the early 1960s cartoon The Jetsons predicted. With recent major advances in autonomous aircraft systems and self-driving cars, Beard says it makes sense that the two technologies will merge in the near future as self-flying cars.

But how near is that future? Beard predicts that by 2023, the world will see self-flying recreational vehicles, some self-flying taxis, and limited Amazon drone delivery.

Within twenty years — by 2038, Beard said — self-flying cars will be available to the masses, with self-flying taxis incorporated as part of the transportation infrastructure.

At this point, Beard said, the largest challenges are legal and ethical issues, not technical ones.

For example, imagine that an autonomous vehicle anticipates a crash and has only two options: swerve into a barrier to potentially kill the driver or careen into a group of pedestrians. Would you buy a vehicle that is programmed to save the greatest amount of lives, even if it was at your expense?

These are the types of problems that engineers and government officials have to work with, Beard said.

The public can get involved in the conversation too, he said, but it requires individuals to become informed consumers and come to better understand the technologies. To assist in the educational process, Beard described several algorithms to explain the basics of UAV technology as part of his May 22 forum address, which can be revisited via BYUtv.org or speeches.byu.edu.


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