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Attack of the drones

Drones took over Artisphere's ballroom Tuesday night, but it's OK--most of them seemed friendly.

A dozen startups, university teams and high schools showed off the latest and greatest in drone technology--that's a flying craft with no pilot--at TandemNSI's PitchNSI: Drones event. Taking home modest $500 to $1,000 prizes were four local companies: Chantilly-based ZiBY Creations, which won the audience favorite award for its product that lets anyone control a drone with their tablet or cell phone; SUDODRONE, whose software allows pilots to fly their drones through the cloud and won "most interesting commercial opportunity"; Fredericksburg, Va.-based Sentien Robotics, whose drone swarm knows when and how to automatically return to a base station for docking (and took home the "most interesting national security application"; and D.C.-based Centeye landed "most socially beneficial" for its design of tiny sensors for drones that fit in the palm of your hand.

Centeye's sensors are designed under the principle that even as cameras get better and better, measured in terms of megapixels, drones are getting smaller and smaller, and megapixels aren't necessary for a drone. Founder Geoffrey Barrows says that the number of pixels a drone needs to be able to "see" through its cameras are in the hundreds, not the millions that off-the-shelf cameras offer. Centeye's demo table showed a few camera rigs that weigh a couple of grams, hooked up to off-the-shelf hobby "drones" that are normally controlled by a joystick. With Centeye's software and sensors, the joystick is no longer needed as the drone drives itself.

Centeye's sensors are still mostly proofs-of-concept, but the company has worked with DARPA on some of its projects and is now working on a project with the U.S. Air Force Research Lab to make the drones do their flying in the dark. "There are bees that fly around, avoid objects, fly out and fly back" at night in the rainforest, Barrows says. Those bees are receiving just one or two photons "per compound eye element per second." In other words, a bee's "sensors" can operate in very low light, whereas even in the dark, a commercial drone needs about four million photons per second. "We want to push that to 30,000," Barrows says. A drone that could "see" in darkness that complete could avoid almost any obstacle in near-pitch-blackness.

Among the other companies demoing were artificial intelligence programmers whose software makes nuanced decisions (Cogbase) and who makes drones think like bees (Axon AI) and DroneShield, a company that believes that everyone has the right to know when a drone is nearby (and makes a special drone-sensing security system to protect that right).

SUDODRONE, Sentien and Centeye each took home $1,000 while ZiBY received $500.

Read more articles by Rachel Kaufman.

Rachel is the managing editor of Elevation D.C. She also covers tech, business and science for publications nationwide. She lives in Brookland.
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