In 2014, three software engineers decided to create a drone company in Wavre, Belgium, just outside Brussels. All were licensed pilots and trained in NATO security techniques.
But rather than build drones themselves, they decided they would upgrade existing radio-controlled civilian drones with an ultra-secure software layer to allow the devices to fly autonomously.
Their company, EagleEye Systems, would manufacture the onboard computer and design the software, while existing manufacturers would provide the drone body and sensors.
Fast-forward to the end of March this year, when the company received a Section 333 exemption from the US Federal Aviation Administration to operate and sell its brand of autonomous drones in the US. The decision came amid expectations that the FAA will loosen its restrictions on legal drone operations and issue new rules to allow drones to fly above crowds.
"People have been coming to us and saying, 'Listen, I've been doing such-and-such with men on the ground. Can you help? Can you make it more efficient?'," EagleEye Systems COO Ash Bhatia says.
"Based on artificial intelligence, we're able to utilize the data, process it, and allow the drone to make a decision based on the analysis it does, which we then use in different scenarios."
Because of weak drone regulation and advances in robotics, autonomous drones are becoming available. While autonomy is a vague term, fully autonomous drones, which require no input from human pilots during flight, have until now mainly existed as concepts for tech demos.
Drone hobbyists have a growing number of ways to refashion their existing devices into semi-autonomous drones with open-source drone software. At the same time, the commercial drone industry is releasing products that mirror automation trends in the amateur drone-maker world.
In March, Chinese drone company DJI released the Phantom 4, a semi-autonomous drone that has limited automation features, such as obstacle avoidance and object-tracking using its onboard camera.
EagleEye's software and computing hardware gives first-generation drones the same capabilities as those of the Phantom 4, but EagleEye also says its drones require no input from a human pilot. In other words, it is arguing that drones equipped with its technology are fully autonomous.
Robotics innovations in the transportation industry are leaving the laboratory at a fast pace, especially given the tech industry's current focus on accelerating driverless car innovation.
But less apparent is how quickly robotics technology has shaped drone automation. In the race to become the most autonomous moving vehicle, it seems that drones are winning over cars.
The autonomous drones that get the most headlines come from projects at big tech companies that have not yet reached the market.
Amazon's delivery drone concept includes pre-programmed sense-and-avoid capabilities, but it has not been commercialized, mainly because the FAA currently approves drone delivery on a per-flight basis.
Facebook is famously developing its own internet-delivery drone, Aquila, which aims to improve internet connectivity in areas that have few land-based internet connections. Aquila would network with distant drones and relay internet bandwidth from ground stations to rural communities with laser links. The Facebook drone, like Amazon's delivery drone project, is still in development.
"People are giving free rein to a lot of the ideas and a lot of the practical considerations that will shape the future of how we see drones operating autonomously in the future," says Dan Gettinger, co-director of the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College.
Sophisticated software and hardware can transform drones into autonomously flying machines. But most of the drone software suites that exist for drones, such as ArduPilot, focus on autopilot features, while operating systems that commonly used on drones, like Nuttx, are not designed specifically for them. These OSes and software packages are typically open source.
Against those offering, EagleEye suggests its proprietary software allows users to program complex missions into their drones, similar to the capabilities of military-grade drones but without the high costs. Now, with a second office in New York and equipped with its new FAA exemption, the company is planning to spread take-up of its drone technology across the US.
During nearly four years of development in Europe and the US, EagleEye has conducted flight operations for clients that were interested in search-and-rescue missions, agriculture monitoring, and other civilian applications.
Equipped with smart sensors, image-recognition algorithms, and onboard software, EagleEye-equipped drones can decide how to fly around obstacles and when to start recording visuals to send back to base.
Depending on which sensors customers choose to install on their drones, the technology can also enable drones to sense thermal signatures and seek out odor gradients. The user monitors the drone from a tablet or other personal device and must have the drone in view in the event of its failure, as per FAA regulations.
EagleEye Systems says it could theoretically retrofit any drone with its proprietary computer and software, and third-party sensors and actuators, provided that the vehicle has enough power and robustness to support them.
"The machine is the thing itself that needs to be capable," Bhatia says. "This is not your typical toy drone."
Most of EagleEye's clients are industrial customers because their systems are in a higher price range than most consumer drones are.
The company says prices vary according to the customer's needs and reflect EagleEye's tight security and technical measures, which are designed to minimize hacking vulnerabilities and deviant flight patterns. Its autonomous drone systems are available to consumer and industrial customers alike.
Automotive and aerospace companies have been inching closer to the elusive goal of automated vehicles that require no input from the driver at all. Drones and driverless cars use similar technology to re-engineer themselves into autonomous vehicles: computers, sensors, and actuators.
"There's much greater capability for drones to operate autonomously, simply because of the scale of the issue," says Bard College's Gettinger. "They operate in a much less complex environment [than cars do]."
Drones have advantages over cars that could explain why they have become successful automation platforms.
First, they operate in airspace, which is relatively safe compared with roadways. General motor and pedestrian traffic present constant obstacles to ground vehicles.
Second, drones are structurally less complex than cars, containing fewer moving parts than ground vehicles. Finally, drones do not transport people, a quality that removes a large safety constraint from the testing process.
Equipped with, autopilot, obstacle-avoidance, and tracking capabilities, currently available semi-autonomous and autonomous drones still cannot perform everything that a human pilot can.
However, EagleEye's Bhatia says it is already working on a new generation of drones that will achieve more autonomy.