Drones that can see objects around them in the dark? This tech is making it possible

Flying drones in the dark is certainly possible. While it used to be illegal to fly commercial drones at night in the U.S. unless you went through a complicated approval process, changes made in 2021 make it significantly easier; that’s because certified drone pilots may now obtain near real-time authorizations to fly at night through FAA-approved providers of Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability (LAANC) services.

But unless you have a super high-quality camera, it can be hard to take photos at night that actually look good. And if you’re relying on using the drone’s obstacle avoidance technology (as is crucial for follow-me drones), then the capabilities can be severely diminished at night or in other dark places where you may be flying. Especially when there’s no natural light at all — such as flying through a forest at night for a search and rescue mission — relying on a drone to navigate in low to no night scenarios is often a losing proposition.

That could change, with a new piece of tech that was announced at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, which happened the first week of January 2023. It’s a new, low-light navigation camera created in a partnership between Teal Drones and Canadian optical products manufacturer Immervision.

What happens when Immervision tech merges with Teal Golden Eagle drones

With it, Immervision’s tech will add potentially exceptional low-light capabilities to Teal’s flagship drone, the Golden Eagle. The Teal Golden Eagle drone is a U.S.-made commercial drone system designed to provide aerial surveillance and awareness. It’s  an approved system for the Department of Defense and Federal Government as part of DIU’s Blue sUAS Project, and Teal recently scored a big contract with the U.S. Customs and Border Control, which will use the drones to provide security along remote, isolated and inaccessible portions of U.S. borders.

Prior to this month’s news, the drone had been a bit less practical at night, particularly in said remote places. The Teal and Immervision partnership is set to change that. Together, the duo have designed a navigation camera module primarily useful for surveillance missions.

Teal said that the next model of its Golden Eagle drone (which is currently under development), will be equipped with two Immervision low-light camera modules. Teal says the move will be huge in enhancing the Golden Eagle’s autonomous navigation at night and in other low-to-no-light situations, such as when flying in heavy fog or simply in other dark places such as beneath bridges and inside buildings.

With two cameras, Teal’s autonomous pilot system will have stereoscopic vision, enabling the drone to create a 3D map. That map is then used to navigate and locate itself geographically in low-light situations — even in areas where a GPS signal is not available.

“The lens is designed to maximize the concentration of light per pixel on the image sensor to provide the best image quality in low-light conditions, across the complete field of view,” said Jean-Sébastien Landry, Immervision director of product management. “Our camera module has been designed from the ground up to address the challenging requirements of operating safely in low-light conditions where other sensors are inefficient. It is capable of seeing objects in a dark environment at 1 lux, which is equivalent to deep twilight.”

That’s all crucial to enabling the Teal Golden Eagle to be truly autonomous in all situations, not just those with available light. Teal says that by integrating the new Immervision camera with its software system, the drone will be able to avoid obstacles, take off and land without pilot assistance (and without light). The drone will also be able to automatically generate 3D maps and locate itself on that map — even without a GPS signal.

Because many military operations happen at night, that low-light capability is key.

Teal Golden Eagle in the dark
The Teal Golden Eagle drone.

Teal’s recent emphasis on government and military use cases

Teal, which originally launched as a consumer drone company, is heavily leaning into military applications as of late. Much of that happened after the Utah-based company — helmed by a young entrepreneur who was just 16 when he founded it back in 2015 — was then acquired by Red Cat Holdings.

Red Cat is a Puerto Rico-based military technology company. Its focus is primarily around integrating robotic hardware and software to provide situational awareness for warfighters and battlefield commanders.

“Our objective with Teal is to create the ultimate small unmanned vehicle for military and security use,” said Red Cat CEO Jeff Thompson in a prepared statement. “We’re doing that by designing and manufacturing a highly reliable, easy-to-use drone platform to which can be added capabilities that warfighters and others on the frontlines need.”

Not only is Teal a Blue UAS designated company, but so is Immervision, meaning both are authorized to provide equipment to the U.S. military. Teal stands out as being one of just three drone manufacturers invited to participate in the U.S. Army’s Short Range Reconnaissance Tranche 2 (SRR T2), which is a program that supports drone makers who are trying to build small drones (think portable in a backpack) that provide situational awareness to soldiers. And with this new partnership, that even means situational awareness in the dark.

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