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Intel uses Bluetooth to keep flying drones from colliding

The technology could be good for something besides wireless headsets and keyboards.

You might think of Bluetooth as that handy radio technology that connects your phone to your wireless earbuds. But Intel has co-opted it to try to keep drones from falling out of the sky.

The chipmaker has proposed a system called Open Drone ID with which the unmanned aircraft, whether piloted or flying under remote control, use Bluetooth to broadcast their position and location so other drones can avoid them. On Wednesday, Intel demonstrated the technology publicly for the first time at the Choctaw Nation in Durant, Oklahoma, one of the 10 drone test projects the US government selected in May to try to advance the potentially disruptive technology.

With the Open Drone ID proposal, drones broadcast unique ID numbers, their own position and that of the person operating them, the direction they're traveling, and status signals like "returning home," "emergency landing," or "on an automated mission." The ID number, however, doesn't include personal information like the drone owner's name and phone number.

Intel's Falcon 8+ drones have been used for polar bear research in difficult environmental conditions.

Intel's Falcon 8+ drones have been used for polar bear research in difficult environmental conditions.

Intel

The technology -- or one like it, since Intel isn't alone in pursuing this -- holds some promise in bringing a bit of order and safety to a potentially chaotic drone future. In addition to ordinary people flying drones at beaches and parks, many companies want to use them for monitoring fields and refineries, for photographing real estate and of course for delivering packages and medicine. It sounds potentially useful, but nobody wants a drone blithely whizzing through the air to collide with another.

People might gripe about drone regulations, but there are precedents for technology that poses safety risks.

"The most likely comparison is to car registration and a license plate for cars on the road," Intel said. "The final decisions on what information to broadcast will be determined by policy and rule makers in Washington DC, not by Intel or the ASTM work group," a standards organization that is tackling the issue.

Why use Bluetooth for drone ID?

Intel's Open Drone ID proposal lets people track drone flights with a mobile app using an ordinary smartphone.

Intel

The use of Bluetooth has a couple advantages. For one thing, it's widespread and relatively cheap -- the necessary radio equipment costs less than $10, Intel said. For another, every phone supports it, which means you'll be able to report misbehaving drones with a smartphone app.

Open Drone ID adapts Bluetooth radio hardware for its own purposes, but the information it broadcasts and other inner workings are different from ordinary Bluetooth. For example, tracking drones above doesn't require any of that pesky pairing process needed to hook your phone to a Bluetooth speaker.

Range is another factor. You might have noticed your Bluetooth keyboard disconnects when you move around your house and walls block the radio signal.

In the open air, though, Bluetooth signals can travel farther.  Open Drone ID's range is 200 meters (about 650 feet) with Bluetooth 4.0 and 800 meters (about a half mile) with Bluetooth 5.0. Sensitive antennas at sensitive locations like airports will be able to detect drones considerably farther than that, too.

Not everybody plays by the rules, though, and even if Open Drone ID catches on, there are still risks of pilot error and malfunctions. That's why there are also companies like Fortem Technologies, maker of a drone that intercepts other drones and radar technology for actively tracking drones.

Urban challenges for drone navigation

Urban environments, where buildings obstruct and reflect radio signals, pose other challenges. Exactly how that affects Open Drone ID remains to be seen.

Intel's Open Drone ID uses Bluetooth radio transmitters and receivers to broadcast information about location and direction.

Intel

"The range diminishes when there is an obstruction to line of sight so we would need to do more testing in urban areas where buildings might be in the way," Intel said.

Intel of course makes chips for personal computers and servers, but it's been trying to branch out into new areas like cars and artificial intelligence where spending is increasing.  The drone work is part of that.

"As a tool for aerial data capture, drones generate large amounts of data. One 10- to 15-minute flight can bring back 300-500 images, easily 5GB of data," and many businesses make many trips per day, Intel said. "The ability to upload all of that data into the cloud, and to store it, manage it, process, and analyze it becomes a data problem and Intel has the solutions to help solve that."

And Intel has some experience in keeping drones from colliding. It's run several flashy nighttime drone displays -- something like programmable fireworks -- with hundreds of drones drawing patterns in the sky.

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