Quartz: GRASP Lab Spin-Off Exyn Takes Flight Underground

Quartz: GRASP Lab Spin-Off Exyn Takes Flight Underground

By Emily Schalk

Exyn Technologies, a spin-off of Penn Engineering’s GRASP lab, makes software that can turn your average-joe drone into a fully autonomous flying robot, sensing, exploring, and navigating its environment without the aid of a human pilot or GPS navigation. Quartz’s Erik Olsen covered Exyn’s drone system in a story and video, showing drones exploring old mine shafts and mapping their surroundings in 3D.

Around the world, mines are often dark, dangerous places where humans fear to tread. Mapping them can be a perilous task, involving surveyors who must enter with equipment at the risk of personal injury. But now, a Philadelphia company has developed a drone system that can enter a mine and, at the touch of a button, fly autonomously through the darkness and fully map the space in 3D.

Exyn drones use pulsed laser light, or lidar, bounced off their surroundings to collect information, and their software allows them to move independently or in swarms. This drone system can be put to work not just mapping out mines, but also taking warehouse inventory, monitoring construction sites, and even navigating disaster zones.

What’s particularly impressive about the system is that it needs no prior information about the space it needs to explore.

Robots have historically needed a lot of information to get around their environments, using the help of motion capture cameras, beacons, or GPS to find their way. But leading your robot through a course with GPS instructions is sort of like filling in a crossword where you already know the answers: it’s cheating. If they are to be safe and helpful members of society, robots need to be able to navigate with no prior information about their environments.

Penn Engineering’s GRASP lab is steadily moving towards greater independence for its machines, making fully autonomous robots that can walk, fly, crawl, and even deliver coffee in unfamiliar environments. Exyn Technologies brings GRASP lab discoveries to a variety of applications in logistics, construction, mining, and disaster relief.