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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.

The company, Exyn Technologies, was born out of the GRASP Laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania, which has done cutting-edge research on autonomous flying robots. The system it has developed has wide application in other industries like construction and warehouse management, where autonomous mapping and real-time situational awareness could be of immense value.

The robot uses a series of onboard sensors and cameras that rapidly scan an area, gathering 300,000 data points per second, and mapping as it goes along. Most flying robotic systems require GPS to understand their location, but inside a cave or a warehouse, GPS is unavailable. Instead, the system uses lidar sensors, similar to those used by autonomous cars to detect obstacles and move around them. Lidar is like radar, but uses pulsed laser light, measuring the reflected pulses with a sensor.

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

“You simply set it down and it goes with the push of a button,” says Jason Derenick, vice president of technology at Exyn.